I believe that the heart and soul of online teaching and learning rest in selecting high-quality, engaging synchronous activities. A poorly organized activity or the passive presentation of knowledge can quickly derail focus and success in a virtual classroom. On the other hand, a carefully crafted, collaborative, focused set of activities can transform the class.
An ideal activity needs to address social and cognitive presence (Garrison, 2001). The social construction of knowledge through meaningful collaboration typically leads to productive cognitive engagement. In addition, an instructor needs to select activities that align best with learning outcomes and the student’s development level. Fullan’s (2013) deep learning approach is also helpful in designing activities that promote character, communication, creativity and critical thinking.
Most online teachers, including me, have designed less than ideal activities that may have worked in a face-to-face class but somehow do not translate to an online environment. In this chapter, I will share guidelines for creating optimal synchronous learning activities based on over a decade of online teaching and, perhaps more importantly, evidence-based practice.
This section offers ten guiding principles for designing effective online synchronous learning activities.
- Authentic. Learning is more effective when connecting ideas/concepts/skills to authentic or real-world situations/problems (Herrington et al., 2003; Lombardi, 2007). Organizing students into breakout rooms to address a relevant, engaging, real-world problem can stimulate thought, focus and cognitive engagement. Examples might include a case study, designing a learning tool, evaluating a program, comparing two approaches or contrasting opinions, debating messy social issues, or creating a web page.
- Breakout Rooms. Large groups do not work particularly well in online learning. Lecturing is often ineffective. Students turn off their cameras and are reluctant to participate in discussions more often than not. Breakout rooms, consisting of four students maximum, can change the online dynamic entirely, particularly if you create engaging, meaningful tasks. Ask students to turn on cameras in breakout rooms — suddenly, there is no place to hide, and social interaction improves.
- Collaboration. Collaboration is a well-supported learning strategy (Johnson et al., 2007; Kyndt et al., 2013; Hattie, 2012) that works especially well in online synchronous environments.
- Productive. To maximize the benefit of breakout room activities, ask groups to produce an artifact – fill in a Google Slide with ideas, create a mind map, brainstorm on a Jamboard, or write a collaborative solution on a Google Doc. If students do not have a clear, concrete end goal, the breakout room could be a waste of time. Having students simply discuss a problem often deteriorates to more social, off-topic conversation.
- Timing. Timing is critical for a successful virtual class. If you choose to present or lecture, you need to chunk (Clark & Mayer, 2016; Van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005), ideally in 5-10 minute segments. After 5-10 minutes, present information, shift student attention by asking them a chat question, presenting a poll, or testing their knowledge. If you do not follow this rule, students will likely shift their attention to an off-tasks activity – email, texting, surfing the web. Timing is also required for breakout room activities to increase focus. Tell students how much time they have to complete their tasks. Provide a reminder midway through the task and with one minute left. Finally, rotate among the breakout groups to provide advice, direct students and assess whether your initial time estimate is too short or long.
- Clarity. You need to be extra clear when providing instructions for an online breakout activity because it is more challenging to repair confusion when students have shifted into groups. I advise having written instructions (e.g., in a Google Sheet) that students can refer to after moving to breakout rooms. Before shifting into groups, go over the activity instructions. Next, ask the whole class if there are any questions. You might even ask a student to repeat back the instructions to you. Finally, shift around to each breakout group quickly one minute after the start of the activity to address procedural questions.
- Choice. As much as possible, I like to give students a choice about how they approach an activity, the format they wish to present group summaries and discussions, and the topic they want to discuss. This approach works best with open-ended, messy questions or tasks. Offering choice gives students control over their learning. This sense of control helps them build independence and problem-solving skills.
- Creativity. I have observed that activities requiring exploration and creativity lead to the most impressive and engaging results. Challenge students to brainstorm, develop new ideas and think outside the box. Surprising and unexpected thoughts, products and plans often emerge, leading to exciting discussions.
- Interactive. Passive presentation of information is not an effective strategy to promote learning. Students need to engage with concepts and procedures and construct meaning to truly understand and learn (Bruner, 2009; Donovan et al., 2000; Petty, 2009). Therefore, when creating synchronous activities, consider increasing interactivity and engagement with the learning content.
- Polling. Offering a short survey of student opinion or understanding of concepts is a great way to break up a presentation or start a rich conversation. Two-step-polling (described in the activity section below) is a particularly effective activity.
