Thursday, November 21, 2013


The research we have suggests that deep engagement in rich mathematical tasks and student collaboration are keys to promoting learning in mathematics classrooms. For most of the semester, I have been using student presentations to the whole class as the means to engagement and collaboration. However, I have found that it sometimes becomes necessary to adjust the classroom organization. One reason is that running with just one format can become stale over the course of the semester. Also, certain students become comfortable sitting passively in presentations, even though I try to keep them involved. I also find that as the instructor, I sometimes get weary of one routine. In addition, students’ energy levels wane as their workload increases with the end of the semester looming. 

So, I have been mixing it up with a technique I learned as Expert-Home Groups, but it is essentially a Jigsaw. Here’s how I use it:

I assign 2, 3, or 4 problems to the class. For purposes of this example, let us assume two problems have been assigned, #1 and #2.

Divide the room into groups. The number of members in each group is not too important, but usually 4 is the maximum number in a group if they are all going to contribute productively to a discussion. For purposes of illustration, let’s say there are 8 groups, which I will label 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Further assume that each group has 4 people.

Within each group, members are assigned a color. With two problems, two colors are needed. Let's say the colors are red and blue. (With three problems, three colors are needed. With four problems, two or four colors can work.) The room then looks like Figure 1, where each digit represents a student.

With the assignments to groups and colors, I now tell the odd-numbered groups to work on problem #1, and the even-numbered groups to work on #2. I tell them that they must make sure everyone in the group understands the problem well enough to explain it to another group.

After the students have had time for discussion, it is time to regroup. Now the red tagged members of odd-numbered groups are paired with red tagged members of even groups, and similarly the blue tagged members of odd-numbered groups are paired with blue tagged members of even-numbered groups, and the room looks like Figure 2.

In the new groups, each problem is explained in turn, until everyone is satisfied that the problems are solved.

Tips for making this work:
  • Problems of highly uneven difficulty may not work well. This is because one group will bog down in the problem while another group is idling and waiting to be regrouped. This can be partially counteracted by having groups that finish quickly discuss problems assigned to other groups.
  • With two problems and groups of four people, there is slightly less accountability than if four problems and four colors are used. A countermeasure is to use four colors anyway, and regroup the room as in Figure 3. In this way, although there are still two people in each group responsible for the same problem, they worked independently, and therefore may have different solutions or explanations.
  • One reason for using two problems rather than four is to deal with uneven numbers of students. If there are some groups with three people, they can still swap a member with another group and thus participate.

  • There is assessment, and there is grading. Informal, formative assessment can be gathered during class by listening to the conversations of the groups, popping in to groups with questions, and asking individual group members to respond to questions, to ensure that all group members are participating in and understanding the conversation.
  • I have graded these sorts of activities in a few ways. Sometimes I give a participation grade to everyone who appears to be engaged with their group.
  • Another way to grade this assignment is to pre-assign each group to its problem (e.g. assign the problem Monday and have the Jigsaw on Wednesday), and then to ask that the group share a copy of their solution with you at the beginning of class. In this way, you have a record that the group (or at least someone in the group) has produced a solution to share.
  • You can collect the notes that students take from the class and grade that in a couple of ways. Either it can be used to grade only a group's own problem (so Group 1 is graded for its work on #1, Group 2 is graded for its work on #2, etc.), or it can be used to assess whether everyone is taking notes for all problems as they are sharing.
This is a great way to liven up the classroom and use a little movement to shake things up. If you have opinions on this, or other ways to get small groups actively engaged, I'd love to hear from you.

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