Leveraging Zoom Tools to Engage Students

Oregon State Memorial UnionStudent engagement is indispensable in the current remote and blended teaching and learning environment. James Lang, author of the well-known Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, speaks to this challenge in the newly published Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. “We will not succeed in teaching today’s students unless we make a fundamental shift in our thinking: away from preventing distraction and toward cultivating attention.”

Lang goes on to posit three principles about attention: Attention is an achievement rather than a given in educational settings, attention is still attainable (despite the manifold distractions clamoring for the attention of our students), and it must be intentionally cultivated to be achieved in our classrooms.

So how can we cultivate our students’ attention in the remote “classrooms” of today, where our Zoom class session competes with all the other stimuli in which college students are marinated as they navigate COVID-era life? Fortunately, Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has produced an Engaging Students through Zoom guide that describes practical techniques to leverage the basic Zoom tools to enable active learning. Rather watch than read? The Yale Zoom guide is accompanied by five short videos that bring the techniques to life. Highlights from the guide:

  • Polling – Zoom polls may give us insights into student readiness for learning based on prior knowledge or could be used to see if students have grasped material right after it is presented or can solve a quick problem. Polls are usually best created in advance, though they could also be created on the fly during a class session.
  • Chat – Zoom chat is a great place for real-time interaction and Q&A. Keep in mind that both instructors and students can ask and answer questions in chat. It can be used to break up a lecture, to get feedback, to assess whether students are following and understanding the content of a session. Continuously monitoring chat while presenting can be taxing, so it’s wise to pause periodically and catch up on any chat questions.
  • Nonverbal Feedback – Zoom nonverbal feedback includes the basic items students can deploy in the participants’ tab such as yes, no, go slower or faster, thumbs up or down, clapping, need a break, and away. More broadly, there is the “raise hand” feature in the participants’ tab and the clapping and thumbs up reactions that pop up over a student’s video thumbnail. Though Zoom nonverbal feedback is rather different from the nonverbal reactions we rely on in the physical classroom, it can be valuable in gauging the temperature of the room and levels of engagement.
  • Screen Share – While Zoom screen sharing is usually thought of principally as a means of instructor slide presentation, there’s great potential for student screen sharing. For example, individual students or small groups can make a formal presentation to the class or share a poster or infographic.
  • Whiteboard – The Zoom whiteboard can simulate many activities that are traditionally done on a classroom whiteboard and, with solid structure provided by the instructor, the whiteboard can be a productive collaborative space for students.
  • Breakout Rooms – Zoom breakouts can be ideal for collaboration, group problem solving, or discussion, particularly in larger classes. In considering the utility of breakout rooms, remember that it’s possible for students to screen share, use a Zoom whiteboard and use chat within their small group  as well. Breakouts work best with clear structure, deliverables and time limits.

For an additional timely take on sustaining student engagement during synchronous remote sessions, see Samantha Clifford’s new Faculty Focus piece, Encouraging Student Engagement During Synchronous Meetings: Preventing Midterm Dropoff.

Need assistance with Zoom? See OSU Zoom Help videos, request a Tech Keep-Teaching Assistant, or see the OSU Zoom Teaching overview.

Interested in learning more about Zoom pedagogy? See these practical resources from the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning:


Clifford, S. (2020, November 4). Encouraging student engagement during synchronous meetings. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/encouraging-student-engagement-during-synchronous-meetings-preventing-midterm-drop-off/

Lang, J.M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Basic Books.

Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Engaging Students through Zoom. https://academiccontinuity.yale.edu/faculty/how-guides/zoom/engaging-students-through-zoom

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About Cub Kahn

Blended Learning Coordinator for the Oregon State University Center for Teaching and Learning and hybrid coordinator for Ecampus.
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