Tag: The College Classroom

Engage EVERY student with a jigsaw

(This is a long, detailed post about creating and running a “jigsaw” activity. Mostly, I wrote it for myself before I forget all the details. Reinventing the wheel is bad enough – reinventing your own wheel is even worse!)

The other day, I ran a jigsaw activity in my teaching and learning course. Jigsaw’s are a great activity if you have a lot of content to cover in a number of contexts. My colleague, David J. Gross at UMass Amherst, explained it to me this way: Suppose your lesson is about 5 National Parks. A traditional lecture about those 5 Parks, with N PowerPoint slides giving the details about each Park means 5N slidezzzzzzz.

Here’s how a jigsaw activity works. In Step 1, you group students together, with each group exploring one National Park. They become the local experts on that Park, working together to bring themselves up to shared, higher level of knowledge:

In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC.)
In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

In Step 2, you take it all apart and put it back together, like a jigsaw puzzle, so that each group has an expert about each of the 5 National Parks. In each group, they teach each other about each Park. In the end, every student has learned about each Park.

In Step 2 of the jigsaw, the students re-arrange themselves so each group has an expert about each National Park. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

Did you notice how much lecturing about National Parks the instructor did? Zero. Zippo. Zilch. Instead of a single long exposition by the instructor, there are 4 student-centered conversations happening in parallel. It might even take less class time, or, if the time is already allocated, it gives more time for each National Park.

Cool, huh? Instructor gets to do nothing!

Well, nothing except a whole lot of planning and choreographing so students can stay engaged in concepts and not wondering what to do or wandering around looking for a group.

My jigsaw: Formative assessment that supports learning

In my teaching and learning class, we were discussing practice and formative feedback that supports learning. Following Chapter 5 of How Learning Works, instructors should ensure

  • practice is goal-directed
  • practice is productive
  • feedback is timely
  • feedback is at the appropriate level

To help explore these characteristics, I decided to use two tools:

analogy: How People Learn advises us that “students come to the classroom about preconceptions about how the world works” (p.14) and therefore, “[t]eachers must draw out and work with that preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.” (p.19) I wanted my students to think about those 4 characteristics first through their experiences of a sport or hobby and then in the context of teaching and learning.

contrasting cases: Again from How People Learn, “[t]eachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.” (p. 20) Contrasting cases are a way to present the same concept twice. And sometimes, the a good way to figure out what something IS, is to figure out what it’s NOT.

For each characteristic, like timely feedback, I wanted students to come up with scenarios of

  • untimely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“bad, sport/hobby”)
  • timely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“good, sport/hobby”)
  • untimely feedback in teaching and learning (“bad, teaching and learning”)
  • timely feedback in teaching and learning (“good, teaching and learning”)

That’s 4 characteristics x 4 scenarios each = 16 different scenarios in total. There’s NO WAY I’m going to make 16N slides and flick through them.

Let’s jigsaw, I said to myself. But how? How do I choreograph Step 1 (prepare expertise) and Step 2 (share expertise)? I started from the end and worked backwards.

Here’s what I wanted the Step 2 conversations to look like:

Each group has an expert about each characteristic, and they teach and learn from each other. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each group would have one student sharing expertise about one of the characteristics

  • practice is goal-directed (green)
  • practice is productive (blue)
  • feedback is timely (purple)
  • feedback is at the appropriate level (orange)

and each student would be prepared to share 4 scenarios

I. “bad” in sport/hobby
II. “good” in sport/hobby
III. “bad” in teaching and learning
IV. “good” in teaching and learning

I have about 20 students in each session of the class, so that means I’ll have 5 groups at the end. If there are additional students #21, #22, and #23, they can double-up in some groups. As soon as I have 24 students, #21 thru #24 can form their own discussion group.

Look back at the picture of the final discussion groups showing Step 2 of the jigsaw activity. To create that (5 times), in Step 1 I’ll need 5 people teaching each other about green, 5 blue, 5 purple, and 5 orange.

Choreographing with Colored Paper

There’s a lot of “structure” that needs to be built into this activity

  • each student is assigned to a characteristic / color
  • each student needs to know what their Step 1 discussion is about
  • students need to sit in a one-color groups for Step 1
  • students need to move to an every-color groups for Step 2
  • probably more…

I can’t waste a lot of time making this happen during class. What tools do I have at my disposal for structuring this activity? COLORED PAPER (As simple as it sounds, colored paper is one of my favorite pieces of education technology.)

I created 4 worksheets, one for each characteristic, and copied them onto colored paper. I interlaced the worksheets and put the stack at the classroom door. I arranged the tables and chairs into 4 stations with 5-6 chairs each, and placed a colored sheet of paper on each station [Oh yeah, I forgot about that! That’s why I’m writing this.] When the students entered, they took the top worksheet and sat at that color’s station.

