Two Secrets to a Great Jigsaw Activity

Is it just me, or are students a bit less motivated this year? My middle schoolers are far less prepared to dig deep and persevere through problems. They exert more energy finding excuses not to do their work than it would take to just do it. Some people blame the pandemic – after all, the seventh graders now were in 5th grade when schools got shut down around the world, and then the spent 2 years in a sort of limbo existence only to be thrust into seventh grade with little to no sixth grade skills.

Every middle school teacher I talk to now is looking for ways to increase accountability while still working on incorporating social and emotional learning. The past 17 months have been, for me, an exercise in trying new activity after new activity trying to find one that helps my students develop relationships with their peers but also helps them be accountable for their own learning. One activity that checks those boxes is Jigsaw.

Jigsaw has become one of my favorite Go-To activities in my middle school science classroom. In a Jigsaw activity, students are divided into teams. Each team masters one chunk of the content.. Every member of the team records what they learned. Then, teams gets shuffled and each person must share what they learned with a new group of people who had been part of a different team. Students link their own individual knowledge together like a jigsaw to form a complete body of knowledge of the content.

Being accountable not only for their own learning but also for the learning of their team has made my students more responsible. Increased accountability is just one of the benefits of Jigsaw. Another benefit I found is that repeating what the learned in a way that other students can understand it provides a wonderful opportunity for students to understand the information in a better way. Explaining what you just learned in your own words is remediation 101 – you can’t explain something if you don’t understand it. This leads to students having a stronger investment in the initial learning because they’re being held accountable by their peers, not by me or by a grade.

Social and emotional learning is the main reason Jigsaw was first used in the classroom. School psychologist Elliot Aronson first used Jigsaw in the classroom in Texas in 1971 as an attempt to help heal some racial turmoil. Students had to learn to get along because they could not succeed without each other.


To use Jigsaw in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Divide your students into teams. Teams should be roughly equal in size, perhaps 4-6 people per team.

2. Divide your content into the same number of chunks as you have people in each team. A chunk can be a section of a text book chapter, a handout, an online resource, or a step in a larger process (i.e. one part of Darwin’s theory).

3. Assign each person a chunk of content so that the whole team is assigned the entire body of content divided among them.

4. Have students meet in expert groups. The people in each group that are in charge of the first chunk of content meet together to become experts in that chunk. During this process, each individual expert will have his or her own knowledge reinforced and any gaps filled in. Expert groups can also prepare a presentation for each member to bring back to their teams.

5. Students leave expert groups and return to their team and share what they learned. All members of the team share what they learned while the other members take notes and ask questions.

6. Assess all students on all of the content. In a basic Jigsaw activity, students all receive an independent grade. In an advanced Jigsaw II activity, students also receive a second grade which is the average of their entire Team’s grades, therefore increasing accountability.

So what’s the secret to a great Jigsaw experience for middle school students?

Secret Number 1: Manage your physical space. Middle school students are notoriously easily distracted. When you’re completing a jigsaw puzzle at home, the secret to success is keeping the puzzle intact in a location where it won’t be disturbed. When you’re completing a jigsaw activity in school, the secret is in the layout of your room. Expert groups should be far away from each other – I sometimes send a group to work in the hall or in another classroom if I have a willing colleague. When teams come together, they should also be separated so that Johnny can’t go back to his friends in his expert group to ask for help when he’s stuck. Accountability is key here.

Secret Number 2: Manage time. When you’re completing a jigsaw puzzle at home, you wouldn’t take on a 1000 piece puzzle if you only had 1 day to complete it. Likewise, when you’re completing a jigsaw activity in school, the chunks of content should be small enough that a) Expert groups can master it in about 10 minutes, and b) Teams can all share their into in about 5 minutes each. As your students become more adept at using jigsaw, you can increase the time to 2-3 class periods, but try some very small chunks first – think 1 part of the water cycle per expert group, or type of plate boundary.

Jigsaws for Holidays

If I’m at an awkward spot in the curriculum on the day or two before a holiday break, I often add in a holiday themed Jigsaw just for practice. It’s a good way for my middle school science students to have fun and learn a little while taking a break from the curriculum. It also gives students something interesting to share with their families – on many occasions, parents have emailed me that they enjoyed learning about deciduous trees over Christmas or about the benefits of cranberries on Thanksgiving!


science of winter jigsaw

One holiday Jigsaw I have used for years is the Science of Winter Jigsaw. In this jigsaw, students learn about how evergreen trees work, how the amount of daylight changes in the winter, and how snow forms. It is one of my favorites because it has engaging and easy to consume chunks of content.



My students loved the Thanksgiving Jigsaw this year. They learn about antioxidants, white meat vs. dark meat, and the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. Again, it has easily consumed chunks of content that are engaging to students.



valentines day jigsawSince Thanksgiving and Winter were such big hits, I tried the Valentines Day jigsaw this year. It has a very general overview of how the heart works, the science of chocolate, and weird animal mating rituals. My students really enjoyed the variety of information they learned!




How do you use Jigsaw in your classroom?

Published by JustAddH2OTeacher

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