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Using Student-to-Student Interactions to Boost Engagement

Instance Description

Engaging students in class discussions and activities is always a challenging endeavor for instructors because there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work to draw in everyone. Students will have varying degrees of interest in the topic, and not everyone will be able to find the same degree of relevance in the concepts presented. Incorporating student-to-student interactions can be a powerful method for increasing student learning and enhancing engagement in the classroom, whether in person or online.  

Student-to-student interactions can play an important role in supporting the acquisition of new information for students and have been demonstrated to increase student satisfaction. These types of interactions also help enhance interpersonal communication skills, and collaborative abilities and can foster a greater sense of community (Amdor & Mederer, 2013). This can be especially valuable in online environments, in which students sometimes feel disconnected from their peers and institution.  

Research indicates that student-to-student interactions can have a significant impact on a learner’s motivation (Rugutt & Chemosit, 2009). Implementing approaches that align with this strategy can have positive outcomes for all learners in your class.  

See it in Practice

Example assignment. Described below.
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Credit: © Penn State; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

When students understand the real-life applications of what they are learning (relevance), their participation and academic success increases. Asking students to write or record a sentence or two about the real-life applications (past, present, or future) of what they are learning is a great way to help them make connections. This can be an individual activity or an opportunity to share their experiences more broadly through a discussion or shared collaborative space (Google Doc, JamBoard, Miro Board, VoiceThread, Flip, etc.). Instructors can discuss or post some of the more interesting/relevant suggestions in the next class, and maybe even incorporate some of what they learn into future lectures/content.


puzzle pieces
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The basic jigsaw method of collaborative learning is an activity that tasks each student in a small group with the responsibility for one topic (piece of the puzzle) and then requires that student to teach it to other learners within the group. To implement the jigsaw method, an instructor assigns a project topic to a team. The instructor could provide subtopics, or the team might decide on the subtopics. Each member of the team then researches their assigned subtopic and teaches their group members what they learned. It’s an effective approach to enhance collaboration and engagement in both online and face-to-face learning environments.  It can be used in almost any discipline. Following is an example using satellite images from Pedagogy In Action.

Example using satellite images

Each student receives a different satellite image from a portion of a larger area. If carefully selected, each image could contain information on a portion of a regional story but not the entire story (which could be anything from land use to geomorphic history to structural evolution). After peer teaching, the team puts the entire image and data set together to work out the regional picture.

Example using data

Each student in a group receives and plots a small portion of a large data set. The student makes interpretations based on their portion of the data and then comes back to the group. Each student explains their plots and interpretations. After peer teaching, the group then combines the data sets, works out an interpretation of the complete data set, and addresses why individual team interpretations (based on incomplete data) might have been different.

Modified Assignment

The basic jigsaw method can be modified easily. Consider assigning small teams or pairs of students (instead of individuals) to work together to become experts and to then share their findings within a larger team. Alternatively, before sharing their findings within a larger team, expert pairs from one large team might consult with expert pairs from other teams that have investigated the same subtopic.

Step 1: Expert groups, Step 2: Jigsaw groups. Concept is described in paragraph above.
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Credit: Amador, J.A., Mederer, H. (2013). Migrating Successful Student Engagement Strategies Online: Opportunities and Challenges Using Jigsaw Groups and Problem-Based Learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9 (1). (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)


  • Students benefit from receiving a group grade for the project. It serves as a way to keep everyone motivated.
  • Online Implementation 
    • During online implementations, students are provided with more time to review or reflect on the information provided by their peers. This allows for more detailed and thoughtful interactions but also means the conversation is continually occurring.
    • Smaller groups should be considered when implementing this strategy online to allow the instructor to maintain a strong focus on what each team is doing.


4 cartoons. 1. instructor asking question. 2. person thinking. 3. two people talking. 4. 4 people talking
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

The cooperative learning strategy Think-Pair-Share was designed to increase students’ critical thinking skills and encourage engagement with peers and lesson content. Think-Pair-Share achieves this by engaging students in a social and constructivist exploration of course concepts. To implement the Think-Pair-Share model, an instructor first poses a question or challenge to the class. Learners then have several minutes to work independently to gather their thoughts or to identify a solution (Think). After several minutes have passed, learners share possible solutions with a peer and the pair then works together to hone their idea or solution (Pair). The pairs are then asked to share their ideas or solutions with the rest of the class (Share). If time allows, further whole-class discussion can continue and/or the instructor can clarify any misconceptions. 
A variation of Think-Pair-Share is Think-Pair-Square, where a team discussion among two pairs replaces the Share portion of the activity.   

