Setting up positive learning environments in Zoom

The Zoom classroom is similar to a face-to-face setting in that it allows for a synchronous gathering in which students and instructors can see and speak to each other in real time. 

However, the Zoom classroom presents some unique challenges. Most obviously, in a traditional face-to-face setting students can turn to the person beside them and informally talk, while on Zoom, verbal communication happens by default in front of the entire class. This can set up an intimidating environment for students as well as challenges for instructors. Anticipating and preparing for challenges in the Zoom classroom can help alleviate problematic behaviours that detract from student learning.

Here is a list of challenging behaviours that instructors may face in the Zoom classroom with some simple solutions. These guidelines are meant to generate ideas and discussion about engaging students in the Zoom classroom. Feel free to use this resource as a jumping off point as you explore the various features of Zoom in your teaching context.

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Lack of participation

How do I get students to speak up when I ask a question or invite discussion?

This happens in face-to-face settings as well, and some of those tried and true strategies can be adjusted for the Zoom space.

Participation

Pose your question verbally to the group and use breakout rooms to pair students. Provide them with time to briefly discuss their thoughts with each other, then return them to the larger class for sharing. Given that random pairs can be uncomfortable, limit the length of time allocated for this discussion.

Large class alternative: Use the polling option to pose your question and let students answer individually. Pair students in breakout rooms and provide time for them to briefly discuss their answers/thoughts with each other. Use the polling option again to identify if students have changed their answers, share and discuss the polls with the larger class.

Use the chat feature to pose your question and provide limited time for students to briefly enter their preliminary thoughts in the chat space. Then invite them to skim the chat comments and share themes, observations, insights, etc. in a large group debrief. Call on students who have provided answers that you would like to highlight or discuss further (singling out individuals is a strategy to try as the term progresses and you get to know the students).

Large class alternative: Use the breakout rooms to divide students into small groups. Provide them with time to briefly discuss their preliminary thoughts with each other. Students then choose a chat contributor to post a comment to the chat on behalf of the group. This will reduce the number of chats to read through.

Pose your question in writing on the whiteboard and share your screen with the class. This creates a different visual emphasis as the students are less visible to one another and the whiteboard is dominant which can make it safer to speak up. As students provide answers, record or annotate them on the whiteboard to reinforce the value of their perspectives.

Pose a simple question and ask students to respond by selecting a thumbs up or thumbs down icon. Or, more formally, use the polling option so that students can select an answer which you can then share with the class for discussion (this is similar to using Top Hat in the face-to-face classroom). Although these methods don’t generate verbal responses, they do capture students’ attention and require a degree of participation in the class. 

Large class alternative: Teaching a large class might limit your ability to see your students displayed on a Zoom call all at once. As a result, viewing a thumbs up or thumbs down in a large class can exceed viewing capabilities and time out once you flip through the pages of your students in your live class. For larger classes using the polling option will allow you to view everyone’s response all at once.

A chaotic classroom

How do I ensure that students share the airtime?

Once students become comfortable in the Zoom classroom and depending on the subject matter, conversations can get heated or overly enthusiastic. Although the situation of students over-participating can be challenging, it’s good to recognize this kind of interest and engagement in the classroom as beneficial to student learning and as a tribute to your ability to create a participatory Zoom environment. 

Chaotic-Classroom

Unless you are dealing with an intentionally disruptive student that may ultimately need to be removed from the classroom (see for instance Reducing Disruptive Behaviour for dealing with these types of cases), students that interrupt or speak out of line might simply require explicit guidelines for behaviour. Although starting with too stringent a set of guidelines could make participation intimidating for students, a few directives from you are important. There are numerous guidelines available online such as Good Netiquette

Here are a few strategies to build upon when establishing or maintaining the interactive space in your Zoom classroom:

Depending on the size of the class, students can indicate their desire to speak up using visual cues. You can offer a number of options (in a smaller, less formal setting), or identify one preferred method if you need to manage a larger group of students. If their video is turned on, raising their hand as they would in a face-to-face classroom can work in smaller classes while in larger groups the raise hand feature works well. If students have been directed to mute their microphones (which is typically advised), they can unmute their microphone as a visual cue that they have something to say. It is important to communicate that these moves are cues, and that you as the instructor will call upon those indicating their interest. Using visual cues is not automatic license to speak up, and you will provide permission to do so.

Once students indicate their interest in speaking, you can moderate the discussion by being intentional about who you call on. Balance the voices in the conversation by choosing someone who has yet to speak up, or someone who identifies with an equity-seeking group (without asking them to speak on behalf of a larger group). Tell students in advance that you plan to moderate the discussion in this way so that a range of perspectives can be shared in the class, and remind them about why you are doing it frequently to reiterate your commitment to inclusion (Tanner, 2013).

If you find yourself dealing with over-zealous students, you might implement breakout rooms for intentional discussions of issues that you anticipate will generate interest and engagement. In this way you provide a smaller playing field where participation can be more equitably distributed among students. Direct students to unmute their microphones for the duration of their time in a breakout room to facilitate less formal discussions and sharing (MIT, 2020). 

The use of breakout rooms is also beneficial in diminishing dominant voices in the room. Plan ahead regarding who will be in which room rather than using the random selection method. Students can be grouped according to their participation tendencies (i.e.: introvert/extrovert), or if you’re thinking about gender or other equity issues, use breakout rooms strategically along these lines as well. Depending on the topic and your aims for the discussion, place similar students together or intentionally create diverse groups (information about how to configure breakout groups in advance can be found at Pre-assigning Rooms). Regardless of how you configure groups, be clear about your instructions for the activity/discussion at hand, and frequently remind everyone of the norms for participation. You can also broadcast messages to the groups or join individual groups to check in and see how things are unfolding (more information about the numerous aspects of breakout rooms can be accessed at Managing Breakout Rooms).   

