Tip Sheet: Structuring Zoom Sessions for Engagement 

Hearing stories from students and faculty about the challenges of life in Zoom reinforces the need to foster engagement in this virtual platform. The basic premise in these accounts and in learning engagement research is that STRUCTURE MATTERS and that structuring time together for connection, clarification, and collaboration is extremely important.

Kimberly Tanner (2013) condensed active learning literature into five main categories for considering how to create an inclusive and equitable classroom. Not surprisingly, her categories and their corresponding strategies help us to think about ways to structure class time in Zoom for faculty and to be more inclusive of students. 

Here are a few adapted examples from Tanner to help structure your time and leverage your Zoom synchronous sessions with students:


Give Students Time To Think And Talk About Course Content

Tanner’s Strategies Possibilities in Zoom

Wait Time

With the seemingly modest extension of the “wait time” after a question to ∼3–5 s, Rowe and colleagues showed dramatic effects: substantially more students willing to volunteer answers, fewer students unwilling to share when called on” (p.325). 
To increase the number of students willing to answer questions, lengthen one’s “wait time” after asking a question. 

Allow Students Time to Write: 

“Explicitly require students to write out one idea, two ideas, three ideas that would capture their initial thoughts on how to answer the question posed [using chat]… If collected, this writing can hold students accountable in thinking and recording their ideas” (p. 325). 
Use Chat window for student contributions. Ask them to type a few ideas in Word or Google Docs (accessed through Collaborations in Canvas or through Google Drive).


“The mechanics of a think–pair–share involve giving all students a minute or so to think (or usually write) about their ideas on a [disciplinary] question.  Then, students are charged to … talk with a neighboring student, and identify points of agreement and misalignment. These pair discussions may or may not be followed by a whole-group conversation in which individual students are asked to share the results of their pair discussion aloud with the whole class” (p. 325).  
Practicing talking about the subject is an essential part of learning about the subject.  At the beginning of a zoom session, give all students a minute or two to think or write about their ideas on a topic, then use Breakout Rooms to pair up students to compare ideas, task the pairs to generate one idea they want to share back to the class, and then possibly follow up with a whole-group conversation about the pair discussions or call on a few students while the rest write their idea in the Chat window. Use think-pair-share at the end of a zoom session to ask students to consider the main takeaway, develop a question(s) to take to the discussion board following the session, or 

Do Not Try to Do Too Much 

“[Reduce] the amount of material considered during class time [by structuring] more active learning by students outside class time, in particular in the form of homework that goes beyond textbook readings” (p. 325).  
Consider how time works virtually: What can be done together? And what can students do on their own to process material?  Reducing the coverage of material may help students feel less overwhelmed by the amount of material covered. Here is how one instructor structures zoom sessions: “I pre-record a short (5 minutes max) video to view ahead of class that sets the problem students will be solving during the class session. They work individually and in groups during our time together. Then I share another short video of how I solved the problem in a discussion board where they compare their approach to mine. Zoom is used as problem-solving time.”

Encourage Participation Of All Students

Tanner’s Strategies Possibilities in Zoom

Hand Raising: 

“With hand raising, the instructor can also be explicit about asking for “hands from those of us who haven’t had a chance yet to share” and strive to cultivate a classroom conversation that goes beyond a few students in the front row” (p. 325). 
We don’t have “rows” in zoom so leverage the gallery view to provide structure for discussions by enforcing virtual hand raising [seen in the Participants screen in Zoom] and turn taking.  This will help establish a culture in which all students are expected to participate. 

Multiple Hands, Multiple Voices: 

“Generally ask for multiple hands and multiple voices to respond to any question posed during class time” (p. 325).  
This will generate a broader range of responses and allow the instructor to call on students who tend to participate less frequently.

Assign Reporters for Small Breakout Sessions

“[A] simple strategy to provide access to verbal participation for students who would not otherwise volunteer” (p. 326). 
Before implementing breakout rooms, you can designate the reporters in the Chat window if you have had a chance to organize this before class. Also, you can ask groups to negotiate who will keep time and who will report back out to the group once the breakout session is over. These roles can rotate for equal distribution.

