Now that we have all been thrust into the world of online learning, we have to figure out ways as educators to engage our students when they are online. Some of the first things schools did when shifting to remote learning was to hold regular video meetings with their students. These can vary based on the ages of the students and the frequency of when a teacher interacts with their students, but most teachers realized quickly that they can’t use the same behavioral strategies (like proximity) that they use in a physical classroom. This can lead to a lack of student engagement and involvement in what is trying to be taught regardless of age.
These 25 strategies listed here are not meant to take the place of deeper learning. That kind of learning is generally better when done with a mix of asynchronous learning. That said, in order to get our students to that deeper state of learning with greater depth of knowledge (DOK) levels, we need to make sure they are engaged when we have synchronous conversations and discussions. Some of these strategies take little set-up while others might take more time and energy to make them really successful. The purpose of these tools is to draw students into the lesson/activity and make them engaged and looking forward to your next virtual class meeting.
While there are a lot of video meeting solutions out there, I’m going to focus many of the tools around the Zoom platform as it has some of the best interactive features and seems to be the most widely accepted in K-12 schools across the country. However, as many of these strategies can be used with any video platform or device, I only focused on Zoom-centric ideas on the first 5 strategies, the rest you can use on any platform. Also, kids (especially teenagers) can say and do that darnedest things, especially when being remotely hidden behind a screen. As you would with the physical classroom, I would strongly encourage teachers discuss norms when it comes to interacting over video chat with their students prior to any of these strategies.
Here are 25 strategies to engage students on your next Zoom meeting:
I’m going to start out with one of the basics. While you may be doing many of your chats with just video, don’t forget that you have the ability to share part or all of your screen with your students. This can be something as simple as sharing a question of the day to an entire slide show. If you have a slideshow that you’ve already created for use in your classroom, don’t recreate the wheel, just launch it on your share screen and use built in Zoom tools like ‘raise hand’ or the chat room to have a floating backchannel as you go through your slides. One bit of advice, check what items you have on your desktop and in your “favorites” bar of an internet browser before you share that with your students. There’s nothing more embarrassing than you students seeing your latest beach pic or maybe your bookmark for you favorite drink recipe.
Of course, if you don’t want to share your screen you can always use the built-in whiteboard feature that comes with Zoom. This feature can take some getting used to, especially if you are using a mouse or trackpad. To use it, simply go to share your screen and choose “whiteboard”. A little tip – if you have tablet like an iPad, install the Zoom app and then join the meeting with your iPad as well. This works better for drawing especially if you have a nice stylus or Apple Pencil. (just be careful you have one of the devices muted to avoid echoes) Of course, as you get more comfortable with Zoom and student expectations, let your students also use the whiteboard feature to share their understanding. If you are not using Zoom, a tool like Classroomscreen.com has a bevy of tools including a whiteboard if you share your screen with your students.
Another feature that you could use when sharing slides, photos, or websites is the annotation tools. You’ll want to check your account settings to make sure these features are enabled by default. Having these tools enabled, you’ll be able write over any image, highlight certain features of a website, and make the viewing experience for your students much more interactive.
My favorite of all the Zoom features for learning is the ability to create breakout rooms for your students. Unlike whiteboard and annotation features, the ability to create breakout rooms are not enabled by default. You’ll want to go into your account settings to enable this ability before using it with your students. Once enabled, you can have Zoom either automatically or manually assign students into rooms. Even if it’s automatically assigning, you can swap students out depending on group dynamics (note: it helps to have your students put their name on their Zoom login). You can even rename the rooms depending on group names or topics before assigning certain students to each room. The great thing about these rooms is that it can create a more collaborative setting than the large whole-group zoom experience. As the moderator you can float around and join rooms to check in on the discussion, post an announcement to all rooms, or even place a time limit on them. Once you ask students to rejoin the whole group and end the breakouts, they’ll have 60-seconds to wrap-up their discussion and rejoin. A powerful way to enable collaboration remotely! Check out the video below for a quick how-to:
If you’ve been in any Zoom meeting the past couple of months, you’ve probably seen all sorts of crazy and fun virtual backgrounds. These can be hilarious but also distracting so some educators have disabled this feature for their group meetings. However, there could be some productive uses of these virtual backgrounds. Some examples of using virtual backgrounds might be re-enacting moments in history with the appropriate backdrop, selecting a geographic landmark they might be studying or “visiting” virtually, or just having students select either a solid green or red background to quickly show if they agree or disagree with a topic (hint: use Grid view for this). No matter the reason, virtual backgrounds can be much more than everyone acting like they are a character from The Office.
If you really want your students to focus on everyone in the classroom, play a game of “I Spy” backgrounds. You can do this either with or without virtual backgrounds, but in essence you are describing things that you notice in the background of someone’s zoom call. Students then quickly have to search all the attendees and see which student’s background is being described. A fun, 5-minute way to get students hooked into their next Zoom meeting.
