Blog Post

Student Engagement with Remote Instruction

Remote instruction has moved to the top of almost everyone’s list of concerns. We are asking ourselves how to do it, will students be there, what will actually be learned, and what will this mean when we return to face-to-face instruction? I cannot tackle all of this in one blog; however, I will share a few of the techniques we have been using in the last few months to create high levels of engagement online.

To engage others in discussions online, we use two communication tools that are common to most online platforms such as Zoom. One tool is the chat window and the other is the breakout rooms. We have found that the chat window is best for one-way communication. A chat window shows the most recent post from one student at a time. It works great in situations where a single response from many or all students is desired. It does not work well for a conversation. The delay in waiting for the other person to type, then to read what was typed and craft a response makes for a very slow conversation that does not encourage much back and forth. However, many times all we want is for each student to put in an answer to a prompt. It may be a get-to-know-you-type question, such as “What is your favorite dessert?” or “What is your favorite number?” It may be a math question, such as “Which is greater?” or “Do you agree or disagree?” or “Estimate the value of this expression and explain how you came up with the estimate.” We are using the chat window to get every student engaged in answering a question, not just listening to answers. Sure, students can see others’ answers before they input their own, but then in the worst-case scenario they are reading and rewriting some other student’s answer (essentially note taking), not just watching and listening.  This provides us with a temperature check on the class. We typically acknowledge responses as they populate the chat window and often select one or two students to unmute their mikes and explain their responses to the whole class.

Breakout rooms are an excellent tool for pair-share and small group discussions. Once students have learned the routine of going into breakout rooms and returning, it becomes a method for having both short 3- or 4-minute conversations or extended group work of 15–20 minutes.  Here is a list of our key techniques for using breakout rooms:

  1. Before sending students to a breakout, provide clear directions for what to do, how to do it, and the amount of time for the task. Have the directions visible during the breakout time either on a shared document or in the chat.
  2. Monitor groups—visit the breakout rooms just as you would circulate around a classroom. This is especially important at the start of a breakout to make sure everyone understands what they are to be doing.
  3. Make sure students know their room number. When everyone returns from breakouts, it is very efficient to be able to call on rooms rather than look up or try to recall names of who was in which room.
  4. Often use a shared document on which everyone in the group is required to contribute. I will describe this in more detail below.
  5. Do a quickwrite before sending students to breakouts so they have some ideas to share while in breakout.
  6. Have groups assign roles in breakout rooms (timekeeper, recorder,  spokesperson).
    • Why a timekeeper? When students are solving problems versus having a short pair-share, it is easy for them to lose track of time and not keep a good pace moving forward.
    • Why a recorder? Often, we have individuals first enter their ideas on a shared document or do a whip around in the small group with everyone sharing something first before a group discussion. Then, during group discussion, we want someone to capture in some way what we call group “gems.” These are ideas the group will share with the whole class if called upon.
    • Why a spokesperson? Have you ever asked a group to share and everyone in the group is hesitant to speak up so no one talks? To address this issue, we have each group assign a spokesperson while the group is in breakout, so that when we get back to whole class and we ask a group to share, the spokesperson speaks up right away. The spokesperson has the group “gems” in hand to share. Sometimes we also tell groups that each time we go to a breakout they have to pick a different spokesperson.

Shared documents provide a means for groups to capture ideas, for the individuals to be held accountable, and for the teacher to track group progress during breakout room time. We have used both Google and OneDrive as platforms for using shared documents. Before students go to breakout rooms, we provide a share link to the document (with “editing” rights) to the class. On the document is either a page for each breakout room/group on which to enter their ideas, or a single chart on which students working in pairs are required to share ideas. While students are in breakout rooms, they enter individual and/or group ideas onto their assigned space on the shared document. During this time we, as the teachers, are able to view the document and see entries as students are working on the document. This allows us to track group progress, see any specific gems we want to make sure are shared whole class, and see if there is a group we need to visit because students may need some additional help. The document provides the group and class a permanent record of the work accomplished by the class and provides the spokesperson notes from which to share ideas if called upon to share whole class. Shared documents in combination with breakout rooms have been an invaluable tool for engaging all learners online.

No one has all the answers for how to make remote teaching and learning effective and efficient. It is a brave new frontier, and we have all been thrust into the roles of explorers in this frontier. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll stumble, and we’ll fall. But we and our students will get up, find our own gems, share these gems with others, and see amazing things take place in this new world. When we return to face-to-face learning, we are going to find we have a new set of tools that will improve learning in both face-to-face and remote settings. If we can see today’s challenges with this perspective, then there is more to be excited about than feared.

Related Blog Posts

All Blog Posts


For the latest resources, news, and opportunities from CORE.