Whip Around 

“The instructor conveys that hearing an idea from every student in the classroom is an important part of the learning process” (p. 326). 
This technique is best for smaller courses and optimal for Zoom. Each individual student will respond to a question posed by the instructor which is helpful for managing participation.  The instructor can use her/his/their gallery view to guide the WhipAround or the instructor can post the order in the Chat window. Limit the time each student should respond (1 minute).

Build an Inclusive & Fair Classroom Community for All Students

Learn Students’ Names

“The attempt to get to know students’ names, and the message it sends about the importance of students in the course, may be more important than actually being able to call students by name each time you see them” (p. 327).  
Zoom allows for this with names as captions. Encourage all students to change their netid to their full name so everyone can see.

Integrate Culturally Diverse & Relevant Examples

It is important for students to feel that multiple perspectives and cultures are included in your course. Integrate culturally diverse and personally relevant connections to the subject. Ask students to link to examples in Chat or after class to find their own examples that are relevant to the topic. 

Work in Breakout Rooms

“Structure opportunities for … students to practice thinking and talking about [the subject] by regularly engaging students in tasks that require students to work together in small groups” (p. 327).
Make sure that prompts for breakout sessions are visible in another window or in the breakout room chat to help students stay on task.

Be Explicit about Promoting Access and Equity for All Students

“The most powerful teaching strategy in building an inclusive and equitable learning environment is for instructors to be explicit that the triad of access, fairness, and classroom equity is one of their key goals” (p. 328).  
As an instructor, take an opportunity to communicate that you want every student to be successful in their learning endeavors, and explain (in brief video, introduction to zoom, on a page in Canvas) why you employ the teaching strategies you do.

Monitor (Your Own And Students’) Behavior to Cultivate Divergent Thinking

Establish Classroom Community Norms 

“For many instructors, these classroom norms are simply verbally asserted from the first few days of a class and then regularly reiterated as the term progresses. Importantly, students will observe directly whether the instructor enforces the stated group norms and will behave accordingly” (p. 329). 
Establish your norms “a set of accepted usual, typical, standard acceptable behaviors in the classroom” early and reiterate them often. Keep these norms visible in Canvas or a Google Doc or in a centrally- located place for quick reference.

Do Not Judge Responses

“‘Thanks for sharing your ideas’ after each student responds, without any immediate judgment on the correctness of the comments, can set a culture of sharing that has the potential to significantly expand the number of students willing to verbally participate” (p. 329).  
Acknowledge student responses as neutrally as possible.  Use the chat function to thank students while continuing the discussion.

Use Praise with Caution

By praising certain student responses, “instructors may inadvertently convey to the rest of the students who are not participating that the response given was so wonderful that it is impossible to build on or exceed.”

Establish Presence

Teach Students from the Moment They Arrive

“Make conscious efforts to convey [your] interest in and commitment to the learning of all students in the course all the time—before class, during class, after class” (p. 330). 
Consider what students are learning about both the subject matter and the culture of the classroom, on the first day and every day that they enter the Zoom room.  Have an image, a song playing, or a presentation slide projecting agenda  ready to view when students join Zoom. Use those first few minutes of “settling in” to Zoom to converse with students or have an informal question ready to ask in Chat. 

Collect Feedback

In order to get to know your students, it is critical to frequently collect feedback. The nature of this type of feedback may vary depending on the class session, but any evidence will help you re-evaluate students’ ideas and adjust the arc of the course to support student learning.
    • This includes utilizing simple, efficient strategies:
      • Stop-Start-Continue technique
        • What should I stop doing?
        • What should I start doing?
        • What should I continue?
      • Solicit feedback using Google Form or Polleverywhere:
  • “What is working well in this course?”
  • “What concrete actions can I take to make the class a more effective learning experience for you?”
And finally, as a reminder from one undergraduate student, the “basics” go a long way:
  • Record the call so that it can be referenced later if need be
  • Use the screen sharing setting for presentations or other visuals so students do not have to toggle between Zoom and pdfs, spreadsheets, Word document, etc. 
    • From a student: “In one of my courses that is purely discussion based, we reference a lot of material in PDFs (it’s literature/language stuff).  I would definitely benefit from having the professor share their screen with the content, instead of having me go back and forth between Zoom/Adobe (which we’ve been playing with in class). 
  • Pose a question that can be responded to using the chat function
    • Increases participation, especially for those who can’t or don’t want to speak up