I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups.
I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

The ultimate goal is for us to have a class-wide discussion of good teaching practices to support learning. The jigsaw activity should prepare every student to contribute to that conversation but I didn’t want students to spend too much time in Step 2 sharing their experiences and ideas about sports/hobbies and about “bad” teaching practices. I also wanted students to discover how intertwined those 4 characteristics are: to provide productive practice, you need it to be goal-oriented, and so on.

I needed a way to slice and re-mix the scenarios so the students discussed them by scenario (“bad” in sport/hobby,…,”good” in teaching and learning) rather than by characteristic (practice is goal-directed,…, feedback is at the appropriate level). So that’s exactly what I did: I sliced. Well, they sliced.

If you look at the picture of the worksheets above, you’ll notice some dashed lines. At the end of Step 1, I instructed the students to tear their colored worksheets into quarters along the dashed lines. (Notice, also, each quarter has a I, II, III, IV label.) Then I invited them to re-organize themselves into groups so that each group had a representative of each color. That was easy for them to do because they could easily see what colors were already at each table. Since there were equal numbers of each color (because the worksheets were interlaced in the stack at the classroom door) there was a place for everyone and everyone had a place.

Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. Note: I scribbled over the students’ names on their name badges. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Settled in every-colored groups, they worked their way through the 4 scenarios I, II, III, IV of practice and assessment that supports learning. I could easily see what scenario they were discussing and could nudge them towards the important, scenario IV discussion if they were lagging behind.

Darn, I forgot to keep track of the time while I ran this jigsaw but I seem to remember it taking about 20 minutes for Step 1 and Step 2, and then another 10 minutes or so for the class-wide discussion about the characteristics of formative assessment that support learning (scenario IV).

The classroom was loud with expert-like discussions about teaching and learning. Twenty brains were engaged. Twenty students left knowing a lot about practice and assessment that supports learning. And knowing that their own experiences and knowledge played a critical role in the learning of their classmates. They can ask themselves,”Did I contribute to class today? Was the class better because I was there?” Yes and yes.

Big question: why bother?

If it took me this long to write down on these steps, you know it took even longer to design (and re-design) the materials, plan and rehearse the choreography, prepare the materials, re-arrange the classroom furniture, and more. It would have a been a helluvalot easier for me to present 4 slides, one on each of the characteristics of formative assessment (or easier still, one slide with 4 bullet points.)

But that’s not what we do.

Of course there are practical considerations but how easy it is for ME is not what drives how I design my lessons. Rather, I challenge myself to create opportunities for EVERY student to practice thinking about and discussing the issues and concepts. One thing I love about these jigsaw activities is that every student has a well-defined job (share their expertise in Step 2) that gives them the opportunity to make critical contributions to the discussion. The steps of the jigsaw and all the colored-paper-driven activities prepare them for that discussion.

I’m happy to share the resources shown here, talk through any points that are unclear, chat about how to adapt it to your learning outcomes – leave a comment, email me at peternewbury42 at gmail dot com, or hit me on Twitter @polarisdotca.

Hello, my name is Prof–, no Doc–, no, ugh.

I have the pleasure of teaching a course at UC San Diego called “The College Classroom.” It’s a course for graduate students and postdocs about teaching and learning in higher education. Sometimes it’s theoretical, like when we talk about constructivism or mindset, sometimes it’s practical, like when we talk about various evidence-based instructional strategies, and sometimes it’s extremely practical, like what to do and say on the first day of class of the course you’re teaching.

(Image by Peter Newbury)
(Illustration by Peter Newbury)

On that first day of class, when you’ve finally created sufficient materials, found the classroom, figured out how to connect the &%@# adapter to your laptop to display your slides, and at last, flip on the microphone — yeah, at that moment, you’re not at your best. You’re nervous and exhausted and excited and… And that’s not the moment when you want to be making important decisions that will impact the rest of the course.

So, I prompt my students to think NOW about those decisions, especially:

I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.
I prompt students to think NOW about what they want their students to call them.

I use clickers to gather their choices, not because there’s a right answer but because it encourages everyone to think and commit (for now) and click, and the spread in the votes demonstrates there’s no one correct answer. The discussion following the vote is rich.

So many possibilities

Here’s as many of my students rationales as I can remember. I’ll use pretend instructors Michael (Mike) Jones and Elizabeth (Beth) Smith as examples.

