UW Continuum College Instructor Resources

Increasing Engagement in the Online Classroom

Students struggle to pay attention in long lectures and online sessions. Teachers struggle to get students to remember all of the content. The responsibility for student learning isn’t with students’ alone. These resources can help you structure class time to increase student engagement and learning.

This page will cover:

  • Active Learning Strategies
  • Specific Tools within Zoom
  • Additional Resources and Tools

Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

“Active learning requires students to participate in class, as opposed to sitting and listening quietly.” – UW Center for Teaching and Learning

Some major characteristics of active learning

  • Students are engaged in activities rather than only passive listening
  • Students retain more knowledge through active participation than they do through passive listening
  • Students are less distracted by other tasks when they are being asked to actively participate
  • Student motivation is increased (especially for adult learners)
  • Students can receive immediate feedback from their instructor
  • Students are involved in higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)

In summary

  • Active learning means that students are doing things, and thinking about what they are doing, allowing them to make better connections with their learning

Why is Active Learning important?

Student attention span, and the amount of information that students successfully retain in lectures goes through a substantial decline after approximately 10 minutes (Thomas 1972, Benjamin 2002), meaning it is important to get students re-engaged regularly. By approximately 30 minutes, student performance is at a serious low (Greer & Heaney 2004, Hall et al 2005).

While there may still be a decay over the course of a full lecture, the use of classroom response or polling (or similar activities) provides a marked increase in focus and performance.

Attention and performance loss during a traditional passive lecture

a graph showing a sharp decline in student attention span beginning ten to fifteen minutes after the start of class or lecture

Attention and performance loss, and return, during a lecture incorporating classroom response, polling, or other activities (timed at each uptic)

a graph showing a sharp decline in attention span beginning ten to fifteen minutes after the start of lecture, with upticks at thirty minutes and forty five minutes to coincide with the intervention of an activity

Active Learning & Engagement Strategies

Ten + Two

  • For every ten minutes or so of lecture, provide a two minute break for students to process and absorb, reflect, ask questions, or share out.
  • The exact measure of ten and two is flexible, the point is to break up the timing!

Wait Time

  • Give students some time to process the materials and formulate their responses or questions. After you ask a question, or ask if they have any questions, try counting to 15, or saying the alphabet in your head.

Think Pair Share/Turn & Talk

  • Students are broken up into pairs/groups of 3 and ask them to think about a topic or question, discuss with their classmates, and then come back together to the main class to share out a selection of their responses.
  • (Try this with Zoom Breakout Rooms!)


  • Students are broken into small groups, and each group is given a different question or topic to think about. When the main class comes back together, have each group share out.
  • (Try this with Zoom Breakout Rooms!)

Focus Questions (Listen with a Focus/Watch with a Focus)

  • When introducing a new topic, a video, a guest speaker, or a reading, give students a list of questions to think about while they go through the lecture or materials. This will help them focus on the key, most important points, and retain the information better.

Application Card

  • Ask students, individually, to take some time to think about a real world application of a concept that you have introduced. Give them a couple of minutes to complete this. Call on some students individually to share. Encourage students to write their answer out on paper or on a word document. You may or may not want them to submit their answer to you later!
  • Try playing through a single song to minimize awkward silence, and ensure that you are giving students ample time (around 3 minutes)
  • Example: “Take 3 minutes to think about how you would use Polls in your next Zoom class session”

Entry Ticket

  • Have a question or two ready as soon as students enter the meeting session. Use this to have students re-engage and connect with knowledge from their readings, or from a prior session.
  • (Try this with Zoom Polls!)

Contextualizing Moves

  • Provide additional context and examples to allow students to better envision or understand the concept.
  • (See the Example for the Application Card above! That example is a contextualizing move. Another use could be giving an example of what a well thought out discussion response looks like in Canvas Discussions)

Misconception Checks

  • Present students with common or predictable misconceptions about a designated concept, principle, or process. Ask them whether they agree or disagree and to explain why. The misconception check can also be presented in the form of a multiple-choice or true-false quiz.

Do Now

  • This is simply the act of stopping the lecture to have students do something specific. Examples could be a think-pair-share, group discussion, application card, a poll, etc.

Classroom Response & Polling

  • Polls can be used in a wide variety of ways, including knowledge/misconception checks, gauging the temperature of the room, allowing open ended responses, and more. Online polls encourage students who may be more shy to still voice their opinions, and allow instructors to quickly gather information about how well students are understanding a topic.

