This section includes stories and tips from educators who are using Zoom in interesting ways to engage their students and help them learn.


Know a nice tip on how to teach effectively with Zoom? Please share it in the link below.

Your tip could appear in the next edition of the book or in a section below with full credit to you.




Associate Dean of the Harvard College Curriculum

Rebecca Nesson, Associate Dean of the Harvard College Curriculum, teaches computer science and math courses at Harvard and uses breakout rooms to ask students to answer a series of challenging questions. At a recent class, she spent a few minutes at the beginning of class explaining the material of the day, and then assigned students to work on three challenging questions. The students had access to a PDF document with the questions, and discussed them in their groups. Because the subject was math and involved writing formulas and equations to answer the questions, students used a variety of tools (including Zoom’s whiteboard and the latex equation add-on to Google Docs). During the breakout rooms, Rebecca and her teaching assistants briefly visited the breakout rooms to monitor the discussion and to help facilitate the conversation by asking probing questions. After the breakout rooms ended and the students had returned to the main room, the class went over the answers to the 3 questions and new questions emerged. It was a very productive discussion because students had already spent time in the breakout rooms thinking hard about the questions and trying to answer them.



Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School 

In an effort to keep students engaged and to feel a bit more connected to one another while they are learning remotely on Zoom, one method I've used is a combination of pre-assigned breakout rooms and links to class-shared edit-able Google documents to give students a chance to work on an exercise in smaller groups and to enter their group work onto a Google document. Since the other groups are also entering their work on the Google document while in a different breakout room, the students work more intensely in their smaller group while staying connected to everyone in the classroom. 

A personal preference has been to change the makeup of these breakout room groups as another way to try to engage all the students to work with one another and get a sense of their classmates think. I try not to let these group exercises go longer than 20 minutes. Often they run shorter.




Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Decision Science, and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School

Jennifer Lerner is the Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Decision Science, and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School.  When students arrive for her class, Lerner asks them to choose one of three themed breakout rooms -- each one a different theme from the previous days presentation and homework.  A team of educators helped her develop this "virtual hallway" concept. In essence, the student gets to choose which topic they'd like to spend more time discussing and it serves as a social warm up time before going into the full class group. Students find it easier to ask questions in the small group and to do some reality checking on whether they are following the material before bringing something up in the full class.




Math Teacher at Brookline High School in Massachusetts

Ms. Kostant splits her class into two groups to be able to conduct smaller sessions with each of them, and combines polling with other teaching approaches in a very creative manner. When she wants to do a quick non-anonymous poll, she asks her students to signal their response using their hands (e.g., if you think this series converges, show your hand in form of a “C”; if you think it diverges, show your hand in form of a “D”). This allows her to see how her students voted very easily and quickly by just looking at the video feeds of her students in Gallery View. When she wants to do an anonymous poll, she asks her students to chat their answer just to her, privately. This has the advantage that she does not need to give her students a list of possible answers that she would have to think of beforehand, and allows her to identify possible misconceptions that she might not have even been aware of. She can simply say, “Solve this problem and send me your answer through the private chat” and then examine her students’ answers and call on any of them to explain their response.   



Adjunct Professor, IESA, Venezuela

Attention getting is probably the major challenge. In smaller groups, I recommend asking questions frequently and randomly. In larger groups, engage with surveys and also use more frequently attention-grabbing slides.




Peter A. Petri Professor of Business and Society in the Brandeis International Business School

In a physical classroom, I often divide the class into groups representing sides in a negotiation or debate. Their seating location then shows which side they are on and I call on each side as needed for the debate. In Zoom, the boxes move around, so it is not possible to see which side someone is on just by the location of the box.
A good work-around is to give all students a set of solid-color virtual backgrounds in advance and then before the debate to ask each side to adopt a specific color. I give them the set of special backgrounds in the beginning of the course and test it in the first class. (Zoom has virtual backgrounds too, of course, but they are ugly or irrelevant.) After that, I use it regularly in class. It works best if you give them a breakout just before the debate, during which they can align their thoughts and put on their colors. In this breakout prelude, you can assign the sides randomly or by name, as usual. No different than dividing a physical class into sides. Note that because the virtual background feature in Zoom depends on their hardware (older processors don’t allow it), I ask anyone who cannot put on the color background to revise their name by adding their color in capitals (“RED”).
My best class with this method was a court hearing of the ATT-Time Warner merger, where one side played the US Department of Justice bringing an anti-trust suit, the other side represented the companies, and a third (smaller) group represented the Appeals Court. They all prepared by reading the lower court findings. In this class, the Appeals Court group got to call on their peers by themselves, and again, they could see the colors to call on each side for in the debate.



Professor of Management Practice, Richard L. Menschel Faculty Fellow,

Harvard Business School

I have developed a decidedly low-tech solution to make sure I can help the class feel like it is building on itself, rather than feeling like a series of disconnected, isolated comments: I write down a key point and the student who made it in a notebook while class is going on, as they occur. (Not all the comments...maybe half a dozen for an 80 minute class.) Then, I can remember who made that comment about "you have the wolves guarding the henhouse" or whatever it might be and ask other students to refer to it, and/or refer to it myself when wrapping class. I find it is very hard without the geography of a class room to remember who said what while class is going on. This is a very simple way to give myself a few prompts, and seems to make an outsized difference in class.  




Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School 

Kathy Pham is a computer scientist whose work has spanned Google, IBM, and the federal government at the United States Digital Service at the White House, where she was a founding product and engineering member. She teaches a course on Product Management and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School. At a recent online live class, she paused the class and asked her students to spend a few minutes individually developing a prototype of a food delivery app. She gave the students a few minutes to do this with pen and paper, and then called on a few students to present what they had come up with. The students presented their work by showing their sheet of paper and pointing to the various app “screens” that they had developed. It was a very simple way of sharing and led to a very nice discussion about principles of product design. 



Academic Director, Prepa Tec for the Tecnólogico de Monterrey
in Veracruz, Mexico

Elsy San Vicente is the academic director of Prepa Tec for the Tecnólogico de Monterrey in Veracruz, Mexico, where she has been teaching for over 20 years. In her physics classes, she starts with a brief exposition of the theory but immediately moves to ask penetrating questions to engage her students. She then sends the students to breakout rooms to work on an aspect of the class. She sometimes asks students to reflect their thinking in a collaborative tool like Padlet, and then leads a discussion with her students to close the class. She says “The most important thing is to make sure that students actively participate in class and don’t see themselves as passive receivers of knowledge. The latter simply doesn’t work.”



Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of California, Merced

I actually don’t require video because so many of my students have tech/bandwidth issues, but I stated this as a strong preference when they answer questions. I did require video for their policy debate last week, which helped them see the value of doing so and building community. I’m also using the Wheel of Names for cold-calling (only first names and last initial), which is a fun way of doing so when there is silence for >20 seconds or so.



Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School 

In the day before each class, I "warm call" individual students, reaching out to tell them that I will be calling on them to address a particular question or subject. In a class that I taught several days ago, I warm called 14 students addressing 5 separate issues. It initiates and opens up each conversation.  I try to draw out each, to have them heard. Hearing each of them seems to enable others to join the conversation. Then, using Chat or another vehicle, I ask those who have not spoken to add their comments. We then look at the accumulated work and extract what rises to the surface.   


Copyright © 2021 Dan Levy.

Written by Dan Levy.


Zoom is a trademark of Zoom Video Communications, Inc. The author is not affiliated with Zoom Video Communications, Inc. and this guide was written without endorsement from Zoom Video Communications, Inc.