A Brief Guide to Group Activities
The last year has felt like a decade to most of us, so it must have felt even longer to our students, who are trying to figure out who they are, what they want to do, and how to face the future in the midst of a pandemic and often in isolation. They’re longing to interact with each other—and they need to interact with each other, for their development as thinkers and as people. Our classes are an important place to foster productive interaction. If we’re teaching remotely or flex, these interactions need more planning and communication, but allowing students to talk with one another and work together is still possible, and it’s all the more crucial for forming a classroom community and facilitating deep learning.
Here is a brief guide to planning small-group activities online, or partially online, that we hope will be useful for any course:
Planning for Interaction
Regardless of modality, when you design group activities, it helps to begin by thinking about your goals for the course. What do you want students to learn together? For example, while they may be able to get their first introduction to content alone (e.g., by watching a video), they will benefit from opportunities to talk through their thinking with others—to explain their reasoning, justify their approaches, elaborate, ask questions, critique, etc. Working in small groups gives them structured time to think aloud with peers, and to provide each other with immediate feedback. So when you design activities, you might think of it as opportunities for students to practice applying the skills you want them to learn.
When you’ve determined what students should practice together, the next step is to think about what kind of activity, experience, or assignment will help them get that practice. Students can discuss ideas, quiz one another, solve problems together, do peer reviews, analyze case studies, share their research, do collaborative projects, and work together in many other ways.
Though we might be able to improvise well in face-to-face classes, it takes planning in advance, and in some detail, for activities to work well online. Happily, there are many options: Collaborative learning can range from informal small-group conversations to highly structured team-based learning. Students can do some steps individually and others together (e.g., they may read and write on their own and then get together to share and discuss). An activity may begin out of class and continue in class, or it may begin in class and students finish it out of class. Group work may be graded or ungraded, and it can take up most of a class session or just a small portion. A wide range of apps are available to help students work together.
If you’re new to forming groups, the simplest method is to randomly assign students to breakout rooms on Zoom. Canvas can also randomly assign groups, and each group will have its own Canvas page where you can put discussion boards and so on. (This would be the best option for folks who are teaching asynchronously.)
You may also have important reasons for forming (or adjusting) the groups yourself: making sure each group has students of various skill levels; ensuring that students from a minoritized social group—like women in engineering—are not alone on otherwise all-majority (in this case, all-male) teams; or putting together students who are working on collaborative projects, like group papers or presentations. If you want pre-selected groups to work together during your scheduled class time, you can follow these instructions to pre-assign students to breakout rooms on Zoom.
Facilitating Online Group Work
Once you’ve designed activities for groups of students to do together, and made decisions about how to form the groups, you’ll also need to consider how to help students work well together and accomplish the learning you intend for them to do. Whether they’re working together online or in person, students need to begin by having a conversation about how best to communicate and collaborate with their peers. They also need clear instructions, ideally delivered in more than one way. For example, you can (verbally) tell students what they need to do and why you’re asking them to do it, and then you can also provide step-by-step instructions in writing on Canvas. Or you can make a short video about what students need to do and what successful work will involve, and you can also post step-by-step instructions in the chat on Zoom.
Whatever students are doing, it helps if you make the instructions extremely transparent (clear and explicit). Because they often feel shy or awkward when they first start working together, it’s helpful to ask them to introduce themselves as the first step in the written instructions. Next, if needed, they may need to choose (or you could pre-assign) roles, like a timekeeper, a note taker, a person who will share what the team came up with, and so on. Then, they need to know what task, or series of tasks, they should accomplish together, and how much time they’ll have to do so.
It can be challenging to estimate how much time students will need to do an activity; it’s also easy to lose track of time while students are working in the groups, especially if you’re popping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms (to help them along or answer questions), so we do recommend setting a timer for yourself (e.g., on your phone). When you call students back from the breakout rooms, they’ll have 60 seconds to rejoin the larger group, and you can give them other time-related updates as well (e.g., “It’s time to switch to giving feedback on the next person’s work, if you haven’t already.”). You can send these messages as broadcasts to all of the breakout rooms.
If you do have pre-assigned groups that will be working together for a period of time, another helpful step to add to group activity instructions is for group members to share whatever contact information they are comfortable sharing with one another. This will allow them to continue to work together outside of class—if they must, or if they wish—including that they may choose to form study groups that help them to persist and succeed in the course.
Given the ubiquity of connectivity challenges (from thunderstorms to coverage dead zones), it’s inevitable that students (and maybe even we) will sometimes pop in and out of view during class time, including during group work. If a student loses their internet connection while in a Zoom breakout room, they’ll reappear back in the main Zoom room when they reconnect, and you’ll need to move them back into their breakout room. It will be useful to work with students to come up with contingency plans for various technical or connectivity issues that might arise (if X happens, let’s do Y). Students may even have great ideas, or strong preferences, for how interaction can be a learning opportunity in the class—so don’t be afraid to ask them.
If you’d like support in designing or facilitating collaborative learning in a course in any modality, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you!