- Variety. I have found the most successful online classes use a variety of activities, including short presentations, polls, chat discussion, breakout discussions, and large group discussions. Of course, the most critical guideline is designing activities to achieve the intended learning goals.
Activity 1: Class Discussion
Overview & Description
Large class discussions can be quite challenging in an online environment. Many students keep their cameras off and are nervous about speaking, perhaps because they feel they might look foolish in front of their peers or the instructor. However, I have had some success with the strategies described below. Here are my suggestions for stimulating class participation:
- Getting Camera On. It is very tough to get students to turn on their cameras. I explain to students that I understand their reluctance. I add that when they turn their cameras on, I can get feedback on how the class is going and whether it is boring or engaging. Finally, I note that when I see their faces, I get to know them better, which can be very important should they need an academic reference in the future.
- Warm-up your audience. Start with a few fun questions in the chat like “What was the best part of your week?”, “Favourite song right now,” or “Best thing you ate last week?” Students readily participate in the chat and will not be intimidated by these questions. Use a delayed response in which all students press enter simultaneously to share their responses.
- Ask a meaningful question. Make sure you ask questions worthy of discussion and debate. Then tell the students that they need to respond in the chat.
- Follow-Up on chat responses. Most students feel comfortable using chat, so you should see reasonable participation. Find an interesting answer and follow up with the student with, “Robin, I noticed you said [_], can you please explain that further? I’m not sure I quite understand” this gets the student to use their microphone to explain their answer.
- Be supportive and positive. When a student responds, be positive and make them feel comfortable. That will encourage others to answer. Also, ask students to elaborate on their responses to promote a richer discussion.
- Continue follow-up questions. After a student clarifies their response, you could ask the class, “Does anyone have something to add to what Robin is saying?” The idea is to build discussion off initial responses. You could pick another student who might have a different point of view and ask them to respond to Robin’s comments.
- Quick presentations. A completely different approach is to break students into small groups to produce something, then bring them back for one-minute summaries and discussion. That gets the class talking and often leads to more involved dialogue.
- Talk Show Format. Another option is to set up a talk show or CNN-type format where at least two people debate a topic and use the chat as a call-in feature, where the other students can queue up to ask questions during the debate.
- Show and Tell Feature. To get a large class engaged, first stimulate their interest with a short video, podcast, case study, or short article – preferably something that is controversial and would naturally elicit multiple perspectives.
- Do not use grades. Using grades to force students to participate is not a good idea because it devalues the intrinsic value of a good discussion. The discussion will likely have little teaching or learning value because students will simply say something to ensure they get a checkmark for participation.
Efforts to create engaging, meaningful large group discussions will take time – be patient. I have been teaching online for over a decade, and I still struggle. Sometimes the discussion just does not happen. Move on quickly and use smaller breakout groups to reduce the number of students and intimidation factor.
- Effective Online Discussions (a very detailed and helpful chapter)
- How to Make Your Virtual Discussions Engaging, Effective, and Equitable in Eight Steps
- Managing Discussion in Large Classes
- What is the Ideal Size for Online Discussion Groups?
Activity 2: Create and Present
This idea is relatively simple. Ask students to create, design or summarize an artifact that will support the intended learning outcomes of the class. If they do not produce something in a breakout room, they will likely waste time on non-learning activities because there is no accountability. For example, ask the breakout groups to:
- Present a summary of ideas (in Google Doc or Slide)
- Brainstorm ideas (in a Google Jamboard)
- Create a mind map (in Google Jamboard or any other shareable Mind Mapping Tool)
- Post annotated resources (in Padlet or Google Jamboard)
- List characteristics or features related to a concept (Google Doc)
- Create a case study (in Google Doc or Slide)
- Solve a problem (in Google Jamboard)
Here is a list of general guidelines for the Create and Present strategy
- Set up groups of 2-4 students. The ideal group size will be two to four students depending on the task. If the group size is larger, students can hide from the group and not participate.
- Provide written and verbal instructions. Provide clear written instructions in a Google Doc that students can refer to once they are in the breakout room. Go over the instructions verbally and ask the class for clarification questions before breaking out into small groups.
- Quickly rotate among breakout groups after two minutes. Give students time to settle into their breakout groups and get started. Rotate quickly among all groups to ensure students understand what they should do.
- Use Google Apps. Ask groups to produce work in a shared space so that you can monitor their progress and students can see what their peers have created. For example, you could build a large Google Slide deck and have each breakout group create a slide on a different topic. You can easily see how they are progressing on their slide and when the activity is complete, students can benefit from seeing and using the contributions of their peers who produced other slides.