Probably one of the most popular games to play with students is a virtual scavenger hunt. The premise is simple, you have a list of items and then ask students to run through their house or apartment attempting to find the items and show them on the screen. A quick word of advice on this is to be sure you are not picking exact objects for them to find like “a toy cell phone”. Rather, create a category that could involve all sorts of different objects that qualify like “an object with numbers on it.” This will reveal a lot of different interpretations of the clue as well as not limiting what students can find around them. You could also use software like Eventzee or Goosechase to do a virtual scavenger hunt throughout the day or week where students capture items you’ve identified with their camera.
Last week, I got to host a virtual trivia night via Zoom. We had over 150 people during the event that drew lots of positive feedback for keeping them engaged while also doing something fun during this stressful time. I used a pro-level software called Crowdpurr to run my event, but I could just as easily do something similar using a tool like Kahoot! or Quizziz. These quizzes or trivia can either be done live or student-paced. Having the scores decrease as time dwindles down on each question also prevents students from “googling” the answers as it will affect their score. Check out the latest “Challenge” feature within Kahoot to create more of a self-paced challenge for your students that might have limited access to technology or can’t participate synchronously.
In the classroom, we use the classic “raise your hand” to gather feedback from students. In Zoom, it’s no different as there is a “Raise hand” button available to students, but some savvy teachers have also figured out that the chat room can act as an impromptu survey as long as it involves brief responses. For better tracking, you could always use a tools like Nearpod, Polleverywhere, or Peardeck to gather feedback via a second screen or browser tab. Playing a game like “would you rather” would work well to test this out before using it more in-depth in later lessons.
Gathering feedback in polls is one way to interact with students, but you could also use a shared collaborative space like a Padlet or Ziteboard to have students discuss and brainstorm ideas on shared spaces. You could also combine this with the breakout rooms (#4 from above) to have each group brainstorm a topic while you navigate from board to board. A tip here is to create the “walls” or spaces for the students to collaborate on so that you have a live link to what they are working on. Once you’ve split them into groups, share your link to each group to work on.
Yes, you can share your screen and even your slides with your students via a tool like Google Slides, Keynote or Powerpoint. But since you have them live, why not use a tool like Nearpod to actually guide them through the learning with you. Ideally, this would work best with two screens, but since everything these days is web-based you could guide them through the presentation on one screen while they follow along to your voice on the other. Doing this on an iPad? Share the join code with your students and then have them switch to the Nearpod app while leaving the Zoom app open in the background so they can hear your voice while following along. Of course, one of the best parts of using a tool like Nearpod is all the extra features like Virtual field trips, 3D models, Microsoft Sway, collaborative boards and more. One thing I’ve tried that worked well was embedding a PollEverywhere poll within my Nearpod. That way students didn’t have to jump out of the app ever.
Silence can be awkward in the classroom. It’s even more awkward when you are looking at more than two dozen teenagers on the screen. That said, it’s important to let students pause and reflect throughout the lesson. Using a countdown timer either on a slide, video or on a tool like ClassroomScreen.com helps students know when they should break from their pause or reflection. As I will mention on my next point, students need breaks from lengthy instruction throughout their day whether they be on a screen or not. If you are hosting a 50-minute lesson online, build in a 5 minute break for students to stretch or get a glass of water to keep their brain active.
Taking breaks throughout a lengthy lesson are important whether it be for a reflective pause or just an opportunity to stretch. Using tools like GoNoodle, teachers can lead a virtual dance party in their remote classroom to get the kids up and moving. One word of advice here, if you are playing a video through your system speakers, make sure you don’t have headphones on or adjust the audio source in Zoom by clicking on the up-carrot symbol next to “Mute” to change your selection of audio output. (see image on the right)
With everything being digital, it’s also nice to take a break from digital as you already have a Zoom meeting occupying the students’ screens. There are a wide variety of analog strategies you could use with your students by using paper and pencil. One might be sharing a math problem on your screen while students work out the results. Then, countdown and have them reveal their answers to their cameras at the same time. I’ve also seen teachers have success doing a “directed drawing” by pointing their webcam or phone camera down to a sheet a paper while they give instruction and then have students share their creations at the end.
A big struggle with online learning via video is keeping students focus and attention, especially to the finer details. The game “Box of Lies” was made popular by Jimmy Fallon (video below) and would be a creative way to see if students are paying attention. The premise would be that the teacher or student has an object out of camera view and then has to describe the object. You could do this with all sorts of other ideas from historical figures to using descriptive words in another language.
