It can be challenging to actively engage students in a large class (eg more than 25 students) and even more so in virtual live sessions. In this guide we are referring to live, remote sessions, as opposed to recorded classes. This guidance contains a mix of ideas for those teaching ‘one-off’ large classes and for those regularly engaged in large-group teaching.
Outside the live session
- Use your Canvas course to provide preparatory and follow-up materials, as well as activities such as quizzes and discussions for students to complete and contribute to, in their own time. This is good inclusive practice, supporting students in their preparation as well as in their ongoing learning and revision. Ensure that any materials that you need to share with students are easily accessible to all students.
- Refer to the FIT pathways for ideas on how to 'mix-and-match' synchronous and asynchronous activities.
- Be clear what students need to do (if anything) in advance of the class and how long such activities should take, for example, ‘read pages 3-10 of required reading available in Canvas’. Pre-class work can free up time for discussion in the live sessions, but students should be made aware of your expectations well in advance.
During the live session
- Provide a brief overview of your expectations during the session, for example, respond to polls, video cameras on wherever possible (show how to change background so it's not deemed intrusive), keep microphones off in a large group, use the hand raise or chat function if you have a question, respond to each other’s questions in the chat etc.
- At the start of the session let students know that they will be expected to take part in activities and provide clear instructions for these (ie clear timings and expected outputs).
- Design classes to build a sense of community/belonging: Prepare in advance activities that provide opportunities for students to get to know each other and work on specific topics in smaller groups using Teams breakout rooms. You can close the rooms when necessary, to enable everyone to reconvene in the main meeting to share their findings (it’s always a good idea to remind each group to nominate a spokesperson in advance). Students are more likely to keep cameras on when they are with other students they feel they know.
- 'Mix it up': If using small group activities within your class, don't always pick on groups in numerical order to feedback to the rest of the class. Asking each group to feedback can be tedious for others – a show of hands using the hand-raise function can be used as a quick alternative.
- Use activities, such as an anonymous poll (Vevox is now available via Teams), to engage students from the start and to build their confidence. Using ‘real-world’ topical examples or scenarios at the start of the live session can work well to grab students’ attention. Show in your feedback that you value students' opinions and active participation.
- Monitor the Teams chat function: In a large-group session, employ a graduate student to monitor the chat for you and summarise it during breaks in the proceedings. This enables students to ask questions and for others to 'like' the question. If you can't respond to all questions in the live session, let students know that you will communicate with them afterwards, for example, via Canvas announcements or discussions.
- Be realistic in the number and type of activities you embed in your live class – things can sometimes take longer to work online, especially when teaching large groups.
- It's easy to switch off if you're staring at a screen for any length of time: Include mini breaks wherever possible, depending on the duration of the live session.
- If students think you’ll just be talking at them for the whole time, why would they choose to turn up to your online class? Give students an incentive to attend your synchronous class. Let them know what they'll gain by engaging with the live session activities and materials, and how this will benefit them above and beyond simply watching a recording of your session.
- Include time for students to reflect/consolidate their learning: Build in time for students to make notes as part of ‘chunking’ your class into smaller sections (separated by mini breaks). Encourage students to pose questions and share ideas in the Chat. Remind them that the chat channel will persist for them to look back at later.
- Seek students' feedback on the live classes: This will help you to evaluate their experience and perhaps implement improvements next time. You might find these Oxford Teaching Ideas useful: An introduction to evaluating your teaching, Designing evaluation questions, Methods to evaluate your teaching.
Overall things to consider
- Planning an online class can take longer than planning an in-person class because you need to think in more detail about the logistics of planned activities. If you plan to use an interactive polling tool such as Vevox, you will need to create the poll(s) in advance, in the Vevox interface.
- Things can take longer to do online – have a plan if you don't cover everything in the session (eg post information on Canvas afterwards to ensure all students have access to all required information and resources).
Canvas and Microsoft Teams (often referred to as MS Teams or simply Teams) provide functionality for virtual (remote) teaching. Think of Canvas as providing asynchronous/permanent structure to support your lectures and Teams as providing live/synchronous functionality. Then add tools to support interactivity such as using a shared whiteboard, polling during a live session, and asynchronous quizzes within Canvas.
Request that all Teams meetings have phone (dial-in) access. It can be very distressing for a student to find they cannot participate in remote sessions alongside their peers, for whatever reason. See the guidance on supporting students with poor wifi connnections.
Teams offers a breakout rooms feature, which will help to break up longer sessions and encourage interactivity in small groups. If you are the meeting organiser, you can create the breakout rooms up to 24 hours in advance of the start of the meeting; you need to distribute the participants once they have joined the meeting, so bear in mind that that will take a few minutes. When the breakout rooms are in action, you will be able to drop into any of them to facilitate group discussions. Detailed guidance and links to further resources (including an introductory Microsoft video) are in the CTL Guide to breakout rooms.
Each Teams meeting can make use of the Teams whiteboard app, for participants to make and share drawings, diagrams if that is appropriate in your subject discipline. Refer to the Guide on using whiteboards.
When teaching needs to be conducted remotely, you should record your live sessions and make the recordings available on Canvas for students who were unable to attend live sessions, as well as for all students to review later.
Many departments and faculties are reflecting upon how programmes are taught, what materials are assigned and how students are assessed. We can help. Academics and administrators who would like to consult with the CTL as they design flexible and inclusive programmes may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.