computer open to web conferencing app

Active Learning in Zoom

Active Learning in Zoom Blog Post August 2020

Active Learning

Active learning, in which students participate in the learning process by discussing, problem-solving, questioning, and interacting, combines focusing on how students learn with what students are learning. Thirty years of research has proven that active learning techniques significantly reduce students’ probability of failure while making classroom environments more inclusive. Active learning cuts the achievement gap in half while virtually eliminating the gender gap.[1]

Passive learning, in which a student listens to an instructor lecture, lacks student involvement. Worse, years of passive learning actually trains students to be passive listeners and thwarts students’ initiative and agency. Passive learning is a “one-size-fits-all approach”[2] that reinforces archaic, hierarchical structures of education for a privileged few.

Active learning in the brick-and-mortar classroom involves students working in teams or pairs, sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, and discussing concepts. Students participate in constructing their knowledge with their peers, guided by an instructor. Implement active learning strategies into the remote classroom via Zoom (or another web-conferencing tool) by following the guidelines below, compiled from resources provided The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, Oregon State University, The University of Melbourne, and the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation.

Planning Considerations

As you do with all learning activities, make sure you are aligning the active learning strategies to course learning outcomes. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University shares three questions to think about when considering active learning strategies in Zoom:

  1. What skill should my students be able to perform by the end of our online class session?
  2. Which active learning strategy will allow my students to practice this skill?
  3. When will my students encounter and engage with information and ideas? When will they reflect on what they have learned? (Any of these active learning components can be done before, during, or after the remote class session.)[3]

These questions can help you think about the pacing of the class session as well as the content you plan to cover. Next, some specific strategies to consider implementing into your remote Zoom class sessions.

Active Learning Strategies

1 Polling

From Columbia University, “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.”[4]

To implement using the Zoom Poll, Columbia offers this advice: “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:

  1. 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?)
  2. 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?)
  3. 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?)
  4. 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?)
  5. 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?)
  6. 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.”[5]

2 Think-Pair-Share

From Columbia University, “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.

  • 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 Pairs: Students work in pairs to improve their individual class notes.
  • Three-Step Interview: Students work in pairs and take turns interviewing each other, and report what they learn to another pair.
  • Peer Instruction: 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.”[6]

3 Minute Paper

“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. 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.

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?”[7]

After the class session have the students submit their paper in a Blackboard Assignment for you to review.

4 Small Group Discussions

“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.

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:

  1. Facilitator + Timekeeper—keep the discussion focused on the assigned prompt
  2. Notetaker—record the main points of the discussion on a collaborative document like Google Docs or Slides
  3. Challenger—push the group to view the problem or issue from different perspectives
  4. 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 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.”[8]

5 Student Presentations

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.

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”[9] in Blackboard.

6 Group Projects

Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation suggests using the Groups tool inn Blackboard to set up persistent student groups where students can post on a group discussion board and share files.

During the live Zoom sessions, you can replicate the Blackboard groups in the Zoom Breakout Rooms so that students can touch base in real time to work on their projects and/or plan their next steps.

7 Jigsaw Activity

For a Jigsaw activity, use the Zoom Breakout Rooms to put the students into small groups. Assign each group a topic to research and explore together so that the individual groups become experts in their specific topic – for example, a portion of an assigned reading. Once each group feels confident that the members can explain their topic, reassign the Breakout Room groups so that each group contains an individual member from each of the original groups. Now, have each person in the new group explain their topic to their peers.

8 Online Discussion Boards

Use the Discussion Board in Blackboard to supplement your Zoom session – you can start a discussion in the live session and have your students continue the conversation asynchronously.

9 Building Community

Just as you spend time in a seated classroom getting to know your students, you can use Zoom feature to get to know your remote students and to help them get to know each other.

Use the Zoom Whiteboard to let students brainstorm ideas or draw images – try “Pictionary” with vocabulary words.

Have students upload a photo of themselves on their Zoom account so that you can still “see” them when their cameras are off. To mix it up, have them occasionally change their photos to something else – a favorite animal, a travel destination – to make the use of images engaging. Change your own image occasionally.

Assign classroom roles, and rotate them regularly:

  • Attendance taker – can record who is present
  • Chat monitor – can alert you when someone posts a question in chat.