- Give time reminders. Send out time reminders letting students know how much time they have left to complete their work. These reminders keep groups on task.
- One-Minute Presentations. Ask each group to select one student to present the group’s final work. Keep presentations short and sweet, or you will quickly lose your class.
- Invite discussion after each presentation. Invite discussion, questions or char response after each presentation.
Activity 3: Class Debate
Overview & Description
Depending on the content of your online course, debate can be an effective way to engage students and stimulate critical thinking. Debate can also help address the large class discussion problem. Here is one approach to setting up a class debate activity.
- Set the stage. Develop rich debate topics ahead of time, ideally as a class. If your students develop the debate questions, they are more likely to be engaged.
- Outside debate preparation. Give students the debate topic before the class, so they have time to do research and prepare. Have students select a position on the debate and assign groups accordingly. I like to encourage students to choose a side they usually would not choose. For example, if they are against standardized testing, I challenge them to debate for standardized testing to push their thinking and attempt to understand another perspective.
- Establish debate rules and structure. Develop debate rules and guidelines so that students focus on well-reasoned, evidence-based arguments. Above all, promote respectful conversation. In addition, identify how much time groups will have to present their ideas and the structure of the debate (e.g., 3 minutes for, 3 minutes against, 3-min rebuttals, 3 minutes audience questions for each side, 1-minute summaries).
- Pre-Debate Vote. Before the debate begins, ask the class to vote on whether they are for or against the proposed resolution. Keep track of the results.
- In-Class debate preparation. Divide the class into breakout groups with specific roles. I have used six to eight distinct groups: For-Initial Argument, Against-Initial Argument, For-Rebuttal, Against-Rebutall, For-Summary, Against-Summary, For-Audience Questions, Against Audience Question. You can have multiple debate topics if you have a larger class so everyone can participate.
- Keep debate on time. Use a timer to keep to your agreed-upon debate structure.
- Post-Debate Vote. After the debate, ask the class to vote on whether they are for or against the proposed resolution.
- Post new learning. Have students post new insights and/or perspectives on a Padlet or Google Jamboard.
- Debate summary. Ask students to produce a summary of the debate for a home activity.
This activity requires considerable planning, so make sure the debate topics are worthwhile, engaging and above all, promote deeper learning. Create a Google Doc with all the instructions and guidelines so that students have a clear reference to expectations.
Activity 4: Case Study
Overview & Description
Good case studies can bring learning to life and help students understand, synthesize and apply their knowledge to authentic, relevant situations. Having students create case studies encourages them to consider various factors influencing a particular situation. Furthermore, building case studies helps them become aware of the complexities of real-life decision-making. Working as a team to solve a case study promotes collaboration, articulating multiple perspectives, synthesizing arguments, and bringing otherwise inert concepts and procedures to life. Here are a few guidelines to set up a good online case study activity.
- Develop foundational knowledge (in or outside class). Give students time to research and learn basic conceptual and foundational knowledge. Otherwise, case study solutions could lead to uninformed, narrow opinions.
- Student-created case studies (in or outside class). After students have a reasonably solid understanding of the relevant concepts and knowledge, divide them into small breakout groups to create individual case studies. Provide clear guidelines about a good case study (e.g., Good Case Study Guide) and the critical subject area focus. You may ask each group to address a different situation. Each of these case studies should be presented on a single Google slide so that students have access to all case studies.
- Review student-created case studies (in or outside class). Pair up breakout groups to review each other’s case studies to increase clarity and improve quality. Groups can add comments to their partner group’s case study and meet with them after to discuss.
- Bonus – Video Case Studies (outside class). Have groups create videos of their case studies outside class to maximize engagement.
- Pre-Made Case Studies (outside class). Alternatively, you could use pre-made case studies from other sources (e.g., books, websites) or previous case studies created and evaluated by students.
- Read Case Studies (in class). Divide students into breakout rooms to ensure they understand the case study. Each group could work on a different case study, at least two groups are assigned to the same case study, or all groups could work on the same case study. Give groups 5-10 m minutes to digest the content of the case study.
- Large Group (in-class). Ask the class if there are any questions about the case studies and their learning task.
- Case-study solution (in-class). Return students to breakout rooms to develop solutions to their assigned case study. Give groups adequate time to discuss, generate and summarize their response on a pre-assigned Google Slide.
- Present-Solution. Return to the class to present solutions (2-3 minutes per group) and discuss.
