Adapting Group Activities to COVID to Engage Students

A year after being immersed in virtual learning, faculty and students alike agree that online learning and Zoom courses are achievable, but it’s just not the same as learning in person. The benefits of online learning are well established in research, but what is often lost are the opportunities for classroom collaboration (whether carefully constructed or impromptu) where new ideas are sparked and students become really committed. It is the energy that invigorates and keeps students, as well as teachers, passionate about learning. The question then becomes how to create meaningful online collaboration opportunities? Even in a hyflex environment, where students alternate between synchronous in-person and online sessions, COVID-19 restrictions limit interactions. Students should maintain a physical distance, and faculty should consider how or whether to allow material to be shared. Some students may have reservations about being close to others or even being in the classroom. All of these restrictions stifle opportunities for cooperative learning. Good education practices change, but good teachers adapt to learning environments, and there are are ways to synergize your lessons, foster higher levels of learning, and bring back joy in the classroom.

The teaching mode

First, consider your required teaching style; this will reduce your focus when developing collaborative learning opportunities. Fully online courses should make effective use of the learning platform tools (i.e. discussion forums, group discussions, Zoom). There are many current resources available on developing rigorous online courses. Publications like The teacher teacher and Inside higher education offer many articles on tips to achieve this. Additionally, the US Department of Education has published an analysis of evidence-based best practices for online education. Hyflex courses will need to master the tools of the e-learning platform, while strategically using face-to-face sessions for collaborative learning. Hyflex environments provide an opportunity to change the classroom, creating interactive collaborative days during in-person sessions and asynchronous online learning sessions.

Student spacing

Next, think about your space. Depending on the parameters of your workplace (6 feet away, outdoor classrooms, limited room capacity, etc.), you will need to adjust your expectations to meet your new reality. One of the simplest adjustments is to reduce the size of the group. If you have generally placed four to five students per group, reduce it to two or three students. This allows each group to divide up. You may be able to use an empty classroom or hallway to allow more distance. You can also create groups that include your distance students using breakout rooms (just make sure your in-person students have their computers with them). Rather than rotating the groups every session, keep the groups the same for the semester to reduce the transmission of contacts during the lesson. Likewise, have group members work from their desks rather than getting up and moving around the room. Students can swivel in their chair to talk with a neighbor without getting up from their seats or simultaneously working on a shared document. Encourage teams to use the chat function so that they can “talk” in real time. If students need to be close for a particular activity, limit the interaction to 10 minutes or less. Depending on the length of your course, you might have two or three of these interactions in one session. Cooperative learning is better than nothing!

Considering your materials

Consider the materials needed for the mission. If possible, turn the assignment into a fillable PDF document or a Google document / slides / sheets. This allows group members to continue working together in the classroom but eliminates the need to share paper documents. It also includes distance learning students. Students contributing in real time to the document along with an oral discussion create an interactive learning environment. Discussion functions via documents or e-mail are also useful. Try to have virtual brainstorming sessions using websites like Popplet or Padlet. Make your course more interactive for in-person and virtual students by using Nearpod. Consider whether students can bring their own materials, assuming they are easily accessible. If materials need to be shared, make sure you have cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer on hand. Include extra disinfection time in your schedule.

Foster collaboration

Whether you change your fashion, your space or your materials, collaboration can still happen in this new era of virtual and hyflex teaching. Like most best practices, implementing these strategies cannot happen without forethought and planning. Go from a single end-of-class group work reflection to multiple small-group collaborations. The structure of hyflex / virtual learning is designed for independent learning. To overcome this, you need to consider revamping the large group project and focus on increasing the number of low-stake collaborations. The virtual / hyflex model is based on flexibility and structure. If you start the course with a solid plan and communicate it to the students, they will be more flexible when the new strategies don’t work quite as expected.

Also, feel free to ask your students what they think about how they would implement the activity. They are a great resource because they may have experienced another group activity that went well or suggestions for making the activity more successful. For example, our students told us that Zoom breakout rooms that last longer than five minutes were not effective because they did not speak to each other. As teachers, we thought they were engaging in big discussions but, in reality, they were completing the work independently while being silent and with empty screens! After a frank discussion, we were able to rearrange the breakout rooms for shorter timelines with more specific goals to achieve, as well as stay in the same peer groups for the semester.

Establish positive learning

Establishing a positive learning environment within the course may be the most important element required to successfully create these meaningful discussions and learning experiences, which arise from collaborative learning experiences. Creating opportunities for students to get to know each other is essential to student engagement. When students feel connected to the class, they participate more actively and empty Zoom screens light up again. Personal bonds begin on the first day of the semester, but must be nurtured throughout the following weeks.

Remember, group work doesn’t have to be a giant end-of-class project. On the contrary, it is often the smaller and shorter group activities that develop the best rapport between students and generate interest and motivation to learn.

Katie D. Lewis, EdD, is Associate Professor at York College of Pennsylvania, formerly Texas A&M International University. She teaches undergraduate courses and is the program coordinator for secondary, post-baccalaureate and transfer students. Dr Lewis has five years of teaching experience in public schools where she has served as a classroom director, senior science teacher, gifted group teacher, and mentor to student teachers. She is an active member of the NAGC and TAGT executive committees.

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