The Think-Pair-Share strategy works best when students can interact with one another in real-time and space, but it can be done asynchronously as well. Some asynchronous ideas include:  

  • Share a Google Doc, Google Jamboard, or online collaborative whiteboard and ask students to spend 3 minutes considering the question/challenge and then post their response to the collaborative board in 30 – 50 words. Assign a few students each week to write summaries to share with the class. 
  • Share the same directions but have people post in small group discussion boards via text or with 1-minute video recordings. Assign a few students each week to write summaries to share with the class. 

In addition to promoting engagement with fellow students and with the content, this activity can help instructors identify weak spots in students' understanding. 


Text of reciprocal questioning assignment. See page for details.
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Reciprocal Questioning is a strategy that promotes critical thinking while increasing student engagement with one another and with the course material. Students work in small groups to discuss course material, or a portion of the course material, like a video. They discuss where they need further clarification or more information. Then a group representative shares the questions with the instructor and the instructor's Docsanswers benefit the entire class.

Assignment Details

The process works like this:

  1. Divide the class into small groups.
  2. Each group discusses the assigned lesson and brainstorms a list of questions they have about the material.
  3. After brainstorming, the group members choose their best questions and refine them.
  4. A spokesperson for each group provides the questions to the instructor.
  5. The instructor answers the questions to reinforce learning for everyone in the class.

This activity will also provide instructors with insight into how they can further develop their material to improve understanding for future students.

This activity is a great fit for face-to-face classes but can also be used in online classes with small group discussions or collaborative workspaces like Google Docs or Microsoft Whiteboard.


Example of a Final Project in an LMS. See text below for details
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The final project in GEOSC 107N: Rocks, Minerals, and the History of Art is a small group case study that requires students to work together to research a naturally occurring material, used in either its natural or processed form, to create works of art or architecture in history. Case studies promote critical thinking and help students to contextualize course content. Conducting these case studies in small groups boosts student engagement by requiring group communication, planning, decision-making, problem-solving, the division of responsibilities, and collaboration. The following description is based on the GEOSC 107N assignment.

Assignment Details: Final Project

The goal of this comprehensive project is for you to synthesize the earth sciences and art history concepts learned in this course. We recommend you work in small groups of 3-4. You will get to know a few students in the class better, and by dividing the research, you will be able to go into greater depth on your selected component of the project. This should create a more engaging and meaningful experience for you and a more comprehensive final product.

Your group will select an Earth material that has not been covered in detail elsewhere in the course and submit your selection to the instructor for approval.

For your selected material, you will research:

  • its chemical and physical properties;
  • the conditions under which the material forms in the Earth;
  • where your material was sourced, in antiquity and today (if appropriate);
  • what processing is needed to turn the raw Earth material into an art material;
  • symbolic, religious, or political significance (if any);
  • 2-3 case studies of a work of art or architecture that uses the selected material;
  • how the physical properties of the material – its color, hardness, clarity, stability – influence its symbolism or use in art and architecture; and
  • how the relative rarity/abundance and difficulty/ease of transportation and processing impact the value and usage of your material in history.

Your Final Project consists of 3 deliverables:

  • A 10-page final paper, including at least three Earth Science references and at least three Art History references.
  • A narrated PowerPoint or 5-minute video illustrating your 2-3 case studies of works of art created using your chosen material.
  • A group member contribution form that includes self-reflection of each group member.


  • Time allocation: group projects can save you time grading, but you should spend time communicating with groups, monitoring their progress, and fielding their questions.
  • Teaching process skills can help students with group communication, coordination, and conflict resolution. This can take significant planning and class time.
  • Planning for effective assessment means consideration of individual contributions and group submissions.
  • Evaluation of teamwork may also add complexity.



  • Amador, J. A., & Mederer, H. (2013). Migrating successful student engagement strategies online: Opportunities and challenges using jigsaw groups and problem-based learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(1), 89. 
  • Rugutt, J., & Chemosit, C. C. (2009). What motivates students to learn? Contribution of student-to-student relations, student-faculty interaction and critical thinking skills. Educational Research Quarterly, 32(3).