- Pressbooks. As a class, create online books that include your case studies. Pressbooks are a good tool to create an OER that future classes could use and augment.
- Making Learning Relevant with Case Studies
- The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Good Case Study
- Using Case Studies to Teach
Activity 5: Two-Vote Polling
Overview & Description
Polling can effectively break a long lecture into chunks, soliciting opinions and attitudes, and determining whether students understand concepts/procedures. Two-step polling occurs when
- Polling Step 1. A multiple-choice question is asked, and responses are gathered and displayed to all students.
- Different responses. Ideally, the spread of answers indicates some level of confusion or debate.
- Discuss and debate. Students meet in small breakout rooms and debate about the correct response.
- Polling Step 2. The same multiple-choice question is asked, and students vote a second time.
- Large class discussion. Finally, the class and the instructor discussion the response.
With this approach, students are more invested in understanding the solution and uncovering misconceptions. This approach works particularly well in subject areas with numerous misconceptions. For example, the two-step polling also encourages students to debate topics not generally discussed in mathematics or science.
Activity 6: Individual Learn and Share
Overview & Description
Having students work individually on a question or task (e.g., solving a question, researching a topic, evaluating an artifact) during a synchronous class can improve engagement, increase discussion, encourage different solutions, and lead to richer solutions. Sample activities might be to:
- Play with an interactive tool to learn a concept (e.g., PhET Science & Math Simulations).
- Create short video commentary and post of Flipgrid.
- Generate a summary of the concept or topic.
- Finding resources for a topic.
- Identifying key issues or problems.
- Analyzing a video, article or social media post.
- Solving mathematics or science problems.
- Creating a mind-map.
Of course, students can do this type of activity at home, asynchronously but working on individual tasks and sharing solutions adds to an otherwise isolated and potentially monotonous task. Giving students time to work independently allows them to think about and address a problem before collaborating. Once they have a solution they are comfortable with or perhaps a list of challenges, they can more actively share those ideas within a small group. The basic procedure is as follows:
- Sharing of ideas. Create a commonly shared document (e.g., Google Slide, Dox, Sheet, Jamboard) where each student has a place to share their ideas/solutions. In some cases, students might use their phones to take a picture of a solution.
- Assign tasks and form breakout groups. Write down the assigned tasks in a Google Doc, communicate the task verbally to the class, then form breakout groups of 3-4 students.
- Quick meet and solve. Students meet in the breakout group to have a brief discussion to understand the tasks.
- Check for understanding. After 2-3 minutes, rotate quickly around all groups to ensure students understand the assigned.
- Small-group discussion. After an agreed time, students return to the group to share and discuss their responses.
Activity 7: Group Problem Sets and Discuss
Overview & Description
Solving problem sets in subject areas such as mathematics and science is traditionally an independent activity. However, the exact opposite is true for real-world problems. Group problem solving is the norm. This strategy encourages students to prepare for and work on problem sets as a team. The process is as follows:
- Pre-class preparation. Students are assigned readings and/or videos to develop an understanding for solving the given problem sets in class.
- Breakout groups. Assign students to breakout groups to develop solutions for the assigned problem-set. Give groups ample time to discuss and develop solutions.
- Everyone understands. A primary goal of the groupies to ensure that everyone understands the solutions submitted
- Google Form. Each group must submit their answers using an online form to ensure accountability. Google forms work well because you can submit pictures, which may be required for handwritten solutions.
- Contribution and understanding form. Students fill in a separate form articulating how they contributed to the final solutions, how much they understood the submitted answers and assessing how well the group worked together.
- 5 Activities for More Engaging Synchronous Online Language Classes: Some new ideas here – worth a look.
- 8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Your Virtual Classroom: Quick, easy-to-understand strategies for spacing up synchronous learning.
- Engaging Online Activities: Variety of activities for engaging students online.
- Online Synchronous Strategies: Several helpful synchronous strategies.
- Organize Content by Chunking: A concise summary of how to chunk content online.
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Kyndt, E., Raes, E., Lismont, B., Timmers, F., Cascallar, E., & Dochy, F. (2013). A meta-analysis of the effects of face-to-face cooperative learning. Do recent studies falsify or verify earlier findings? Educational Research Review, 10, 133-149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2013.02.002
Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st Century: An overview. Educause. https://library.educause.edu/resources/2007/1/authentic-learning-for-the-21st-century-an-overview
Petty, G. (2009). Evidence-based teaching (2nd Ed). Nelson Thomes.
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