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Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom

Moving your class sessions to a virtual space, such as Zoom video conferencing, brings new opportunities for active learning and student engagement. This resource provides simple strategies that combine active learning principles with online tools so students can encounter and engage with information and ideas, and reflect on their learning. These strategies apply to both small and large class sizes, subject to the participant limit of your video conferencing program and license.

For ways to maintain privacy and security in your online class sessions, please refer to CTL’s Zoom Security and Privacy Resource.

What is Active Learning? 

Bonwell and Eison describe active learning strategies as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing1.” In Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink builds upon Bonwell and Eison’s definition by describing a holistic view of active learning that includes all of the following components: Information and Ideas, Experience, and Reflective Dialogue2 This framework can be a helpful tool to consider how your students…

  • encounter (new) information and ideas
    • e.g., by watching videos or reading PDFs in advance, or from a short presentation you give using Zoom’s Share Screen feature
  • engage with information and ideas
    • e.g., through discussions with their peers using Zoom’s Breakout Rooms feature and documenting their conversations in collaborative Google Docs
  • reflect on their learning
    • e.g., by spending the last five minutes of the online class session engaging in reflective writing and sharing their thoughts through an open-ended poll on Poll Everywhere.

…to meet the student learning objective(s) for your course.

Columbia Supported Online Tools for Active Learning

In this resource, we will reference the following online tools supported by Columbia University: 

  • Zoom—video conferencing, including the following features*:
    • Share Screen—share your screen, your student’s screen, or a virtual whiteboard
    • Breakout Rooms—divide the main virtual room into smaller virtual rooms
    • Polling—launch multiple choice polls
    • Nonverbal Feedback—allow students to express opinions by clicking on icons
  • Poll Everywhere—audience response system for polling
  • LionMail (Google) Docs, Sheets, Slides—collaborative documents

*Note: If you do not see any of the above Zoom features in your Zoom meeting space, you may need to enable them first.

If you have questions about teaching with any of the above tools, please reach out to the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu. You can also get one-on-one support via phone or Zoom during our virtual office hours.

Active Learning Strategies

The active learning strategies you select should serve the course learning objectives for your students. Remember, the goal of active learning is not simply for your students to do things, but to also think about what they are doing. As you learn more about the following strategies, consider how effective each would be in promoting the learning you desire from your students.

Here are some questions to think about when selecting an active learning strategy:

  • What skill should my students be able to perform by the end of our online class session?
  • Which active learning strategy will allow my students to practice this skill?
  • When will my students encounter and engage with information and ideas? When will they reflect on what they’ve learned? (Any of these active learning components can be done before, during, or after the online class session.)
Strategy 1: Polling

Overview

Polling is a quick, easy way to check the opinions or thought processes of your students by posing a statement or question and gathering their responses in real time. Zoom’s Polling feature allows for simple multiple-choice polls, including Likert-type questions that ask your students to state their level of agreement with a statement, assessing the level of student interest on a list of topics, or binary yes/no or true/false questions. Simple polls can be used at the start, end, or at select points during an online class session to engage and assess your students.

Tools used

Amount of pre-class preparation required

  • Instructor: Low (<15 min)
  • Student: Low (<15 min)

How to Implement

Determine your purpose for conducting a simple multiple-choice poll in your online class session by considering the following:

  • What information would you like to get from your students in real-time?
  • How will you use the poll results / information collected?

Here are some possible ways you can use polls for active learning in your online class session:

  • As an ice breaker to create a class environment conducive for active learning
    • e.g., Which of the following career paths is your top choice at this moment?
  • Check background knowledge to determine what information your students should encounter or engage with next
    • e.g., Which of the following best represents your familiarity with the concept of atomic orbitals?
  • Assess opinion on a debatable issue based on what information your students have encountered so far
    • e.g., “Genetically modified foods should not be permitted for human consumption.” Agree or Disagree?
  • Frame / bookend the lesson to focus your students as they engage with new information
    • e.g., Which of the following factors do you think has the largest impact on the rate of DNA replication in a eukaryotic cell?
  • Choose the next topic based on student reflection on what they need help with
    • e.g., Which of the following topics would you like to go over as a class?
  • Get feedback based on student reflection on what helps them learn most effectively
    • e.g., Which of the following activities are most helpful in helping you learn the skills required for this course?

