I Survived Winter Term in Zoom

I was teaching a short-term intensive course during our January Winter Term. It was scheduled to meet synchronously in Zoom five days a week for three hours a day for 3 ½ weeks. Yikes. Winter Term at Elon is a challenging format.

Beforehand, I was quite nervous about how to engage the 34 students in Zoom. In a pre-course survey, students sounded a bit wary or worried too, even after having had some previous experience with online synchronous classes in the fall.

Spoiler alert: students ended up feeling quite engaged in the course, and were very pleased with how it went in Zoom. I realize we can always cherry-pick student comments, but I swear no one said it went badly, and many read like this:

  • This class on zoom went way better than what I was anticipating. You did a really good job of keeping everyone engaged and on task.
  • I think you did a great job with zoom class! Class was very engaging with the multitude of different styles of learning and interesting information.
  • Meeting in Zoom worked well. I enjoyed the variation of small and large group discussions, and I always felt I had opportunities to participate.
  • I liked meeting in Zoom. Time went by fast in zoom and I felt like I learned well through it.

So while it’s still fresh in my mind, I want to record some of my impressions of what I learned and observed from the experience.

Active learning

My top question for the term was: How can I adapt to the new synchronous online environment the exercises I have found effective for promoting learning and engagement?

There’s a fantastic resource on Active Learning While Physically Distancing that describes some common face-to-face (F2F) learning activities and their goals, and suggests how to achieve them online synchronously, online asynchronously, and F2F physically distanced. Initiated by Jennifer Baumgartner at LSU, it’s a collaborative document created by “discerning college teachers across the world,” and presented in a handy table.

Happily, most things like discussions and small group learning tasks were still possible in Zoom. As a historian, I often have students making lists (of people’s experiences, of evidence, key ideas in a reading), exploring alternative perspectives, coming to consensus and then writing a thesis sentence that conveys it, analyzing primary sources, and analyzing quotations. Below are a few aspects of teaching online that worked for me.

Self-selected breakout rooms

Self-selected breakout rooms were my salvation. In a pinch, random assignment of rooms works all right, but because I assigned students to a team for each unit, self-selected rooms was the most efficient route. Although preassigned rooms are also a possibility, many of my colleagues struggled in the fall to get them to work well. Learning curve: Since the self-select option was pretty new, students had to have an updated version of Zoom. For a couple days, some of the students didn’t, and there was some wasted time as I manually moved them to the correct room, but they soon figured it out.

Plenty of things are not different in Zoom when students are doing small group tasks. You still have to have an engaging task, question, source, etc. for the students to work on. You still have to hold the groups accountable for their work. That might be asking a few groups to report back to the whole group (with students taking turns being the reporter because using structure is good), and asking other groups if they had different ideas (but not for so long that it gets boring).

What’s different about doing small group tasks in Zoom vs. face-to-face?

One thing was how carefully I needed to communicate the learning task before breaking out. If students got to the room and didn’t know what to do, that would be a wasted experience. I usually talked through what they were to do, showed it on a slide, and then shared in the chat and asked a team leader to copy it. It’s also harder to be able to know when to stop the activity when the groups are all in separate spaces. You don’t get the same cues: you can’t see all the groups at one time or hear the lull in their discussions like you can in the traditional classroom.

An alternative to floating around the F2F room, though, was using shared (Google) documents and spreadsheets as a method for students to keep track of their ideas (lists, sentences, reactions, etc.). I liked this a lot because while it was hard to drop in to many of my 8 breakout rooms in Zoom, it was easy to see the evidence of numerous groups’ thinking in their shared documents. That helped me decide when to end the activity. And the bonus is that all the members of the group have access to the documents later. This method of recording group ideas is a KEEPER for when I’m F2F again.

Maximizing Participation

As in any course, if we aren’t careful, students will fall into patterns where only a handful of them participate a lot and do most of the talking. Jay Howard in his discussion advice guide notes that usually 5-8 students account for 75-95% of the comments. That won’t do. I really wanted to find ways to maximize the number of students who were participating regularly during class. Breakout rooms with 3-5 students certainly helped with this. What else helped?


Zoom’s built-in multiple choice polls make hearing from every single student easy. Every class meeting I’d have a couple of polls. Often they would ask students to take a position on an aspect of a reading or event. Then after collecting results, I could ask volunteers to explain their positions. Sometimes after a discussion, I’d ask students to re-vote, and ask students who had changed their positions to explain their vote.  

Sometimes my poll question was intended to solicit prior knowledge or experiences. E.g., “When do you think the first really popular and well-known woman athlete competed in the U.S.?” Their answer choices were the 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, or 1990s. No one chose the correct answer of the 1920s, resulting in some curiosity about the info they were about to learn.

Sometimes a poll question was a way to check in and see how they were doing physically or emotionally. I’ve used Socrative or other apps for quick polling in my F2F classes, but in the future I think I’ll miss how we don’t even have to pick up our phones when we’re in Zoom.


Sometimes I’d use the chat function for quick short warmup or communication of ideas, as a substitution for times when I normally would use think/pair/share. (Pairing quickly was more difficult in Zoom.) I might ask all students to think for a minute: What adjectives would you use to describe (X’s experiences or views or the implications of an event), then tell everyone to write their adjectives in the chat at the same time, and jump off from there to a larger discussion.

Chat was good for brainstorming too. In preparation for an assignment where students would be conducting an interview with someone about their experiences during the pandemic, I asked everyone to think for a minute, then type one question we could ask. It was a super-fast way to collect a lot of really good ideas. I asked students to look over all of the answers and if they wanted, to compliment another student for a great question they might borrow.

“Fishbowl” Discussions

Although I occasionally dropped in, the breakout rooms tended to be fairly private spaces where students talked with one another. That can be great, but sometimes it can be helpful for more students to articulate their thoughts more publicly (with just a bit more pressure/accountability) and with more depth.

Thanks to colleagues’ suggestions, I ended up using “Fishbowl” discussions where a subset of the class would discuss the readings. While those (usually 8) students kept their cameras on and discussed, the other students were asked to turn their cameras off. Because the discussion focused on topics/readings they had prepared for, most of the students really did shine while in the spotlight. They had a chance to showing their familiarity with the readings and tended to build on one another’s thoughts.

I need to do a better job of ensuring that the “non-fish” remained engaged (perhaps by asking them to congratulate a discussant for a great insight, jump into the discussion with a question or additional evidence, summarize, or explain how they added to their notes on the readings based on the fishbowl discussion. While I need to improve, this method is a KEEPER too, that I’ll use more in F2F courses.

Other adaptations

Those were strategies that I used to keep things moving during class. Lecture is always deadly if it goes too long, but I feared it could be even more so in Zoom. So when I lectured, the lectures were short (max 15-20 minutes). If I showed video, the clips were never more than 15 minutes. Both were interrupted or followed by pauses for note-taking, observations, or key quotes in chat, etc.

Sometimes I had students teaching one another some of the content (in a sort of modified jigsaw) – either teaching in small groups or the whole. Hooray for how wonderfully easy for students to share their screens showing their work – their lists, their analyzing of documents, their slides. Screen sharing is a small step toward shared power in the classroom.


Whew! I’m relieved that I not only survived, but that the students did fine work and were pleased with the experience. I’m a bit embarrassed that this post focuses on what I did, when instructor strategies are meaningless unless students are open, hard-working, and willing to be engaged. I was very fortunate to have such a great group.

Hard times like these are when I am even more grateful for my colleagues – including faculty in our online teaching learning community (especially Janet Myers, Katie King, and Toddie Peters), my wise mentors in our Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (especially Deandra Little and Kelsey Bitting), and the incredibly knowledgeable and patient folks in Teaching and Learning Technologies (especially Denise Cowardin) who helped me figure out how to implement the new technology to meet my goals.

In addition, I’m a big fan of the book and its companion site, Teaching Effectively with Zoom (2nd edition, 2021) by Dan Levy of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

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