How to build a 7-day jigsaw discussion

This is a really simple “template” for a week-long, time-sequenced online “jigsaw-type discussion,” and its potential effectiveness in promoting recall, and transfer of knowledge, is based on fairly basic, but solid, and well-established research evidence summarized at the end of this post.

Example of three articles on blood glucose testing that lend themselves well to this type of discussion, used in one of SoN undergrad courses.

The “jigsaw” approach guarantees that there is a substantial knowledge gap between students in a group, and students need to collaborate to close that gap, and produce a complete, cogent summary of collected and discussed information. The general idea for a “jigsaw-type” class activity structure is popular and widely used, so its virtually impossible to trace its origin (although a very simple, slightly different approach, often used in elementary schools can be traced to a single point of origin, supposedly). The specific recommendation, used here, of highlighting and blacking-out portions of more complex readings for undergrad students, is borrowed from Morton Ann Gernsbacher, who – in her undergraduate courses at UW-Madison – uses a similar jigsaw activity, that relies on using synchronous online chat.

What is needed to make this activity work, are a few (at least 2, but no more than 4) articles that address different aspects, or conflicting views of a complex concept, process, or idea. Students need to be divided into groups whose number matches the number of articles selected for the topic. It’s good to have an “extra” article, if possible, to accommodate several groups that need to have more students (for example, if you need to have 10 groups of 3, and one group of 4).

  • DAY 1 / SAT: Find 2-4 articles that discuss different, important aspects of a single and complex topic or concept relevant to the material which is the focus of this week in your course. For less advanced students (undergrads) you can prep the articles by highlighting important sections in green, and blacking-out sections that are non essential to this task, and might be distracting (for example methods sections in research articles). Divide your class into groups with as many students as articles you are using (or as close as you can get to this ideal). Ask each student in the group to read ONE (and only one) article (I recommend listing articles as A, B, and C, and asking students to take them in alphabetical order of their names. Students are not allowed to read the articles not assigned to them (make it clear that they will be able to do that, once the activity is completed, but shouldn’t do it earlier).
  • DAY 2 / SUN – MON – Time for students to read their articles take notes.
  • DAY 3 / MON – Ask each student to write and post a summary of the article for the other people in their group. Set a strict word limit for the summary. I’d recommend between 250-500 words (1-2 standard pages), depending on the length of the article read.
  • DAY 4 / TUE – Next, ask students to carefully read the summaries provided by other two students, to think what questions or gaps come to mind, and post these questions (6-10) requesting clarification so that they can understand the article better without having to read it.
  • DAY 5 / WED – Ask the “owner” of each article to carefully and as completely as possible answer all the questions asked by their group-mates, the best they can.
  • DAY 6 / THU – Based on this info (summary and answers to all questions), ask each student to write and submit a cumulative summary of the concept or idea, that brings together and carefully balances the info from all three perspectives (=articles). Recommended length is 250-375 words (1-1.5 standard page).
  • DAY 7 / FRI – Summarize how the group did overall. In large courses, or courses where teaching writing is not the primary (or even secondary) interest, use the five-point grading strategy to assign poiints.

Research that supports this activity

The center of the first phase in this activity is summarizing. In their 2015 book Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding (Cambridge UP ) Fiorella and Mayer present extensive research that supports effectiveness of summarizing as a type of activity that enhances recall and transfer of knowledge. Question-asking and especially answering probing questions about read (= known) content is a form of elaborative interrogation, classified as “having moderate utility” (11) by Dunlosky et al. (2013), by now a classic, and most frequently quoted meta-analysis of effective learning techniques, as is going back-and-forth between recalling one’s own assigned reading, with questioning which can be considered a form of interleaved practice, also considered “of moderate utility.” (44) Similarly, Weinstein and Smith, in their 2018 Understanding How We Learn, (Routledge, 2018) include elaboration, retrieval, and spacing on their list of six top research-supported effective learning strategies.

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