Going Digital

The need to re-configure courses online provides an exciting opportunity to bring activity-based learning principles into the classroom. Many activities can be easily adopted into the digital classroom, while some may require more extensive planning. Rather than viewing the move to online teaching as a restriction of your initial teaching plan, we hope that with these principles you can view the move as a unique chance to even more effectively achieve your teaching goals.

Five activity-based learning principles to bring into your digital or physically distanced classroom


1. Act as a guide rather than a lecturer


  • Telling students information is not the same as having students learn that information. Whether you are teaching live (synchronously) or pre-recording lectures (asynchronously), we advise you to break class time into short digestible segments. In between each segment, allow for student activities such as clicker-questions or a quick write. This not only helps students learn, but also is also easier to implement as the instructor no longer has to worry about recording the “perfect” hour-long lecture or has to talk to an empty room for extended time periods. To make lectures more accessible to students in various time-zones or with variable internet availability, consider pre-recording.
  • Suggested activities:
    • Speakers. Switch up the regular online classroom routine by bringing in subject-specific speakers to help make real-world connections. Featuring a speaker virtually avoids the logistic hurdles of hosting speakers in person and expands the scope of which speakers you could invite. Speakers are a great way to help students make real-world connections, and you could solicit student feedback so that speakers can touch on the topics students find most interesting or relevant to their desired careers.
    • Just in Time Response Papers: Students submit response papers on an assigned topic 30 minutes before class begins. Because most students complete them just before they are due, they come to class with their ideas and questions fresh on their minds. The instructor begins class by discussing the response papers, making for a student-centered discussion that more directly addresses student interests and concerns than a formulaic, pre-planned lecture.
    • Article Reading Lesson: Much of classroom learning happens outside the classroom, when students are working through their readings independently. This is especially the case now, when access to instructors and TFs may be more difficult to come by outside of class, making students rely more on their own reading of the texts. Accordingly, helping them master the skill of reading an article effectively can boost comprehension and make for more enriching classroom discussions wherein students can probe the material with greater sophistication. Even for students who are deeper into their grad school education, a refresher on reading discipline-specific articles (e.g. sociology articles, as in the linked activity) can help facilitate their research.
    • Blitz Thesis. The instructor provides an on-topic quote, and students have 5 minutes to formulate an argument for or against the thesis on the spot. This is a simple activity that can be easily integrated into online learning to keep students on their toes and thinking critically, and it helps break up the class session. You can call on students to share their arguments, have them discuss them with a peer, submit them to you, or keep them for their own reference.

2. Maintain open communication with students


  • This is a difficult time for both instructors and students. Be honest and transparent in your lessons plans and offer students a chance to comment on how the new course format is working for them.
  • Transitioning to online learning removes the visual cues we usually get from students about their understanding. Now more than ever we have to work to provide our students with an opportunity for low-stakes assessments so that we can get feedback on how well students are learning. Carefully monitor discussion boards/emails for questions (feel free to make a fake student account to break the ice and ask a few common questions) and make sure to give timely constructive answers to posts. You can also implement activities throughout class time to see how well students are understanding material without them worrying about grades.
  • Suggested activities:
    • Student discussion leaders: Students design and lead class discussions. This activity motivates student engagement with the material and allows them to shine. Especially in the online learning environment, where they may be more self-conscious, students who are more reluctant to participate in class may find these discussions a comfortable opportunity to shine. They can prepare for them ahead of time and choose the format - and, if the instructor permits, the topic.
    • Student Reflections: Every week before class, students are encouraged to email the instructor a question and idea related to the current topic. In the online learning environment, students may find it more difficult to focus or reflect on the reading, and instructors may have a harder time gauging what students are confused by or interested in. This activity stimulates student engagement in reading assignment and helps instructors tailor classes to fit student needs and interests. For a version specific to TF discussion sections, see this activity.
    • Ask Up: This activity, which uses the online platform AskUp.net, encourages students to generate questions based on lecture material and to test their comprehension by answering peers’ questions. In addition to serving as a great review and metacognition exercise, leveraging the power of peer-to-peer learning, and prompting greater student engagement in lectures, this activity enables instructors to see what questions students are generating and to contribute their own (anonymously) useful questions to guide students’ focus.
    • Do Now: The classic Do-Now activity doesn’t need to fall to the wayside with the transition to online learning. Beginning class with a thought prompt on the material students will cover that day, which students can type or write up at home, can get them excited and focused for the impending discussion. For a great example of the type of do-now you may consider integrating, see this activity.

