Course activities give students a chance to apply knowledge or practice skills and receive feedback. There are many different types of activities you can have students do in a course in addition to watching lectures (in person or on video), from short minute papers to semester-length collaborative research projects. Most course activities can be adapted to a variety of course formats with only a few changes.

Activities help students meet learning objectives

To determine what kinds of course activities will help students achieve your learning objectives, consider what you want the students to learn to do and how you will assess them. Then, plan your course activities so that students get practice and feedback as they work towards your learning objectives. 

For example, if one of your learning objectives is for students to apply elements of strategic analysis to business problems, perhaps demonstrate how you would do this in a brief lecture, then break the students into groups and give them novel problems to analyze and present to the class. Or, if your course ends with a final exam where students demonstrate their ability to apply course concepts to new situations, give students practice answering simpler questions with both individual quizzes on course concepts and more difficult questions in small groups, and provide feedback to prepare them for the final.

Choose student-centered tasks that give students feedback rather than solely presenting materials by lecture. The activities build on each other (that is, “scaffold” — initial assignments and activities build skills and knowledge, leading to a larger final product) and engage students to participate fully in class. 

When thinking about course activities, design for in-class and out-of-class time. An effective approach is for students to read or watch course content before a course meeting, and then in a class meeting, build on this work through structured activities (the “flipped classroom”).

> Instructional Strategies (Carnegie Mellon University)
> Designing and Teaching Hybrid Courses (Oregon State University)
> Scaffolding Online Student Success (Faculty Focus)
> Structured Teaching Strategies (Life Sciences Education)

Students learn more when they actively engage with course content

Students remember more of what they learn when they practice new skills or synthesize and apply new knowledge. (1) Because students who are learning remotely have less real-time interaction with you and with other students, use course activities in online and hybrid classes to help build their skills and knowledge step by step. This “scaffolded” approach gives students lots of opportunities to practice and get feedback.

Make class activities relevant. Class activities should relate directly to the learning objectives of the course. Students disengage when they are asked to do activities that are not tied to what they are supposed to learn.

Activities should be active. Good activities require students to do something with the knowledge they gain from readings or videos. Such activities could be simple, like developing a critique or comparing two things, or they could be more complex, like finding and analyzing new data. The key is that students should be doing, not just listening.

Involve other people when possible. One of the best ways to learn new information is to talk with someone else about it. (2) Whether students are learning on campus or online, you can have them work in small groups to solve problems, develop critiques and create artifacts. Students who are learning remotely can do activities that ask them to engage with their local or online communities.

> Active Learning Guide (Cynthia J. Brame, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)
> Confessions of a Converted Lecturer (video) (Eric Mazur, Harvard University)
> Active Learning Techniques to Try (Duke University)

Effective discussions require facilitation

Seminar-style class discussions can be challenging when some or all of the students are participating online. As in an on-campus class, engaging and inclusive online discussions require an instructor to facilitate the conversation and set expectations for how students should participate. For example, asking remote students to keep their video turned on during discussions helps them stay engaged.

Call on students during online discussions. Some students feel anxious about raising their hand to ask or answer questions in the classroom, and that does not change when students participate online. The technique of asking a question and letting the silence get uncomfortable until someone answers does not work online. You will probably need to call on students. One way to make this more comfortable is to let them know in advance who you will be calling on (the “warm call”). For example, before you ask a question, tell your class, “I’m going to ask Tom and Sue to answer this next question and then we will open it up for discussion. Paul and Phan, you will be up for the next question.”

Split the class into discussion groups. You can use Zoom breakout rooms to do just about anything that you would do in small groups within a class. Examples of activities you can do using breakout rooms include:

  • Think-pair-share: have students think about a question, share their answer in a breakout room and then report out to the whole class.
  • Collaborative artifact creation: students can collaborate on documents, slide docs and longer problems.
  • Polling discussions: take a poll on an opinion-based question and then have students debate the answer in breakout rooms. You can then re-run the poll and see if opinions change.