Setting Expectations

Oregon State University offers this advice:

  • Set clear expectations. Any explanation of expectations should include a clear relationship to learning outcomes. Provide a code of conduct for interaction, performance expectations related to the task, etc.
  • Prepare instructions in advance. Provide students with a clear task and deliverable. Include any resources needed to complete the task. Outline the deliverable or provide a model so that students understand what is expected. 
  • Guide students in how to self-organize. Assign roles or ask students to assign them (host facilitator, notetaker, timekeeper, and speaker who reports back to the class). 
  • Provide technical support. A tip sheet for the technology can be helpful in case they get stuck, for example. 
  • Monitor. Circulate as you would in your face-to-face class by joining breakout rooms to check in. 
  • Report back. Ask students to present a summary slide (groups might contribute a slide to a class google presentation), share group’s response, etc. Follow up with whole-group sharing in some form.[10] 

Cornell also reminds us:

  • If using online discussion boards, consider providing examples of a good post and your expectations (e.g., the post refers to the reading, poses a question, considers evidence, etc.).
  • If doing a peer review assignment, give examples of constructive feedback and/or provide a rubric.
  • Be clear about grading and deadlines. When are activities due? Are they worth any points? What if students cannot attend or miss a deadline? Cornell instructors have reported that having some flexibility (e.g., dropping lowest grades, student choice in ways to participate or type of assignments) has been helpful especially in accommodating students’ varied circumstances.[11]

Challenges and Solutions

From Cornell:

“Students are silent in the breakout rooms, or one student would like to talk, but no one else participates or turns their video or audio on.

  • Spend time building a sense of community, especially in the first week, but also throughout the semester. Give students time to get to know each other so they are more comfortable in talking with one another.
  • Consider asking students for their input on online etiquette, use of Zoom features, and expectations for participation, either with the entire class or as an exercise in building a team contract (if working in permanent teams). This is a good activity in the first week of class
  • Students may not see the purpose or value of the learning activities and discussions. Make sure that activities are well aligned with the learning outcomes and assessments for the course. Talk with students about the goals of the activity and the educational value of discussing with others and applying what they are learning
  • Consider having more accountability: tell students that each group needs to post an answer in chat, or that groups will be called on to report out, or will need to submit a document
  • Assign roles (like notetaker, reporter) to the group members (and rotate)
  • Try adjusting the group size to see if larger or smaller groups seem to work better. Generally, we suggest around 3-5 students in a group, but it may depend on your class
  • Consider having permanent groups throughout the semester by pre-assigning breakout rooms in Zoom. Working with the same group each time may help students feel more comfortable in talking. If groups are responsible for assignments, a peer feedback survey around mid-semester can help identify and solve problems in group participation[12]

“Some students cannot easily participate in synchronous activities (unreliable internet access, no quiet space, not in the same time-zone)

  • Take advantage of asynchronous options: posting to online discussion boards, downloading/uploading worksheets, short quizzes after lecture videos
  • Allow a window of time to complete activities (e.g., 24 or 48 hours)
  • Organize student collaboration groups by time-zones to make it easier to find a time to meet that works for them
  • Offer different options for participation, for example students who cannot participate with video/audio in Zoom, can post their comments in the chat box.[13]

Final Tips

Practice, be patient, and get students’ feedback. If an activity doesn’t go well the first time you try it, troubleshoot it with students’ feedback and try it again. Plan your activities in advance and practice with the tools so you are comfortable.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons

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.

Brame, Cynthia J. Active Learning. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking, editors. How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. 2004.

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation –

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

Elkins-Tanton, Lindy – Slate – “No Student Should Have to Sit Through a Zoom Lecture” July 27, 2020

Facilitating and Promoting Student Engagement in the Online, Synchronous Classroom (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning) (YouTube video; 12+ minutes).

Fink, D.L. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hersh, Stephen. “Yes, Your Zoom Teaching Can Be First-Rate.” July 8, 2020 Inside Higher Ed

Mazur, E. (2013). Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Pearson Higher Ed.

Online Instructional Activities Index (University of Illinois, Springfield)

Oregon State University –

Tips & Tricks: Teachers Educating on Zoom (Zoom) 

The University of Melbourne –

Image by Armin Schreijäg from Pixabay

Judith Littlejohn – August 20, 2020

[1] Brame, Cynthia J. Active Learning. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning.

[2] Elkins-Tanton, Lindy – Slate – “No Student Should Have to Sit Through a Zoom Lecture”. July 27, 2020.

[3] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

[4] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

[5] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[6] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[7] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[8] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[9] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[10] Oregon State University –

[11] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation –

[12] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation

[13] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation