Plan Interactive Live Class Sessions

Lesson planning for online classes is essentially similar to planning for on-campus classes. There are a few things to keep in mind before starting to consider how to structure your classroom activities: 

  • Make your class sessions as interactive as possible. Interactivity is especially important for combatting distraction when class sessions are held online.
  • Activities will generally take longer than they do on campus. In a one-hour class you likely have time for either one main activity or two medium-sized activities in addition to your introductory and concluding moments. 
  • Be explicit about expectations and norms for class participation. The nature of microphone management, being on video, and the newness of the Zoom environment can make it hard to get students to participate.  Agreeing on norms of the classroom, setting expectations for participation, and giving explicit instructions for activities will help.

The sections below on discussion, interactive lecture, small group work, and debriefing from group work lay out some concrete strategies for making class interactive. 

Faculty Voices

“I had a class that was better online than in person this week. Amazing comments flowing throughout the class that I could draw on in real time while doing an interview of a subject matter expert.”

“I’ve come to appreciate the chat function as a way for quieter students to participate, and for them to add dimensions to the broader discussion.”

“Loving the breakout rooms' efficiency . . . . And I've been sharing Google spreadsheets for them to input answers to exercises, so we can all see them at the same time; in person, I'd discourage open laptops so we wouldn't be able to do this.”

It's possible to have excellent class discussion in Zoom, but your usual discussion moderation techniques are likely to need adjustment to make it happen. The unfamiliarity of the environment and related lack of norms, the initial technical barriers, and additional self-consciousness that come from being on video all contribute to student reticence to participate. Here are a few suggestions to make your classroom discussions effective:


  • Set class norms and expectations for participation. Tell students how you want them to raise their hands. If you have a small enough number of students, they can actually raise their hands in front of the camera. Otherwise, consider the raise hand button. Ask all students to turn their cameras on. Break the ice by doing an activity that gets each student to unmute their mic and say something. 
  • Cold call. Cold calling is an effective technique for getting broad participation and works especially well in Zoom where you can see everyone's names and where more intentional moderation is needed because of microphone management. To make it less stressful for students, start with questions that don't have right or wrong answers, allow students to pass, use cold calls liberally so that no one feels singled out, and say the student's name before asking the question to put them on notice. 
  • Warm call #1: prime willingness to participate in class. Give all students an opportunity to think through a question before asking any individual student to volunteer to speak up. Use the yes/no polling built into the Zoom participants panel to have all students answer a first question, then follow up in discussion. Ask students to share answers in the chat and then follow up in discussion.
  • Warm call #2: prime willingness to participate before class. Ask students to indicate, on a given asynchronous response, whether they are willing to share their work/answers/responses in class. If you have already set participation expectations, this will give students who don’t feel as comfortable speaking in class a way to control when they do it. 

For more advice about setting expectations around participation, see the Bok Center’s guidance and read Minerva and Harvard faculty member Christine Looser's Medium post "Best Practices for Online Discussions in Virtual Classrooms." For a comparison of various discussion apps, consult this chart. And for some tips on using Zoom effectively in your first class, see this handout

Student Voices

"In order to get conversation going, she began each section by sharing a powerpoint on her screen with a piece of art or a quote. This immediately anchored our section, avoiding the conversation-killer of “so what did people think of the reading?” that so many zoom sections in other classes began with. Moreover, Sina took this a step further. She then broke our section into smaller groups of 2-4, gave us a specific question to discuss about the quote/art, and split us into break out rooms. With the small number of people in the breakout room—and the quote/art and question to anchor our conversation—I felt that we were able to have a rich and robust discussion. After five minutes or so in the breakout room, we joined together as a big group. Because each breakout group had spent the past five minutes discussing a different question, but all breakout groups were discussion the same quote/art, the large group had plenty to discuss as well, and the quote/art on the screen allowed people to be less self conscious about their faces on the screen, and direct their attention and discussion to the quote/art itself."

Interactive Lecture

It is easy to add interactivity to your lectures in Zoom, often in ways that go beyond what’s manageable in a classroom. Try to provide ways and incentives for your students to be actively engaged frequently (ideally at least every 10 minutes) throughout your class.


Zoom has a built-in chat function which, while pretty basic, is a powerful tool for engagement during class. Consider just a few of the pieces of advice from faculty teaching in spring 2020 about how you can use the chat to engage students: 

Faculty Voices

“[Use t]he chat thread, to leave reflections at the end of class. It's great to know what all of the students are taking away, and not just the few who venture up to the front of the room after class”

“[The] chat feature is great; have a TF monitor the chat and bring to your attention points of general interest.”

The participants panel in Zoom provides each student with a green check labeled “yes” and a red x labeled “no.” With no prior set up you can use these buttons to poll your students. These polls can be used for quick temperature checks to ask students, for instance, if an explanation is clear. They are even more valuable when you use them to lead into discussion with students. Students often hesitate to raise their hands to answer questions posed in class, and waiting in silence for a volunteer can feel even more difficult than in a classroom. Doing the poll first gives students a chance to formulate their opinion and see where they stand relative to peers. It can result in more volunteers to elaborate and it also makes it feel less intrusive to cold-call. Productive use of chat may just arise in your class without direction, but it will work best if you tell your students how you want them to use the chat. In addition to the uses shared above, another good use of chat is to pause and give all students 2 minutes to type all their questions in the chat and then discuss what emerges.

Because it can be difficult to monitor questions that come in over the chat while you’re delivering a lecture, you may want to assign a TF to act as a moderator and relay questions from the chat to you during the lecture.

Yes/No Polls with Follow-Up

The participants panel in Zoom provides each student with a green check labeled “yes” and a red x labeled “no.” With no prior set up you can use these buttons to poll your students. These polls can be used for quick temperature checks to ask students, for instance, if an explanation is clear. They are even more valuable when you use them to lead into discussion with students. Students often hesitate to raise their hands to answer questions posed in class, and waiting in silence for a volunteer can feel even more difficult than in a classroom. Doing the poll first gives students a chance to formulate their opinion and see where they stand relative to peers. It can result in more volunteers to elaborate and it also makes it feel less intrusive to cold-call. 

Journaling/Reflecting with Follow-Up

After asking a question, ask all students to take 2 minutes to write their answers individually. Then come back as a group to discuss, using volunteers or cold-calling. A variant of this is to use Poll Everywhere so that students submit their journaling before the discussion.   

Prepared Polls

Zoom has a built-in polling feature that allows you to create multiple choice polls, in addition to simple yes/no polls. If you can use the built-in tools, it is good to do so in order to limit how much students have to manage. Poll Everywhere offers a variety of question types: multiple choice, open ended, word clouds, rankings, clickable images, and more.  Both tools allow you to set up polls before class time. 

Using a question shared in the main room, a prepared poll, or a prompt in Google doc or sheet, send students to short (5 minute) breakout rooms in pairs to discuss and then answer the question. It is helpful to have one question that produces results that can be aggregated in a graph or chart as well as a free-response where they share a 1-sentence justification.

In-Class Small Group Work Using Breakout Rooms

Breakout rooms are a game-changing feature for teaching in Zoom. Even though it takes a little practice to get comfortable managing them, it is well worth it.

Faculty Voices

"Breakout room sessions are fantastic ... Sometimes big lecture halls make it difficult to form small groups that can work independently. Having small breakout room sessions lets teachers focus on small groups and also motivates students to participate more actively. It gave me a lot of feedback I would not have in a big lecture room, because students are less self-confident. "

“Students helping students in breakout rooms.  In the real classroom, when I assign a problem (what we call 'anonymous quiz'), people consult only with the person immediately next to them, if that. They are shy about consulting with people listening.”