Taking that directed drawing from #14 to the next level by doing a Monster drawing. In this activity, a teacher or student read aloud descriptions of their drawing but don’t let other students see it. They have listen for information like “my monster has a rectangle body” or “my monster has 5 eyes, one of them is big and in the middle” to figure out the drawing. This helps kids both with descriptive words but also with listening and translating. In the end, have students show their creations on the screen to see who got closest to the description. This activity could be used in other areas as well such as re-creating a story character or describing a graph in math.
Distance learning doesn’t just have to be about kids filling out digital worksheets or playing online learning games. Students can still do long-term projects either individually or in groups even though they final results may be different than what was done traditionally in the classroom. Using online project management and productivity tools like Trello, MeisterTask or ClickUp can help students struggling with organization and timelines. Coupling those tools with video meeting check-ins can help kids learn how to collaborate and complete a project online over a length of time.
BreakoutEDU has always been one of my favorite ways to engage students of all ages by creating a series of clues and challenges that the students have to uncover. For the last couple of years they’ve been offering Digital BreakOutEDU as an online version of their platform. Teachers could leverage the “breakout” room feature of Zoom with a Digital BreakOutEDU and have teams solve the challenges within a certain timeframe. The great thing about their platform is they have already done most of the heavy lifting in creating the BreakOuts for you based on subject and age level. You can also check out this “Build Your Own” resource if you don’t have the funds to purchase a subscription.
A fun non-tech game to play is “Who’s who?”. In this game, students privately message the teacher some facts about themselves and then the teacher reveals the clues. Students then write down their guesses as to who the person is based on the clues. This could also be turned into “Two truths and a lie” fairly easily. Other adaptations could be students sending clues about historical figures, book characters, etc. that the class has to figure out.
Who doesn’t love a good game of BINGO? While this isn’t the classic game with numbers, balls, and clever calls, it is using the set-up of Bingo as a way to review facts, geographical locations, scientific terms, or even mathematical applications. Using the Flippity.net BINGO tool, you create what goes in the squares and then you read out the clues while students fill out their own digital square or by printing a game card. Flippity actually lets you send out the cards via link or QR code as kids can fill in their cards digitally. Then when it’s over, have them share their screen and review their answers to see who wins!
Amongst some of the other Flippity.net tools is the classic Jeopardy-like game show. A great way to review information for a unit or novel study, you can fill in the back-end answers using a Google spreadsheet and then share your screen with the game board. Students can play individually, or you could pre-assign teams and then send them to breakout rooms to discuss what they think the answer might be.
You remember the “telephone game” or maybe the game “one-word stories”? This is a similar concept where you start the story and have random students add the next line. A story could start with “Once upon a time….” and then you could select the student by unmuting their mic. By doing it randomly rather than in a specific order, you cause all students to be thinking of a response rather than just waiting until their turn. Mix it up with story recaps or historical fiction to see what they come up with.
For those of us that are not budding artists or struggle with drawing with a mouse, I’ve long been a fan of Autodraw.com. This web-based application has you draw out a shape as close as you can while the AI guesses what it might be. When you see an object that is close to what you are drawing, you select it to place into your drawing. One fun thing I’ve tried with this is having students draw their favorite movie scene and then putting the picture on a Padlet wall for everyone to guess the movie.
Flashcards can be pretty boring, especially if you are just using them yourself to practice terms, definitions or maybe even a foreign language. Now that we are remote, it becomes even more challenging to find a partner or group to practice with. Using tools like Fishbowl and Quizlet Live can be leveraged to create fun and energizing ways to have kids practice their terms either as a group or in breakout rooms.
One of the hidden nuggets I always love showing teachers is the Polygraph feature contained within the free, web-based math app called Desmos. This tool acts creates a “Guess who?” like game where 2 students are randomly paired up via a join code you share with them on the screen. You create the cards and student A choses one of the items to be their “mystery item”. As you can upload any image, the mystery item could be a person, place, thing, word, math problem, etc. Then student B has to ask yes or no questions and decide which items they can eliminate. Polygraph creates a private loop between the students and the teacher can see the questions and guesses that each student is making to better check for understanding.
Want more of these kinds of resources? Check out my new course The Remote Learning Coach! Most of these are mentioned in my module centered around student engagement. The course also includes modules around assessment, collaboration, and more!
While most of these activities I either have done with students or teachers (both live and online), there are hundreds of other resources and games out there available to use freely with your students as you teach remotely. Here are two that I’ll give shout-outs to as I found them while writing this post:
TCEA Tech Notes – Zoom Games – This post came out while I was writing this post and contains many other games like the scavenger hunt and Pictionary that teachers could benefit from using.
Quarantine Games – This google doc compiled by @ihartnia has pages of board games, card games, and other things that you can play online.
I hope you enjoy my list and please feel free to share any other games or ideas you have in the comments below and give my new course a look. Here’s an infographic with all 25 of the strategies (ironically) on a Zoom call. 🙂