A pile of puzzle pieces Photo courtesy of Andrew Malone

Understanding a complex field of study is often like assembling a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. At first approach, students may be able to identify the foundational corners and build a border of theoretical knowledge. Comprehending the minutiae of the subject, however, may feel like staring into a jumble of jigsaw pieces—e.g., lectures, readings, and practicums–that will just not fit together.

In these instances, much like when solving a real jigsaw puzzle, two or more heads are better than one.

The jigsaw learning strategy supports students in effectively learning a concept by having them become an expert on a single sub-category and transferring knowledge their peers who are experts on other aspects of topic. Here is how the strategy works:

  1. Identify and group students into a concept area with 4-6 subtopics
    In a course such as sensory processing some concepts to group students in may include auditory, visual, olfactory, vestibular, and touch sensations.
  2. Assign each group member a subtopic
    In this example, students within the visual processing group will become experts on subcategories such as stimulation, transduction, transmission, and perception. Unlike traditional group work, students will initially develop expertise on their subcategory through independent research and study. Each student may also be required to complete topic-specific assignments and keep a learning blog.
  3. Content consultation with experts from other groups
    Subcategory content experts, such as those focusing on transduction stages, will consult with peers from other groups focusing on the same topic. This allows students to learn about how their process works in other categories, while discussing strategies on how to best teach the information to their respective teams.
  4. Internal group presentation
    With each member now an expert in their respective subcategories, teams will put the whole puzzle together by presenting their research to each other.
  5. Class presentations
    Now that each team understands each aspect of their topic, they will present their findings to the entire class for reflection and discussion.

While jigsaw strategies require considerable planning and effort, they are useful strategies to students who are learning complex topics. The students are provided all the pieces, and by focusing on their corner they are able to put together the whole picture.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.