3. Encourage student interactions


  • Take time to make sure that students still have a way to interact with each other. For examples, use Zoom breakout rooms to divide large classes into smaller groups (consider using it as a way to run a jig-saw activity) or have students answer others’ questions on discussion boards to facilitate peer-to-peer teaching.
  • Collaborative editing tools such as google docs are another great way to practice collaboration and communication in the digital classroom.
  • Assign buddies within the class roster to facilitate social interactions and build in think-pair-share partners. Think-pair-share can be accomplished using breakout rooms or even other chat messaging options (email, Zoom chat, Gchat, etc.)
  • Suggested activites:
    • Foreign Language Dialogue: Students watch an excerpt of a foreign language film without sound and work in groups to craft a sample dialogue utilizing new vocabulary and grammar concepts. You can screen the excerpt to the entire class using screen sharing technology, or email a link to students, and then group students into breakout rooms to craft their dialogues. This activity has students practice communication and collaboration skills.
    • Paper Exchange: Students partner with classmates to peer review their papers. This activity helps them practice collaboration, peer editing and critique, and communication skills and gives them an opportunity to interact with one another. Platforms such as Skype or Zoom and Google Docs can facilitate this activity by enabling students to mark up their partner’s paper and set up meetings to discuss feedback. For a twist, see this activity.
    • Group Case Construction: Have students turn the conventional case study assignment around by constructing their own cases to capture a specific ethical question. Take advantage of online learning features (e.g. breakout rooms) to group students together, allowing them time to brainstorm and formulate their cases. Then, regroup for a whole class discussion of the groups’ cases.
    • Historical Decisions Group Role Play: Students put themselves into the shoes of advisors to the Tokugawa shogunate, formulating recommendations with groups of peers interested in similar themes (e.g. foreign policy, famine and inequality, and moral issues). This easily adaptable, award-winning activity can be used for online learning with features such as breakout rooms and Google Docs.

4. Be flexible and creative


  • These are unprecedented times, so try to have a little fun and bring some humor into your teaching if you feel comfortable. Assignments may not be able to occur as originally planned, which is OK. Maybe have students use household objects to foster a role-play instead of a history lecture or allow students to make their own home videos/songs/podcasts to supplement in-class presentations.
  • While it may take more time to implement, consider using a new tool or teaching technique you have always wanted to try.
  • Check out our teaching innovators for more inspiration on unique ways to bring activity based learning into the classroom.
  • Suggested activites:
    • Science and cooking lab: Spice up online learning by engaging students in a month-long cooking-based lab, as part of which they report and present on a food science topic of their choice. Students can adapt this activity for virtual classes by having students work individually, using their home kitchens. To ensure equity, offer alternatives for students who can’t access a kitchen (e.g. conduct a lab of your own and allow students to observe and participate virtually), and ensure that students who don’t have necessary materials can be reimbursed for purchasing them.
    • Jeopardy Review: Review course material, to prepare for a final or just for periodic refreshers, by engaging students in a game of jeopardy over your online platform. Prepare questions ahead of time, and have students contribute questions if possible, to engage them further in thinking about the material. A little constructive competition can keep students stimulated and switch up the regular online classroom routine.
    • Probability Games: Have your students develop subject-specific intuitions about how probabilities work using dice and card games. Adapt to an online format using breakout room features in your online platform, to group students into more manageable sizes, and use freely accessible online dice and card applications (https://www.random.org/dice/, for example, allows students to roll a selected number of dice online).
    • Action Memos for World Leaders: In the role of a senior decision maker (Foreign or Defense Minister, National Security Adviser, Chief of Staff, senior advisor), students draft brief action memos to leaders (premier, president, king, leader), proposing a Policy Review in an important area of that nation's national security policy or strategy. Students love applying what they have learned to high-stakes real-world issues. Modify and stimulate student interest even further by having students address pressing contemporary issues in their analyses, such as the COVID-19’s impact on national security worldwide.

5. Explore the wealth of interactive online tools


  • There are many online tools to help teach remotely. Check with your school administration or library for a list of resources available to you. Here is just a small sampling:
  • For interactive teaching: Zoom, Panopto, Google Hangouts, Skype
    For pre recording teaching: Zoom, Tegrity, Panopto, Keynote/GoogleSlides/Powerpoint have way to add recording to presentations, a variety of free options here or here
    For online discussion boards: Canvas, GoogleDoc
    For online polling tools: Zoom has built in functions, Polleverywhere
  • Suggested activites:
    • Map It Out: Students read a common text on a medieval saint, extract all the place names mentioned, and identify them on WorldMap, an open source mapping platform. Students can span the globe, engaging in geospatial learning, without ever leaving their seats.
    • Understanding Diaspora: Students come to understand the concept of “diaspora” through constant reiteration of concepts from excerpts given to the class by the instructor, using the Black Thought and Culture database (link in activity). They learn how to close-read excerpts, write reflections, and generate their own ideas about the theme of the class. This activity enables students to dive deeper into a concept central to the class using a one-of-a-kind online tool.
    • Visualizing Humanitarian Crises and Interventions: Student groups are assigned a region experiencing a humanitarian crisis for research. They produce a visual timeline representing the processes precipitating and leading up to the crisis and the relief efforts undertaken in response. This award-winning activity employs Knight Lab, an open-source, adaptive collaborative platform, making it a great tool for student groups who aren’t able to work together in person.
    • Plague, Inc. Immunology Lab: Help students engage with questions that are likely to be on their minds during their time - the transmission of diseases. This lab takes place using an app, Plague, Inc., and you can encourage students to collaborate using breakout rooms or over email. Make it equitable by purchasing students’ subscriptions or reimbursing students who may not be in a position to purchase their own.