Create the Zoom poll (see Zoom Help Center to learn how) and determine how much time your students will need to respond to it. Make sure the question title and prompt is clearly worded and not open to misinterpretation.

Prior to launching the poll, provide verbal and written instructions on how to complete the poll. Once launched, you will be able to see in real time the number of students and the percentage of the class that have responded to the poll, the time elapsed, and the results of the poll.

End the poll when the allocated time is up. You can then choose whether to show the class the results of the poll. Either way, be sure to directly address or have your students respond to the results of the poll, and relate it back to the purpose of the poll.

Alternative Tools for Polling

  • CourseWorks (Canvas) Quiz has an ungraded survey feature that can be used for polls both synchronously and asynchronously.
  • PollEverywhere can be used for more advanced polling activities such as using open-ended text questions or images. Unlike Zoom, the results from PollEverywhere can be directly transported to CourseWorks (Canvas).
Strategy 2: Think-Pair-Share
Overview

This active learning strategy involves posing a short problem, scenario, or question to your students and giving them the time and opportunity to complete the following steps:

  1. Think through the problem, scenario, or question individually.
  2. Pair with a partner to discuss.
  3. Share their findings or takeaways with the rest of the class.

This strategy not only gives your students time to process and apply their knowledge and skills on their own first, it also gives them the opportunity to consult and collaborate with a peer. This process usually elicits more thoughtful responses while also lowering the stakes of sharing with the rest of the class.

Tools used

Amount of pre-class preparation required

  • Instructor: Low (<15 min)
  • Student: Low (<15 min)

How to Implement

  • Think: First, pose a short problem, scenario, or question for your students to work through on their own for about 30 seconds to a minute. Read the question out loud while also displaying it on a slide that you share with your students using Zoom’s Share Screen feature. As your students are thinking through the problem, click on Zoom’s Breakout Rooms tool so you can enter the number of breakout rooms needed in order for each to contain a pair of students. Zoom conveniently displays the number of participants per room based on the number of participants present and the number of rooms you select. If you have an odd number of students, subtract one from the total number of students and divide that by two to get the number of rooms you should create; Zoom will automatically assign one of the breakout rooms with three students instead of a pair.
  • Pair: When your students are ready to pair up, let Zoom automatically assign them to the breakout rooms. Give your students about 5 minutes to introduce themselves to their partners and share their thoughts on the assigned problem. To help your students keep track of the given problem and directions, you can broadcast the problem and instructions through a message to all the breakout rooms.
  • Share: When your students are ready to share, close the breakout rooms so all your students return to the main room. Ask for volunteers to share their answers or discussion takeaways by having them use the hand-raise feature in Zoom. Unmute one volunteer at a time so they can acknowledge their partner and share their response with the entire class. Mute the volunteer who has spoken before unmuting the next one. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with the number of contributions and/or perspectives shared.

Alternative active learning strategies with similar setups

  • Note-Taking Pairs3: Students work in pairs to improve their individual class notes.
  • Three-Step Interview3: Students work in pairs and take turns interviewing each other, and report what they learn to another pair.
  • Peer Instruction4: Students first answer a given poll question on their own. Then, students pair up and explain their rationale. Finally, students answer the poll question again.
Strategy 3: Minute Paper

Overview

A minute paper is a short “paper” that students individually complete in a minute (or more realistically, under five minutes) in response to a given prompt. Minute papers provide students with opportunities to reflect on course content and disciplinary skills as well as their self-awareness as learners (see the CTL’s resource on metacognition to learn more). This active learning strategy simultaneously allows you to quickly check your students’ knowledge. Minute papers can be assigned at the start, during, or at the end of your online class session as you see fit.

Tools used

Amount of pre-class preparation required

  • Instructor: Low (<15 min)
  • Student: Low (<15 min)

How to Implement

Before your online class session, write an open-ended prompt that students can respond to in less than five minutes. You can vary the prompt to target specific knowledge and skill sets or solicit big picture free responses.

Example prompts include:

  • What questions about today’s topic are you most interested in exploring?
  • What was the most important point of today’s lesson?
  • Share an experience from your everyday life that illustrates this principle.
  • What steps will you take to maximize your learning for the upcoming test?
  • Reflecting on the essay you just submitted, what would you have done differently that would improve your essay?