Active Learning Resources

UW Libraries: Active Learning Resources

UW Center for Teaching and Learning: Promoting Student Engagement through Active Learning

Technology Tools for Increasing Engagement

Zoom Tools for Engagement


  • Messages can be sent to all participants, or an individual participant
  • Chat is supported on desktop, mobile, and is still available even while sharing your screen

Zoom Guide: In Meeting Chat


  • Single answer (traditional multiple choice) or multiple answer (select all that apply) responses
  • Should be set up ahead of time, from zoom.us under the specific meeting.
  • Can have one question or multiple in a single poll
  • Can create multiple polls per session
  • Can share out results during the session
  • Can download responses later
    • Response data is only attached to a specific meeting and does not carry forward if you reuse the poll
  • Polls can be used across different meetings. They will automatically be available for new meetings.
  • Good for:
    • Taking the temperature of a session
      • How are students feeling?
      • Do students need a break?
      • Are students finding these materials super interesting?
      • (You can also invite students to use the Nonverbal Feedback Icons for many of these questions: raise hand, yes, no, go slower, go faster, agree, disagree, clap, need a break, away)
    • Asking if students are done with an activity and ready to move on
      • (You can also invite students to use the Nonverbal Feedback Icons for this: raise hand, yes, no, go slower, go faster, agree, disagree, clap, need a break, away)
    • Quick misconception checks
    • Solicit feedback or opinions on sensitive subjects
    • Get feedback on your lesson, or allow students to vote on how to use the next portion of class time
    • Self-assessment (Example: ask students to rate their own understanding of a topic on a scale of 1-5)
  • Caveats:
    • Cannot automatically note if a response is correct or incorrect, the instructor would have to verbally talk about this after running the poll

Zoom Guide: Polling for Meetings

Breakout Rooms & Small Groups

Student engagement can decline when they students are in larger groups, and students may feel less heard. Shy students may also feel more intimidated to speak up. You can use small groups to increase participation, and allow students to feel more heard. Small groups should, ideally, be no more than 10 people. 2-5 is excellent, 5-7 is closer to an upper limit, depending on the activity.

Some activities for small groups and breakout rooms

  • Jigsaw
  • Think–Pair–Share
  • In-class time for working through assignments or group projects together!

General Info about Breakout Rooms

  • Up to 50 breakout rooms can be created
  • Breakout room participants have full audio, video, and screen share capabilities
  • If a meeting is being cloud recorded, it will only record the main room, not breakout room activity
  • Participants can be moved after they’ve been assigned to a room
  • Breakout rooms can be recreated, allowing students to participate in the same discussion groups throughout the session
  • You can broadcast a message to all breakout rooms
    • “There are ___ minutes left for small group discussion”
    • “Please wrap up your conversations”
    • Provide additional insight, prompts, or questions
  • Participants of a breakout room can ask for help to invite the host into their room

Zoom Guide: Getting Started with Breakout Rooms

Zoom Guide: Managing Video Breakout Rooms

Additional UW Supported Tools

Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is a much more robust polling feature than the basic polls within Zoom. Poll Everywhere is centrally supported by UW Learning Technologies and UW-IT.

  • Can be run through a browser, or embedded into PowerPoint or Google Slides
  • Responses can be automatically marked as correct or incorrect
  • Open ended questions are permitted
  • Grades can be exported to Canvas
  • Create polls from com using your UW NetID

IT Connect: Poll Everywhere Guides

Poll Everywhere Instructors Guide

Contact: You can call 206.221.5000 to speak with a Learning Technologies consultant for help with Poll Everywhere



These can be used to increase engagement after the class session is over, and keep students thinking about specific topics. (Try Application Cards or Misconception Checks as potential Discussion prompts)

Canvas Guides: Discussions


These integrate Google docs with Canvas, allowing students to work together on a shared document. This can be used in conjunction with Breakout Rooms, and students can even submit the resulting document from Google to an assignment within Canvas, or the instructor can allow students from their groups to share their screen to show the Collaboration, and go over what they came up with.

Canvas Guide: What are Collaborations?

Canvas Guide: How do I create a Google Docs collaboration as an instructor?

Student Groups

Like Breakout Rooms, this allows students to work together in small groups. Student Groups are given their own collaborative space for discussions, collaborations, file storage, and more. These are particularly useful for increasing engagement with Canvas discussions, if you would like students to interact more with one another.

Canvas Guides: Groups