Use Zoom’s messaging features during discussions. You may want to have a co-instructor, TA or rotating student moderate the chat, especially if you have a particularly large class. The chat can allow for more interactivity in the classroom. For example, Zoom’s private chat feature is a great way for quiet students to be able to ask questions during a lecture or discussion. When students ask questions in chat, answer the question for the whole class but don’t use the name of the student who asked. This lets students ask clarifying or even provocative questions anonymously. This technique can be used in face-to-face classes as well. You can give students a link to a web form to fill out during class if they have questions and then answer all the questions at the end or during a break. Even better, have students answer each other’s questions during the last five minutes of class.

> Advice from Faculty Members for Instructors Teaching Their First Online Class (Inside Higher Ed)
> Interactive Classroom Activities (Brown University)
> Zoom Meetings: Getting Started (Duke University)
> Building Better Breakout Sessions

Project-based learning is highly effective

Project-based learning (PBL) is an effective way for students to learn new material. (3) PBL is an approach in which students work in groups on complex, realistic projects for several class sessions. The instructor’s role is to guide and facilitate while allowing the student teams to make key project decisions. This pedagogy can be used in most course formats (on-campus, hybrid and online) with a few considerations.

Teach students how to work in teams. For the most part, group projects work online the same way that group projects work in a campus-based class. Give groups clear instructions for what tasks they need to do and what they need to produce, and give them some directions about how to work in a team. Meet with each team individually for about 15 minutes and ask them to share their communication plan, their timeline and their assigned team roles or tasks. Remember that novice students will need more guidance and more explicit instructions about team roles. 

Schedule frequent check-ins. It is important to check in with teams to find out if things are working well or not. In a campus class, you will have students doing at least some of their project work in class so you can check in with them during those meetings. In an online class, groups will schedule their own meeting times. Check in at least weekly to find out if teams need help resolving problems. Also be sure students know how to reach out to you to get help with small problems before they interfere with the group’s progress. Instructors often find it helpful to give teams short surveys or other ways to give their teammates feedback on how things are going periodically during a project.

Authentic activities connect learning to experiences. This can be especially valuable for students who are engaging with a class mostly or entirely online. Authentic activities connect what students are learning with what they are experiencing. This can also make course content feel more relevant and help students see applications for their new skills and knowledge. (4) Help project teams find common experiences across all members that can inform their project direction. You can also help teams find ways to assign roles or tasks that focus on each team member’s interests around the main idea.

> Using Student Teams Effectively (Duke University)
> How ‘Reality-Based Education’ Could Transform Learning (EdSurge)
> A Medley of Multimodal Projects (IHE)

Creating class community helps students learn

When you teach an in-person course, a lot of the socializing that helps form a sense of community among students happens before and after class. Students chat with each other as they are waiting for class to start, walking together and socializing between class activities.

Online social spaces foster community. You can find ways to build these opportunities into an online class as well; not all student activities need to have an academic purpose. You can replicate that beginning of class chatter by starting the first five minutes of class with students assigned to random breakout rooms and given the task of finding something that happened to them in the past week that they can all relate to. Or find two things that they all have in common that not everyone in the class would also have in common.

Give students private social spaces. One caution: stay out of student social spaces yourself. Students talk more openly when their professor is not part of the conversation. Giving them a private space to talk about personal interests or  commiserate about an upcoming test makes it more likely that they will reach out to their peers later when they need help understanding a difficult concept. One way to do this is to create a “water cooler” discussion thread in the course forums; a place where students can post things that are off-topic to the course.

> Icebreakers and Teambuilders (William & Mary)
> The Surprising Secret To College Success? Study Less And Socialize More (Forbes)

Next steps


  1. Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research by Michael Prince
  2. The Relative Benefits of Learning by Teaching and Teaching Expectancy by Logan Fiorella and Richard E. Mayer
  3. A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning by John W. Thomas, Ph.D.
  4. The Reality-Based Learning Method: A Simple Method for Keeping Teaching Activities Relevant and Effective by Louise W. Smith, Doris C. Van Doren