When your prompt is ready, use it to create an open-ended poll in Poll Everywhere (external to Zoom). Using Poll Everywhere to collect minute paper responses allows you to either display the responses as they come in or download a CSV spreadsheet containing all the responses to skim for trends and themes later.

While student responses are never displayed with student identities during the poll, you may need that information for the purpose of assigning participation grades or to respond to students individually. For this information to be recorded in the CSV spreadsheet, you will need to restrict the poll to registered participants only. Your students will then need to log in to their Columbia Poll Everywhere accounts to participate in the poll.

During your online class session, when you are ready for students to complete their minute papers, activate your open-ended poll and use Zoom’s Share Screen tool to share the Poll Everywhere window with your students. While the instructions for responding to the poll will be shown via shared screen, you should also read the instructions out loud to ensure all students receive that information. 

Give your students about five minutes to go to the displayed Poll Everywhere site and type in their responses to the minute paper prompt. Depending on your goal, you have the option of addressing select responses as they come in or compiling the results after class so you can address them at the start of the next one.

Alternative active learning strategies with similar setups

  • What’s the Problem5: Students categorize example problems according to the principles and strategies needed to solve them.
  • Muddiest Point6: Students share their responses to the prompt “What was the muddiest (most confusing) point in _____ ?”
Strategy 4: Small Group Discussions

Overview

Small group discussions are one way for your students to delve more deeply into a given problem or issue. You can pose an open-ended question or problem, or provide your students with a scenario or case study to work through. The duration is dependent on the task. Groups can then present their results or findings to the rest of the class.

Tools used

Amount of pre-class preparation required

  • Instructor: Moderate (15–60 minutes)
  • Student: Low (<15 min)

How to Implement

Reflect on the learning objective that would most benefit from small group discussion. From this learning objective, develop the discussion prompt that you will assign to your students. For example:

  • Learning Objective: Analyze Figure 3 of the assigned research article.
  • Discussion Prompt: How well does the data shown in the figure support the author’s claims?

When assigning the small group discussion, be sure to include clear instructions on what your students are supposed to do. Examples include:

  • How many students will be in each group
  • How much time they have for the discussion
  • What they need to report back to the class and how much time they have to do so
  • Upholding discussion guidelines that they previously agreed to

Because your students are having these discussions completely online, it is best not to have too many students in each group; 3-4 students per group for a 10-minute small group discussion allows each student to contribute substantially to the discussion.

To help facilitate the small group discussion and ensure that all students engage, either assign or have your students volunteer for the following roles:

  • Facilitator + Timekeeper—keep the discussion focused on the assigned prompt
  • Notetaker—record the main points of the discussion on a collaborative document like Google Docs or Slides
  • Challenger—push the group to view the problem or issue from different perspectives
  • Reporter—report the main takeaways of the discussion back to the rest of the class

You could have students rotate roles across the semester so that they get to experience and learn the different skill sets associated with each role. 

Let your students know that you, and if applicable, your co-instructor(s) and/or TA(s), may be dropping into each breakout room periodically to check their progress and answer any questions, but that they do not have to stop their discussion if they do not need anything from you.

After providing your students with both verbal and written instructions, give them a minute to ask you any clarifying questions before you send them to their breakout rooms.

When the class is ready, use Zoom to automatically divide your students into breakout rooms. You can set the breakout rooms to close automatically after a set duration. This adds a countdown timer in the breakout rooms informing your students of the remaining time they have. As students are discussing in their breakout rooms, stop by several breakout rooms to see how the discussion is going and answer any questions, if any. You may also broadcast a message to all breakout rooms to solicit questions. Your students can always request for help from their breakout rooms by clicking the Ask for Help button, which alerts you to their request and prompts you to join their breakout room.

When time is up, if you did not set the breakout rooms to automatically close, manually close them so all students return to the main room. Ask all the student reporters to identify themselves using the hand-raise button (part of Zoom’s Nonverbal Feedback feature). When a student reporter is ready to share with the class, unmute that particular student and have them share their screen with the class. Other students can ask questions via the chat window. When the student reporter is done presenting, you can unmute the rest of that group to allow them to solicit and answer questions from their peers.