“It's easier to quickly break students into small groups using "breakout rooms" than it is to physically break students into groups, which means students having to move around, and can create noise issues, etc. In Zoom I could even use breakout rooms for 5-10 minutes successfully, whereas in class it would take at least 5 minutes to get the groups organized.”

Here are three framing ideas for ways to use in-class groups: 

  • Provoke, practice, transfer

Begin by engaging the students’ interest with a provocation, which can be a short lecture, a case, a problem or subject of scientific inquiry, etc. Send students to small groups to discuss solutions, plans, or options. Bring the students back to the main room to debrief the problem and, in interactive lecture, engage students in thinking about how to extend or transfer their understanding to a broader context or different setting.

  • Priming for a full-class activity

It can be hard to get students to speak up in full-class Zoom sessions. One way to help with this is to give students a chance to prepare their thoughts before participating. After placing students in groups to collaboratively consider an issue or solve a problem collaboratively, you can more readily call on any student and you may also have more volunteers. Small groups can be used to prepare positions for a debate, to create a resource that can be shared and then critiqued by other students, to discuss readings, etc. 

  • Collaborative preparation for an individual assignment

Students’ confidence and performance on individual assignments can be bolstered by giving them time in class with a small group to do a preparatory activity. This could be a brainstorming session for projects or papers, problem-solving of problems that are similar to what will appear on a problem set, or an opportunity to discuss and receive feedback on projects that are in process. Assignment collaboration in this form avoids some of the perennial challenges and frustrations of group assignments and their assessment. 

Zoom breakout rooms greatly increase the possibilities of what you can do but it can require some creativity and practice to get them to help you accomplish what you want. You will need to: 

  1. Decide how to group students
  2. Prepare and provide instruction documents in the breakout rooms
  3. Communicate with students and teaching staff while the groups are working
  4. Optionally, bring student work back into the main room

There are good techniques and options for each of these in Zoom. Here is a detailed guide on how to implement Small Group Work in Zoom

Student Board Work in Breakout Rooms

A follow-on challenge for courses doing collaborative work in Zoom is how to make it easy, effective, and equitable for all students to participate. This is particularly challenging in situations where students need to draw or write by hand. There are two aspects to this challenge: 

  1. Providing students a good whiteboard software or other software that allows them to collaborate effectively. 
  2. Ensuring that students have adequate technology to effectively use the software, generally a tablet and stylus.
  3. HUIT is actively pursuing options for boardwork for students including Limnu, Miro, and others. The college is working on how best to support students in getting access to ipads and styluses for use in courses. No final decisions are made yet, so we will be providing updates through the OUE site as they are available. 

In the meantime, there are several options for addressing problem 1: 

  • Built-in Zoom whiteboard. The advantage of this option is that it is integrated and relatively easy to use. Have one student share their screen in a breakout and choose the whiteboard option. Other students can also write on the same whiteboard by choosing "View Options > Annotate". The disadvantage of this option is that the whiteboards are not saved and are not viewable outside of Zoom. They are also difficult, but not impossible to use without a stylus input. 
  • Other applications like Google Docs, Jupyter Notebooks, Google Sheets, Padlet. Depending on what your students need to do, you may be able to structure collaboration in a different software. 

Coming Together to Debrief After Breakouts

A typical debrief from breakouts is a “share out” in which each group shares something about the work in their group. Share outs often work well, but there are many other options for how to debrief or sum up following small group work. 

  • Spotlight Themes

While groups are working, review their work documents to spot themes and identify groups where something interesting has occurred so you can draw attention to the most salient points after the breakout. 

  • Elicit Questions, Solutions, or Reactions

Take a few minutes after coming back from a breakout to have everyone type a question, salient point, or reaction in the chat. Use this as the basis for a debriefing discussion. 

  • Review and Poll 

If you want a share out because the topic was different in each of the breakouts, consider giving a few minutes for all students to review (individually) the work of the other groups. Then use the chat or a poll for each student to submit the one thing that stood out to them. 

  • Extend or Transfer

Following the breakout, pose an extension or variation of the problem to discuss as a group.