  • My students are graduate students and postdocs, recall. Almost all of them were uncomfortable with Professor. We all know that “professor” is a title you earn at university through tenure-track and tenure positions. “Professor” means a lot and no one wants to misrepresent their status and level of achievement. I totally agree. But students are likely to call you Professor because that’s who teaches at university, right? When a student raises his hand and asks, “Professor Smith, could you explain how you got that again?” he’s not expecting this

    Oh, sure. But first, let me say I’m not actually a “professor” because I’m still working on my thesis. Once I defend and find an tenure-track position — fingers crossed, have you seen how competitive the market is — then I’ll use professor. But back to your question…

    This is why you should decide now what you want your students to call you, and let them know.

  • Same goes for “Dr. Jones,” say the graduate students in  my class. That’s a title that’s earned through hard work that they have not yet completed. No one wants to falsify their credentials.
  • Many of female graduate students feel they’re stuck with “Elizabeth” (or “Beth” if only your grandmother calls you “Elizabeth”) because they’re uncomfortable with “Miss Smith.” They often feel they must work extra hard to establish their credentials and gain the respect of their students, and “Miss” seems like it works against that.
  • I recently heard of 2 situations where the women in my class are okay with “Miss”:
    • One woman says she’s been teaching in high school and there, she uses “Miss Beth” with her students.
    • Another woman in my class, a person-of-color, says in her community, “Miss Beth” is a sign of respect and an accepted way for a student to address a teacher.
  • Many deliberate chose to use their casual, first names like Mike or Beth because they want to create a more collegial feel in the classroom, trying to remove the barrier between students and instructor.
  • When I was teaching, I also told them what I didn’t want to be called because Vancouver already had a Dr. Peter and he deserves every morsel of recognition and respect he earned through his outreach.
  • I think everyone in my classes saw, like so many other aspects of working in higher eduction, it’s easier for the male instructors to make this decision.

And that’s really the point of this whole exercise in my class – to make a decision. Now. When you’ve got time and you’re thinking straight.

Do you teach? What do your students call you? Why did you pick that name?

Teacher-as-alchemist, turning silence into gold

I teach a course about teaching and learning in #highered to a dedicated and enthusiastic group of graduate students and postdocs. One of our sessions is about “teaching-as-research,” something the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network describes like this:

The improvement of teaching and learning is a dynamic and ongoing process, just as is research in any STEM* discipline. At the core of improving teaching and learning is the need to accurately determine what students have learned as a result of teaching practices. This is a research problem, to which STEM instructors can effectively apply their research skills and ways of knowing. In so doing, STEM instructors themselves become the agents for change in STEM teaching and learning.

Teaching-as-Research involves the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of students and teachers.

* CIRTL focuses on STEM but this description of scholarly teaching applies to every discipline, from Anthropology to Zoology


In my class, students begin outlining a teaching-as-research project they could execute in their next teaching opportunity. When we get to the part about the design of the experiment, I show them this  fantastic video by Derek Muller.


Go ahead and watch. Play along with Derek and try to solve the puzzle.

The point is to be wary of confirmation bias. If you do some kind of intervention in your class and then students get good course marks, well, you don’t really know why. It could be just another white swan.


Mine is a teaching and learning course so I work hard to model the practices we discuss. When using video in class, I recommend the instructor prompt the students to watch the video like an expert in the field would watch it. That way, students can anticipate and recognize when key events occur, so they’ll be prepared to contribute to the discussion after the video.

So, please watch the video again. This time, watch for the golden moments when people got it, those light-bulbs-going-off, “A-ha!” moments when you know learning occurred.

When I watch the video, there are a couple of times when I sit up, point at my screen and exclaim, “There! Right there! Something just clicked in that guy’s head!”

Three times…

Those golden moments are rare and precious. If there’s potential for one to happen, you don’t want to get in the way. So, please watch Derek’s video again. This time, now that you know something magical happens a couple of times, watch carefully for what happens just before the light bulbs go off. I noticed something and I want to see if you notice it, too.

Did you notice?

Here’s what happens starting at 2:05 in the video

Derek: Hit me with three numbers.
Woman: 3, 6, 9
Derek: Follows my rule.
Man: Oh, that didn’t follow my rule.

Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller's "Can You Solve This?" Text added by Peter Newbury.
Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller’s “Can You Solve This?” Text added by Peter Newbury.

That’s the golden moment. And what happened just before something clicked  in the man’s head?

A pause.

An eternity-long, 5-second pause.

No prompt from Derek.


Just silence.

Our students need time to think! So quit yapping at them, filling every silence with information and helpful(?) hints. Learning is hard. It takes time. Time to think. Telling them what to think, how to think, when to think — that’s not helping them learn. They need to experience what to think, how to think, when to think for themselves.

Silence is golden. Go create some in your class.