Alternative active learning strategies with similar setups

  • Test-Taking Teams3: Students work in small groups to prepare for a test. Students then take the test individually and submit their responses. Immediately after, students retake the test in their small groups, working to find consensus on their responses.
  • Jigsaw3: Students work in small groups. Each group becomes an expert in a different topic. New groups are formed, comprising at least one expert on each topic. In these new groups, each student teaches their peers the topic they became an expert on.
Strategy 5: Short Student Presentations
Overview

Short presentations provide an opportunity for students to engage in peer instruction. This type of activity invites students to synthesize and communicate their knowledge. Students can be asked to research an issue of interest to them that is related to the course topic or work on a problem outside of class, and to present their findings during an upcoming online class session. This allows students to link course content with their own interests and lived experiences, and learn from their peers.

Tools used

Amount of pre-class preparation required

  • Instructor: Moderate (15–60 minutes)
  • Student: Significant (>60 minutes)

How to Implement

Identify a course learning objective that would greatly benefit from having students explore the topic further on their own. For example, you could have students use their analytical skills that they developed during the course to analyze a different area, setting, artifact, or scenario of their choice. Alternatively, you could have your students design proposals to address a problem raised in class.

Assign student presentations with sufficient time for your students to prepare their presentation, e.g., at least one to two weeks in advance. Be sure to provide specific instructions regarding the format and duration of the presentation, e.g., “The presentation is 5 minutes long with 10 minutes for audience questions,” as well as any criteria for evaluation, which could be represented as a rubric.

This strategy works best if you provide students with preliminary feedback on their presentations prior to your online class session. Consider having a short online meeting with each student presenter or checking in via email to provide feedback on their presentation and to answer their questions at least a few days before your online class session.

When it is time for your students to present during your online class session, first remind the class of the purpose and format of the student presentations. Encourage your students to be active listeners during the presentation, e.g., reflect on how the presentation might apply to your interests, explore how the presentation enriches your perspectives on the topic, type your questions into the Zoom chat, or write down your main takeaways from the presentation.

When the student presenter is ready, unmute their microphone and allow them to share their screen with the class.

While the student is presenting, you may monitor questions that are being submitted by other students to the Zoom chat. Once the presentation is finished, select a few questions for the presenter to address.

When the student presenter is done answering questions, consider having all your students reflect on what they learned. For example, you could ask your students to summarize their main takeaways from the presentation or describe how the presentation connects with different aspects of the course. Have your students share their reflections on a discussion board on CourseWorks (Canvas) or an open-ended poll on Poll Everywhere. You can skim through these reflections to see what your students gained from the student presentations.

Alternative active learning strategies with similar setups

  • Digital scavenger hunt: Students find or create media (images, video clips, audio clips) that they think best represent assigned course concepts to share with the class.
  • Book club5: Students choose from a list of suggested books on course content and form corresponding book clubs. Each book club presents a final report to the rest of the class, while other students identify common themes and differences between the presented books and the books they chose in their own book club.
  • Student group presentations: Students work in small groups outside of class on an assigned project and present their findings during the online class session. Other students in class focus on asking questions and linking the presentation to course content.

Final Tips

  • Working in a virtual classroom requires patience. Begin with simple low stakes activities for you and your students to get comfortable with the new format and provide time and opportunity for your students to ask you questions. Eventually, instructors, TAs, and students will gain proficiency with these online tools.
  • Seek to minimize barriers that students may face in order to participate in the activities you plan for your online class session. Factors to consider include access to reliable technology and conducive spaces, student physical and mental abilities, and timing. For ways to make online learning accessible for all your students, please refer to CTL’s Accessibility Resource.
  • Do a test-run of each activity you plan to use before your online class session, preferably with a CTL Learning Designer or a teaching colleague. Given the number of user-specific settings in Zoom, you will want to ensure that all the features you will be using have been enabled prior to your online class session. Some features cannot be enabled once your online class session has launched.

If you have questions or would like support in developing and implementing active learning in your online course, please reach out to the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu. You can also get one-on-one support via phone or Zoom during our virtual office hours.

Additional Resources

Facilitating and Promoting Student Engagement in the Online, Synchronous Classroom (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning)

Online Instructional Activities Index (University of Illinois, Springfield)

Tips & Tricks: Teachers Educating on Zoom (Zoom) 

How to Be a Better Online Teacher (Flower Darby, Northern Arizona University)

References

  1. Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 1. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University.
  2. Fink, D.L. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons
  4. Mazur, E. (2013). Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Pearson Higher Ed.
  5. Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 
  6. Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass Publishers.