When students construct knowledge for themselves rather than passively absorb whatever they’re told, active learning occurs. Instructors who embrace an active-learning approach seek to engage students wherever they are, in a face-to-face or remote setting, in ways that draw students into the class discussion and encourage them to work collaboratively. Active-learning activities can unfold synchronously or asynchronously — before, during, or after class. They keep students on their toes, alert and engaged — a mindset (as we know) that makes them less likely to drift away, check their social media accounts, or order stuff on Amazon.
Engagement, discussion, and collaboration are not synonymous, of course — just broadly overlapping categories. For that reason, we combined them under one big heading. Below, we offer a few tips for student engagement in a hybrid or remote mode. For more on how to create stimulating class discussions and collaborative exercises, read on.
Encourage active engagement during class
Try a guided notes exercise by giving students a partial set of notes with missing information or incomplete examples; encourage them to complete the notes during class. Also, try pausing during a lecture to have students set down their thoughts in a “minute paper.” Ask them to answer one or two questions, such as “What was the most important thing you learned during the class?” or “What important questions remain unanswered?” The minute paper activity can take place at any point during a class session. In a synchronous class session, students can complete their answer individually, in a collaborative Google Doc, or in the Zoom chat. In an asynchronous setting, prompt students to pause the lecture video for one minute to answer the question. (You can use H5P to build automatic pauses into videos.) Another exercise is the “Muddiest Point.” Ask students, “What was the muddiest point in the (lecture, assignment, discussion, play, film, video, etc.)?” When collected at the end of class, these responses provide information valuable for the start of the next one.
Conduct a live poll
Now that we’re in pandemic mode, polling software is a great alternative to live clickers. Zoom has a built-in polling feature that supports basic multiple- and single-choice questions. PollEverywhere offers even more advanced question options. Have your in-person students log in to the same Zoom session as your remote students to participate in the poll. (Your in-person students can turn off their cameras and you can hide non-video participants to show only the remote students.)
If possible, create more but shorter class meetings
Student surveys suggest that remote technology is more effective in smaller doses. Instructors with the flexibility to offer more frequent and shorter class sessions during the week may reap rewards in terms of dynamic discussions and a higher level of student engagement.
Discussion is at the core of a liberal arts education, and Colgate’s emphasis on small, discussion-centered classes is a big draw for our students. How to spark discussions in a hybrid or remote mode is a challenge nearly all of us will face at some point this fall. For small upper-level seminars, classroom conversations may be replicable through synchronous discussions on Zoom; but for larger classes, asynchronous strategies may prove more fruitful.
Whatever strategy you choose, try to stay flexible and understanding of the unique challenges that online discussions pose to our students. Consider using asynchronous tools when possible to allow remote students to participate on their own schedules. Hold everyone accountable for their contributions by building in simple checks, feedback, reflections, or point systems. Always link your discussions to educational goals and outcomes, making it clear to students that there is a purpose behind every discussion.
Give students options for responding live in class
Offer students more than one way to participate in a live class discussion, so they can decide for themselves how best to respond. While synchronous Zoom sessions most closely replicate the experience of an in-person class, students may feel uncomfortable speaking up from their place at the kitchen table, if family members are nearby. During synchronous Zoom sessions, give students the option to respond verbally or in writing through the in-meeting chat function. Using the chat during class will enable remote students to privately offer their opinions to their peers.
Create a back channel
Use a group chat or messaging platform to create a space for students to engage in discussion. Your discussion with in-person students will be the “front channel,” but having a “back-channel” space will enable in-person and remote students to connect. You can use the chat function in Zoom, or use an alternative platform such as Slack, GroupMe, or Google Chat. If monitoring the chat during class is overwhelming, assign a student to be the “voice of the chat.” This student can scroll through the chat to look for questions posed by other students and/or synthesize students’ comments. Take a “voice of the chat” pause during a class session to have this student report to the class.
Provide structure and monitoring for group work during class
Breaking students into small groups to discuss a topic or perform a short task is a technique that many of us use, knowing (as we do) that many students feel more comfortable speaking up in a small rather than a large group. Why not provide your discussion prompts or describe your tasks on a Google Doc or Google Sheet? You could then arrange your in-person students into physically distanced groups in the classroom, and you could assign your remote students to breakout rooms in Zoom. When students are in breakout rooms, the collaborative documents can serve as reminders of the prompt or task at hand. (If possible, engage student assistants to help in breakout rooms; they can keep discussions focused, address tech issues, and even teach new technology.) As all students are working, check the shared document to monitor students’ progress and emergent themes in order to plan your debrief when you bring them all back together. Use collaborative Google Docs or Sheets to allow all students to report out from their small groups. Afterward, highlight a few responses from each group.
Divide students into “hybrid pairs”
There may be times when it’s best for students to share ideas or work in pairs. Consider pairing up your in-person students with their remote peers. Have them call each other using FaceTime, Google Meet, or Zoom. To minimize noise in the classroom, ask your in-person students to wear headphones as they converse with their remote peers. Creating different “hybrid pairs” during each class session can help to build connections, even a sense of community, between in-person and remote students.
