Teaching eyewitness testimony (and many other things) using the jigsaw approach

Image by Jared Tarbell; used under Creative Commons license.
An oblique approach to image choice would add subtlety but, frankly, it’s been a long week.

I’m a big fan of the jigsaw classroom (Aronson et al, 1978) to the point where I probably overuse it. If you’re not familiar, it’s a cooperative learning activity format in which students learn part of a topic so they can teach it to others and, in turn, are taught other parts by them. The aim is that all the students end up learning the whole topic. The students are organised into ‘jigsaw’ groups. Each jigsaw group is then split up and rearranged into ‘expert’ groups. Each expert group is given responsibility for mastering one part of the topic knowledge. The expert groups are then returned to their jigsaw groups, where they teach each other. There’s a good guide to the jigsaw technique here.

When it’s done well, jigsaw promotes a high degree of interdependence amongst learners and exposes all the students to the material to be learned, both of which contribute to its effectiveness as a psychology teaching strategy (Tomcho & Foels, 2012). Compared to non-cooperative methods (i.e. those that do not require interdependence) techniques like jigsaw provide more effective learning of conceptual knowledge, a greater sense of competence and more enjoyment of learning. This is particularly so when the activity is highly structured with assigned roles, prompts for self reflection, and both individual and group feedback on performance (Supanc et al, 2017).

When I use it I like to keep group sizes to a maximum of four. If you have 16 or 32 students in a class that’s great because you can divide the material into four and have four students in each jigsaw/expert group. A group of 25 also works well, with the material divided into five parts. It can be a headache to assign groups when you have inconvenient numbers of students so you need to plan ahead and think about how you will ensure that every student learns all the content.

In my experience, the jigsaw approach works best when:

  • You stress that the activity is all about understanding what they are learning and remind students throughout of their responsibility for both teaching and learning the material. The danger is that it can easily become an ‘information transfer’ exercise, with students copying down material verbatim and dictating to each other without understanding. It is sometimes useful to impose rules to prevent this (e.g. limit the number of words students are allowed to use when making notes in their expert groups, only allowing them to draw pictures etc.)
  • The learning material is tailored to the students. This means adjusting the difficulty/complexity level of the material to be just difficult enough so that the students need to engage with it and each other to co-construct an understanding. Too difficult and they can’t do it; too easy and it becomes trivial; either way, they lose interest.
  • The learning material is tailored to the timescale. Again, we want the students to create meaning from the materials and this takes time. If too little time is given then either some of the material won’t get taught, or students will resort to ‘information transfer’ and there will be no co-construction.
  • You actively monitor what’s going on in the groups, particularly the expert groups. This is how we moderate the difficulty of the materials. We don’t want the students teaching each other things that are wrong. At the same time, it’s important not to just charge in and instruct the learners directly. Doing that undermines the point of the approach. In any case, I wouldn’t use jigsaw to teach fundamental concepts for the first time; it’s just too risky. I prefer to use it to elaborate on and deepen understanding of ideas.
  • You have an accountability mechanism (i.e. a test). Multiple choice/online assessment is quick and effective if the test items are well written. Plickers and Socrative are useful tools for this. One approach that can work here is to tell the students that everyone will do the test but that each student will receive the average mark for their jigsaw group. This creates an incentive for students to ensure that everyone in the group does well (although it also creates an incentive to blame people if the group does badly, so YMMV).

Here’s a set of materials for teaching some of the factors that moderate the misinformation effect on eyewitness testimony using the jigsaw method. This is for a one-hour lesson with a 10-15 minute expert groups phase and a 15-20 minute jigsaw groups phase. There is a slideshow that structures the lesson and a set of learning materials covering the moderating effects of time, source reliability, centrality and awareness of misinformation. You can extend the activity by prompting students to evaluate the evidence offered.  If you are a Socrative user (free account with paid upgrades) you can get the multiple choice quiz using this link. As with all these approaches, there is no guarantee that it’s superior to the alternatives but the available evidence suggests it is worth trying.  And, like everything, its effectiveness is likely to grow when both teacher and students are practised in the technique.

Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephin, C., Sikes, J., & Snapp, M. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing Company

Supanc, M., Vollinger, V.A. & Brunstein, J.C. (2017).  High-structure versus low-structure cooperative learning in introductory psychology classes for student teachers: Effects on conceptual knowledge, self-perceived competence, and subjective task values.  Learning and Instruction, 50, 75-84.

Tomcho, T.J. & Foels, R. (2012).  Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations.  Teaching of Psychology, 39 (3), 159-169.

Teaching synaptic transmission using ping pong balls

You will be clearing up ping-pong balls for days.

Many students seem to come to us with a block about bio-psychology. I’m not sure why this is but I suspect it’s got something to do with the English science curriculum, whose writers have apparently mistaken content load in the absence of conceptual coherence for academic rigour. But that’s an argument for another day and, probably, a different blog. The issue is, faced with content-load problems of our own, and in the face of students’ objections to learning ‘all that science stuff’ it’s easy for us to retreat into a ‘here it is, you’ve just got to memorise it’ teaching style.

And it is quite easy to teach things like synaptic transmission this way – all we have to do is drill the students with a series of steps, probably with accompanying diagrams. Provided, that is, we’re content to settle for teaching for knowledge, as opposed to teaching for understanding. Now, there are arguments for taking that approach: it’s quick, and if the assessment for which we’re preparing the students is recall based, it’s often good enough for the purpose of ‘getting the marks’ in an exam. However, if our values are oriented towards teaching as a way of changing students’ understanding of their world then it might strike you as unsatisfactory. And even if we’re not, recent changes to the A – Level psychology exams mean markedly increased demands on students’ capacity to think with content as opposed to just recalling it. There is strong justification, therefore, for teaching biopsychology in ways that move beyond the more presentation of information.

Over the past few years I’ve made increasing use of physical models to teach biopsychology. They make biological processes concrete for the students, who may find it difficult to visualise events at the microscopic level, and they reduce working memory load because having manipulable objects at hand makes fewer demands than maintaining mental representations of multiple concepts, especially when these are newly acquired and not well integrated with long term memory (there is some debate about this, but see Pouw et al, 2014).

Here’s an approach to teaching synaptic transmission that can be extended to a range of related areas including the mode of action of drugs and biological explanations of mental disorders. I’ve used it with groups of up to 20 or so students; more than that and it would probably be better to divide the group. You’re going to need lots of ping-pong balls. I bought a box of 500 from eBay for about a tenner.

  1. Prepare by inviting students to read about the process of synaptic transmission. This could be for a home learning task or in class using a reciprocal teaching routine. There’s a reading on synaptic transmission here that you can use or there are any number of web and textbook resources.
  2. Arrange your teaching space so there’s a large, clear floor area. Explain that we are going to deepen our understanding of synaptic transmission using the ping-pong balls. Tell the students that they should organise themselves to depict the process of synaptic transmission. The only rule is that each ping-pong ball represents one molecule of neurotransmitter.
  3. At this point, let the students sort themselves out and observe what they do. It is likely that they will arrive at an arrangement whereby one set of students is passing the balls to another set (or possibly throwing or rolling them). Whatever they do, it represents their shared conception of synaptic transmission, so it’s your starting point for developing that understanding further. At this point, pause proceedings and ask named students to explain how the model represents synaptic transmission.
  4. What follows is an iterative process of identifying shortcomings of the students’ model and inviting them to correct them. The ideas is that, with each iteration, the model becomes a more accurate representation and the students’ understanding correspondingly grows. For example:
  • ‘Vesicles can’t throw, and receptors can’t catch’, (addresses the misconception that neurotransmitter is ‘fired’ across the synaptic gap/aimed at the receptors rather than being a probabilistic process based on diffusion);
  • ‘I can’t see what’s causing the vesicles to release neurotransmitter’, (prompts the students to connect a change in neuronal firing rate with the release of neurotransmitter);
  • ‘All these receptors now have a molecule of neurotransmitter activating them – what problem do we have now?’ (introduces the idea that the neurotransmitter needs to be removed or the receptors will be permanently stimulated);
  • ‘There are no more ping-pong balls left in the box and loads in the synaptic gap’, (can lead to the importance of neurotransmitter concentration, the reuptake mechanism and the possibility of neurotransmitter depletion).

And so on. How far you take this depends on your inclination and the time available. I’ve found it’s usually possible to generate a model that includes the pre- and post-synaptic firing rate, vesicles, diffusion/concentration, receptors, enzymes that break down the neurotransmitter and the reuptake mechanism.

It is crucial that you keep questioning named students about the correspondences between different elements of the model and the process of synaptic transmission. The model doesn’t teach anything on its own; it’s a point of focus for the dialogue between you and the students.

A good way to finish the activity is with a free writing exercise in which students either describe the process of neural transmission from memory or write an explanation of how their model represents the process. This should be done from recall and allows them to consolidate understanding whilst giving you a chance of catching any remaining misconceptions.

Once you have established a viable model, you can use it in a number of ways. Simply recreating the model on a future occasion is a good revision activity, especially if done from free recall and if students are instructed to take on different roles from last time, so they have to co-construct their understanding again. You can use it to develop further understanding e.g. ‘what you have modelled is an excitatory synapse – how would things be different in an inhibitory synapse?’ You can also use it as a basis for teaching related ideas e.g. the effects of drugs e.g. ‘What would happen if we stopped the reuptake mechanism from working/what would happen if we blocked off these receptors?’ etc.

This approach is not without its risks. You may feel that you cannot rely on your students’ capacity to self-regulate during activities like this. That’s your call, but I would urge you to give it a go. You do need to be on the lookout for social loafing – some students may feel able to position themselves as an innocuous section of neural membrane and quietly opt out of proceedings. For this reason you need to keep up with the directed questions throughout. Finally, and most seriously, there is a possibility, when using vivid demonstrations, that what students will encode is that they did an unusual activity and it was fun but not the actual conceptual content of the demo (see Willingham, 2010). For this reason I regard the preparation reading as crucial and would never attempt to use the above approach to teach synaptic transmission ab initio. It is also critical to keep prompting the students to re-encode what they are doing in terms of the target concepts and understanding through questioning at the time and in the follow-up activity.

Of course, I cannot prove that doing it this way will result in better understanding and learning than the approach it replaces but there is good reason to believe that it might. And it’s a lot more fun.


Pouw, W.T.J.L., van Gog, T. & Paas, F. (2014).  An embedded and embodied cognition review of instructional manipulatives.  Educational Psychology Review, 26, 51-72.

Willingham, D.T. (2010).  Why don’t students like school?  A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Resources: introductory memory concepts

Here are some resources for teaching introductory memory concepts. There is a memory concepts slideshow, some wordlists for serial position demonstrations, a spreadsheet for graphing the serial position demos and a short reading on Milner et al’s (1968) ‘HM’ case study.

Resources: brain scanning

Here are some resources for teaching brain scanning.  There is a text on CT, PET and fMRI (.pdf), some application problems (.pdf), a comparison table (.rtf) and a short slideshow (.pptx) with key ideas and images.

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