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Blog 69

Blog 69

It’s not about your teaching but about their learning: Increasing student engagement through the jigsaw classroom

Prof. Claudia Chaufan, MD PhD

School of Health Policy and Management/Global Health Program

York University

 “Student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.”“ [1]

Student engagement is a critical aspect of quality post-secondary education. Generally, faculty members believe, and research confirms, that student engagement helps achieve one key goal of postsecondary education, i.e., the deveopment of critical thinking skills [2]. There is further evidence that student engagement also facilitates learning outcomes, and no less importantly, contributes to students and instructors having a more pleasurable time together.

One active learning technique that appears to contribute to active learning is the “Jigsaw Classroom.”  The jigsaw classroom is an approach in which learners are organized into “jigsaw” groups, each member with a different, yet complementary, task. Learners prepare to perform these tasks both individually (at home) and within “expert” groups (in the classroom), and later return to their “home teams” to peer teach to members of their “jigsaw” groups. After the teaching circle within jigsaw teams is completed, students reflect on and assess their collective understanding.

While the actual implementation of this approach may vary from instructor to instructor, in my own case I have found that the technique succeeds best when all activities are guided through carefully designed sets of questions that vary from module to module, and learners are evaluated both for their individual and collective work.

The jigsaw classroom was developed mainly with the goal of fostering cooperation rather than competition among learners [3]. The guiding premise is that the success of each student not only facilitates but is actually critical to the success of all students.  Indeed, the technique was developed by a group of social psychologists concerned with understanding the “malaise” pervasive in educational institutions in the United States, malaise which culminated in the 1990s in the tragic Columbine school shooting, continued over other mass shootings, and is most likely still with us. These professionals attributed this malaise to the overtly competitive environment of educational establishments that led to students feeling frustrated, neglected or outright excluded. Instructors within this environment, willingly or not, created “winners” and “losers” -- the first to be admired or envied, the losers to be put down or left behind.

While researchers did not doubt that the behaviors displayed by the protagonists at Columbine and elsewhere indicated severe psychological perturbations, they also concluded that signaling individual students as “bad apples”, or medicalizing their malaise as “psychopathology”, failed to acknowledge problems within the educational system and the broader society. The book “Nobody Left to Hate”, by Elliott Aronson, one within this group of researchers, compellingly summarizes the personal and professional journey that led to the development of the jigsaw classroom [4].[i]

Since 2015, the year I spent at York as a Fulbright Visiting Professor, taking a break from a very research intensive position, with minimal teaching responsibilities and no undergraduate teaching, I had the opportunity to put this technique into practice in a new course on the politics of global health policy. While I had already tried it briefly as a novice instructor in sociology in 2005, and experienced its potential, back then I did not have either the number of students or the institutional support to apply it systematically. I did have both as I developed my new course at York, which resulted in a very successful experience: I collected anecdotal evidence, from students and faculty, that students felt very engaged and in charge of their learning, to a significant degree thanks to jigsaw.

As I returned to York in the fall of 2016 on a teaching intensive position with the Faculty of Health, School of Health Policy and Management/Global Health Program, I implemented the technique once again, over three terms, in two undergraduate, 2nd and 4th year courses. I then collected yet more significant anecdotal evidence indicating great enthusiasm for the jigsaw approach, which has encouraged me to continue using it and learning from it, through my students’, and my own, experience.

Because the evidence for the success of jigsaw I have collected up to now is anecdotal, this past summer I applied and received funding from the Innovation in Teaching Award, sponsored by the Faculty of Health at York, to systematically document and evaluate the jigsaw classroom, with the assistance of an enthusiastic research team of my own undergraduate students.

As I think of ways to share this information and experience with my colleagues, I am in the course of developing a workshop with the support of the Teaching Commons. I invite readers to sign up for this upcoming workshop on November 13. Registration details here:


  1. The Glossary of Education Reform, Student engagement. nd: p. (Accessed May 5, 2017).
  2. Carini, R.M., G.D. Kuh, and S.P. Klein, Student Engagement and Student Learning: Testing the Linkages*.Research in Higher Education, 2006. 47(1): p. 1-32.
  3. Kalra, R., J.N. Modi, and R. Vyas, Involving postgraduate's students in undergraduate small group teaching promotes active learning in both. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, 2015. 5(Suppl 1): p. S14-S17.
  4. Aronson, E., Nobody left to hate: Teaching Compassion after Columbine. 2001: Holt Paperbacks.

[i] Readers can learn more about the jigsaw classroom @