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Tools and strategies for synchronous, collaborative learning (workshop slides & resources)

This article shares materials from the August 2020 TEACH Symposium workshop on "The User-Friendly Canvas Course," presented by Melissa Ko, Racheli Wercberger, and Tim Sorg, Thinking Matters.

Workshop Description and Purpose

Trying to figure out how to transition active learning techniques from the physical classroom to Zoom? You might want to experiment with activities that incorporate reading, writing, and discussion during a live Zoom call. 

Download Workshop Slides


This workshop is designed to help you make your Zoom classes more engaging by exploring where techniques from in-person teaching do or do not translate virtually. We begin the workshop by discussing your fears in facilitating online learning like getting students to talk and work together in small groups. After exploring various examples of in-class collaborative activities, we discuss the importance of structure and persistent, clear instructions to online learning. In particular, we look at how structure can look very different in an online classroom, where equity relies much more on intentional structuring: for example, giving students time to write, assigning reporters for small groups, requesting specific “deliverables,” and establishing classroom community norms. We then practice strategies for framing and transiting to collaborative activities, exploring both what students do and what the instructor does at different stages of the activity. 

Example Activities

Many different types of structured group learning activities can be organized via Zoom breakout rooms. Explore the different examples of Synchronous Group Activities in this folder. As you go through each example, imagine you are a student who is trying to navigate the breakout-room assignment: are the instructions clear? Do you know what is expected of you at the end of the breakout room, i.e., is it clear what the deliverable is? Since a goal should be to avoid confusion once students are alone in the breakout rooms, you might take notes on specific features of the different examples that increase or decrease clarity.

Many of these examples leverage the Google suite of products, which provide a technology platform for synchronous collaborative reading, writing, and editing. Importantly, sending students to these activities allows them to follow explicit instructions from their own local device and engage with their peers as they discuss the course concepts. This is especially useful since students will lose access to the shared slides once they join a breakout room (unless they have access to the slides). However, using Google suite has some limitations: some international students will not have access to Google suite in their countries, and students who are using their phones or who have low-bandwidth might find it challenging to navigate between Zoom and other tabs or apps. It is therefore useful to consider alternative tools that exist besides Google suite, such as Padlet, PollEverywhere, Canvas Discussions, Zoom whiteboard/chat, and more!

Find more Synchronous Activities in the Teaching Commons.

Zoom Breakout Room Tech

Navigating the different settings in Zoom to set up breakout rooms can be overwhelming. We highly recommend this resource:

Structuring Group Work Online with Zoom Breakout Rooms

Not only does it provide additional ideas for group work and peer instruction, but this document also outlines explicitly what each setting and checkbox means when you make breakout rooms in Zoom.

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