Navigating Group Work

Backchannels and Collective Notetaking
Group Work
Grab Bag of Ideas

This page contains some instructional strategies for teaching in a physically distanced classroom and classrooms that have streaming capabilities.

The guiding principle of this page – as will all our work in CATL – is that we wish to create full course citizenship for all students. This means that all students will have access to an equivalent learning experience. The methods described below seek to incorporate students in learning and breach the physical barriers between them.

model of blended synchronous and flipped classrooms

For more information

To see more examples of how to teach in the physically distanced classroom, please see the following resources

  • Derek Bruff's blog post on Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching and Learning website regarding hybrid and physically distanced classrooms.
  • Professional and Organization of Developers google group discussion on active learning in physically distanced classrooms

Live Polling can be one simple way to incorporate students in the classroom as well as their counterparts who may be engaging remotely. This is similar to "clickers".


Free Tool

The "chat" feature in Zoom, MS Teams, or Canvas can be a useful way to connect students within a class and incorporate those who may connect remotely.

In the classroom, students may wish to submit questions to the chat for the instructor or their peers to answer. Students who connect remotely can also connect to students in the classroom if they have trouble hearing; to contribute to discussion; or to ask a question.

See this blog post for more considerations about how to put chat to use in your courses.

Top tip

As an instructor, you may find it difficult to divide your attention between a chat space and the classroom. It may be wise to designate a student to serve as the "voice of chat" for the class.

Other free backchannel apps

  • Slack is similar to Microsoft Teams but it has some nice chat features
  • Discord is a popular chat tool among video gamers and has an easy interface

Collective Notetaking

A variation on the backchannel approach is collaborative notetaking. This typically involves setting up a Word Document in Office 365 for students to use during class to take notes on the class discussion. Often, two or three students are appointed lead notetakers for a given class session, with that duty rotating among students over the semester, but all students are invited to read and contribute to the shared notes.

This approach provides a structure for active listening during class–notetakers don’t participate in the discussion but try to capture all of it they can, while the rest of the students can focus on participating in discussion without having to worry about taking notes–and might be particularly valuable in a classroom where it is hard to hear some students, especially if the notetakers are scattered throughout the socially distanced classroom.

You may also wish to use the Collaborations  tool in Canvas

Perhaps you wish to have students discuss their thoughts on a set of discussion questions you posted on a PowerPoint slide.

There are a couple ways to handle this in the physically distanced classroom.

Collaborative editing

Word, PowerPoint, and Excel allow for collaborative editing in much the same way as Google Docs. You may wish to share a link to a document with the class, or you use the Collaborations feature in Canvas to assign documents to groups of students.

The nice aspect of collaborative editing is that it allows students to work in real time together.

Breakout rooms

Zoom allows the instructor to break students up into "breakout rooms" to discuss a question. Breakout groups are small discussion groups within the larger web conference. This can be a useful way to incorporate students joining synchronously.

Hybrid Pair Work

Here’s another spin on group work: Ask your in-person students to pair up with virtual students for a quick Teams or Zoom call. If all the in-person students are using earbuds or headphones and if you can solve the matching problem, this might be a practical way to include pair work during class time. And it has the added benefit of fostering community across your two groups of students.


Keep in mind general strategies for using group work, like the jigsaw approach. In a jigsaw, students participate in two rounds of small group activities. In the first round (sometimes called “focus groups”), each group of students is given a different reading or topic to discuss. In the second round (“task groups”), groups are reformed so that each new group has a representative from each of the first round groups. The tasks groups are then asked to bring to the conversation perspectives shared during the focus groups. In the hybrid classroom, each set of groups might be facilitated using the strategies mentioned above, and the second-round groups might be assigned intentionally so that in-person and virtual students interact.

jigsaw activities


Like with jigsaw, this activity can be done entirely in the classroom, but might actually be easier with students who connect remotely being the "fishbowl."

The fishbowl is a class discussion strategy with a long history. In the classic formulation, an instructor would identify a small set of students who feel the same way about a topic. These students are instructed to make a circle with their chairs in the center of the room; they are in the fishbowl. They discuss the topic–how they think about it, why it’s important to them, and so on–while the rest of the students listen; the other students are outside the fishbowl. Then the instructor asks the observers to summarize or paraphrase what they heard; students in the fishbowl can affirm or clarify these remarks. Then the students switch places and repeat the process. The strategy is meant to encourage empathy for other points of view, and can be particularly useful for addressing contentious topics.

fishbowl activity

Physical Movement

The classic "four corners" activity can still be useful, as long as students in the physical room stay six feet apart. In this activity, the corners are designated as "strongly agree", "agree," "disagree", and "strongly disagree". Students can pick and chose their corner and then are asked to explain their reasons.

Similarly, if students are able to bring office supplies, they could use post-it notes to jot down ideas and post them on a the course whiteboard in response to a prompt. The students will have to remove their own post-its, however.

If post-it notes are not an option – and they might be more trouble than the are worth – there are some applications that allow for "post-it" note type activities.

  • Padlet offers bulletin board and post-it note functionality
  • Hypothesis is a little more involved but allows students to annotate documents