Getting off-track

How do I prevent distractions and keep students focused during the class?

Preventing-Distractions

Have a discussion about distractions in the Zoom classroom at the beginning of term while setting norms for participation. Ask students to offer suggestions for reducing distractions as well as adding these to the list:

  • Close programs on your device that are not pertinent to the current class
  • Try to find a quiet space to attend class and have note-taking tools ready (this flags your expectations that students will need to take notes in the Zoom classroom much like they would in a face-to-face environment)

The chat feature can also be the source of distraction and/or a helpful tool if used intentionally.  Disable private chat so that cross-talking during class is not possible. In addition, establish guidelines for the chat room that serve to keep the conversation scholarly and on–topic. It’s likely that your guidelines will evolve over time as you experiment with students using the chat function. Check-in periodically with how they are experiencing chat in terms of their learning and make adjustments accordingly. Finally, if you have a TA, instruct them to monitor the chat and alert you to comments or questions you might miss. Example initial chat guidelines could include:

  • Ask questions that are relevant to the topic at hand. If you have other questions, please hold them until the end of class at which time you can post them in D2L or approach the instructor (let students know that you will stay in the Zoom space after class if they have questions or want to check-in about anything). 
  • Share information or resources that are relevant to the topic at hand.  
  • Let us know about any technical problems you may be having.  
  • Keep comments brief and be aware of grammar and tone.
  • Avoid profanity, slang or disruptive comments.   

Uneven participation and opportunities

How do I create and maintain equitable zoom spaces?

In addition to the previous suggestions, here are a few more ideas for how to create inclusive, equitable, respectful Zoom spaces.

Participation-Opportunities
  • Get off to a good start by acknowledging the challenges of teaching and learning in this new genre.  Let students know that you recognize possible limitations they may have (such as spotty internet access or limited study space) and share some of your own challenges.  Commit to moving ahead with a sensitivity to these aspects of the Zoom learning environment.  
  • Consider inviting students to indicate how they would like to be addressed in the class by editing their names in their profile setting.  Preferred pronouns (if they wish) or proper pronunciation could be included as part of one’s name (including your own).  This is an opportunity for students to control how they are addressed in the class and for you and others to learn their names (Hogan & Sathy, 2020).  You also flag your commitment to diversity and inclusion by empowering students in this way. 
  • The beginning of each class in Zoom can feel awkward and intimidating.  Arrive early and greet students as they enter (just as you would in a face-to-face setting).  In order to break the ice, pose a question and ask students to answer it in the chat space while they’re waiting for class to begin.  The question could provide a bridge into the lesson (Lang, 2016) or simply invite informal engagement to facilitate community building.
  • As with the face-to-face environment, set up norms for interacting in the Zoom classroom. While negotiating these guidelines is advisable to ensure student buy-in, given that Zoom offers numerous options for interacting, the instructor needs to take responsibility for setting certain parameters for behaviour. Make your expectations explicit in terms of options related to muting microphones, how to ask questions, turning on video, your intentions and student requests regarding recording sessions, privacy, etc.  
  • At the same time you establish your rules of engagement in Zoom, think about a range of possibilities and try to offer as many as possible in view of recognizing potential student limitations. For instance, you might want students to turn on their videos during class, however, this could be problematic for various reasons including restricted internet access in some cases. Rather than assuming that everyone is able and willing to enable their video, explain why you think this kind of visibility is important for community-building, and make it optional. This creates a safe environment in which students have choices about their participation. Given the choice, the appropriate internet connection, and some experience in Zoom, many students will be comfortable making their presence visible on the screen. When possible and if you aren’t sharing your screen, use the grid view which allows you to see up to 49 participants in the gallery (see Displaying Participants for more on this).  
  • If students don’t have working microphones encourage them to share their thoughts during class using the chat feature.    
  • Depending on your teaching context, it can be beneficial to offer students anonymous ways to participate in the Zoom classroom. Setting up a shared Google Doc allows students to record their thoughts in real time anonymously. The document can form the basis for an activity in which students enter their thoughts/ideas/points individually or in small groups. These are subsequently reviewed and debriefed as a large group.
  • Along similar lines, a digital board such as Padlet allows students to like/rate/vote on each other’s posts/comments and can be set up anonymously or not (see Padlet for more information).
  • Students can also annotate on a shared screen or whiteboard. Depending on the settings, their text or drawings can be anonymous or attached to their name (see Annotation Tools for how to do this). 

Resources

Hogan, K.A. & Sathy, V. (April 8, 2020). 8 ways to be more inclusive in your Zoom teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from  https://www.chronicle.com/article/8-Ways-to-Be-More-Inclusive-in/248460/

Lang, J.M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass

MIT (n.d.). Teach remote: Promoting equity and inclusion. Retrieved from http://teachremote.mit.edu/promoting-equity-inclusion

MIT Information Systems and Technology Knowledge Base (April 8, 2020). Limiting access and reducing disruptive behavior in Zoom. Retrieved from http://kb.mit.edu/confluence/x/JIaqCQ

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sciences Education, 12(Fall), 322-331.

UC San Diego Teaching and Learning Commons (n.d.). Getting started with active learning guide for remote classrooms.  Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JKu--MewLV47pA1iRGJUVIHEOlvEbj_A6l-EFIvMPKs/preview

University of North Carolina (n.d.) A students guide to Zoom.  Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1x2H1blKddyIpON57ML2zU-SOVqwMWsN484eRMzhGiu0/edit