Remote teaching can feel insular and isolating — there’s no point in pretending this isn’t true. Even so, it offers rich potential for networking students with one another and with other learners, not just in their own class, but around the world. Through networking and collaborating, students come to depend on one another to construct knowledge, thereby creating bonds through shared goals, exploration, and interpretation. Most of the collaborative activities that we normally use in the in-person classroom — group projects, peer instruction, role playing, discussions or debates, brainstorming, and peer review of work, to name a few — translate easily to a hybrid or remote setting. In the transition away from face-to-face teaching, there is no need to throw out plans for collaboration; in fact, a remarkable array of tools and strategies exists not merely to facilitate collaboration in a hybrid or remote mode but to make it even more appealing than usual.
Use collaborative documents during class sessions
Set up a collaborative Google Doc for students to contribute their notes. Consider assigning a small group of students to be lead notetakers during a class session; rotate students through this role during every class. Having students take notes for each other allows students to focus on active listening and contributing to the class discussion without worrying about capturing all of the ideas that are shared. This may be especially important if it is hard for remote students to hear what the in-person students are saying. All students can revisit the shared notes after class and add more details as they come to mind.
Leverage tools for asynchronous and synchronous collaboration
In addition to Google Docs, the Google Suite for Education offers multiple tools for collaborating on spreadsheets and presentations. These tools permit comments, a suggestion form for editing, and real-time updates if students are working asynchronously. Collaborative “brainstorm boards” such as Padlet, Mural, and Miro allow multiple students at a time to build visual depictions of their projects (think “Post-It” sticky notes on a wall that can be rearranged, but add many capabilities such as building templates, commenting, voting, drawing more elaborate figures and flow charts or concept maps, etc.). Text annotation software such as Hypothes.is can encourage interaction among students as they sort through and discuss the meaning of a reading. These tools give students a mechanism to collaborate synchronously on a project document, or even just brainstorm and share ideas. Having multiple students working actively together using these tools creates an exciting, dynamic experience that can infuse energy into group interactions.
Be extra intentional when constructing groups
Assign students to project groups to maximize their ability to connect with each other synchronously outside of the classroom. Consider designing groups with students in similar time zones to facilitate their ability to meet in person, if possible. Give students some agency in selecting other group members — perhaps by asking them to name one or two people they’d like to work with, one or two they’d prefer not to.
Practice using collaborative technology before trying it out on students
Confirm that what you are asking students to do can actually be accomplished effectively on the app or software. What’s the maximum number of participants allowed at one time, or the maximum number of files that can be opened at a given subscription level? A student assistant can function as a technology troubleshooter for students and faculty (sending links to students as needed, helping students navigate the software at first, etc.). Allow or even require your students to do as you do and practice the technology, in a low-stakes setting, before using it in class.
Leverage being online
You can connect yourself and your students to anyone in the world who has access to wi-fi. The possibilities of this are huge! Can you think of artists or speakers who might be willing to pay a virtual visit to your class, your department, or even the entire campus, especially if they don’t have to worry about travel snafus or inclement weather? How about alumni or other experts who might be willing to provide feedback to your students on their writing or projects? Encourage your students to help you to help them by reaching out to other students, scholars, experts, or professionals.
- For background information on active learning during the pandemic, look at Derek Bruff’s Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms. Several universities offer active learning strategies across face-to-face, synchronous, asynchronous, and blended settings:
- Active Learning While Physical Distancing (Louisiana State)
- Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom (Columbia)
- Getting Started with Active Learning: Guide for Remote Classrooms (UC San Diego).
- This blog post by Anne Fensie is also useful: Comparing In-Person and Remote Learning Activities.
- For more on how to engage students in the classroom, check out the Chronicle of Higher Education Advice Guide How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging. We’re also keen on resources on active learning from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
- Want to see what a peer institution is doing in this area? The Baldwin Center at Bowdoin College offers this useful article: Encouraging Interaction and Engagement Amongst Your Students Asynchronously.
- The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University offers a number of resources for fostering online discussion. Two of the best are Online Discussion: Tips and Strategies and helpful tips for facilitating discussions in Zoom, which includes setting instructions for various kinds of discussion.
- Nikole D. Patson published Getting Students to Discuss by Channeling the Affective Domain in Faculty Focus, and Flower Darby has a video and a sample rubric, self-reflection and feedback guide, Plan and Facilitate Effective Discussions, brought out by the Association of College and University Educators.
- Yale University’s offerings include Best Practices for Seminars & Discussions, and Stanford contributes this article on how to Foster Communication and Collaboration Among Students.
- Common Sense Media offers their top picks of student-collaboration tools, and Heather Robinson, Whitney Kilgore, and Scott Warren offer insight about communication and collaboration online here: Care, Communication, Support: Core for Designing Meaningful Online Collaborative Learning.
- A leading scholar in the field of online education, Michelle Pacansky-Brock offers these resources for communication and content creation beyond text.
Some of the content on this page was adapted from Stanford University’s Teach Anywhere website and Indiana University’s Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses. All are published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 license. This page was also inspired by Derek’s Bruff’s blog post Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms.