Encouraging student interaction in live online classes

Learning Environments and MCSHE recently conducted a workshop on how to encourage student interaction in live online classes. With over 80 University staff members attending, it was a great opportunity to share information about what has worked successfully in our collective teaching experience. Some of this sharing was captured on a Padlet wall where staff were asked to respond to the question:

What approaches have you found helpful when trying to encourage interaction online?

What follows is a summary of what was shared.

Create small group activities using Breakout rooms

One of the most popular suggestions shared was to use Breakout rooms for activities. Students who are reticent to contribute in a main webinar room may feel more comfortable to do so in a Breakout room where there are fewer participants.

When using Breakout rooms, some suggestions were made:

Provide accessible instructions
  • Add instructions to the Chat window in the online class before you send students to Breakout rooms,
  • Provide instructions in a shared online document (Office365 Word, Google docs etc.),
  • Provide instructions on a Canvas Page.

Create activities that have a direct purpose and specific outcome/output

Collaborative documents

Collaborative documents encourage students to collate their ideas in a single space. You can use shared documents such as Padlet walls, Office365, Google docs, Shared whiteboard in Zoom, or a shared Mind Map.

Think-pair-share activities

A 'think-pair-share' activity is a great way to encourage students to contribute their ideas in both online and face-to-face classes. In an online setting, pose a question to the main group, ask students to write down their own thoughts on the question for a period of a few minutes, then put students into small Breakout rooms to share and discuss. Finally, bring all students back to the main group to share their thoughts.


Jut as in a face-to-face setting, using ice-breakers can help students feel more comfortable contributing. Use a ‘fun’, or ‘social’ activity to warm students to the class, for example, allow 5 minutes for students to chat about their week.

Seek and share feedback using Polling, Reaction tools, Annotation and Chat

Quick check-ins are a great way to ‘take the pulse’ of your class at the beginning, during, and at the end of a session. You can use Polls, Chat or Reactions tools in Zoom to get feedback from your students in an online class.

Some options to consider:

  • Use the Chat function in Zoom to encourage questions,
  • Use Poll questions that target key points to check understanding,
  • Use Yes/No and 'raised hand' in the Participant tools bar,
  • Use Zoom's in-built Whiteboard or allow students to annotate a slide.

Note: Zoom provides basic polling functionality however for more complex polls, you can use Poll Everywhere.

Encouraging students who do not speak during online classes to contribute

We’ve all been there! You ask your students a question, and there is no response! What can you do?

Some options to consider:

Call on a student by name

To ensure that this technique works well:

  • Warn students you are going to call on someone from class by name
  • Ask the question
  • Call on a specific student to contribute a response
  • Thank them for answering
Assign a team speaker for Breakout group

If you are using Breakout rooms, ask each Breakout group to assign a speaker to report back to the main group.

Use Gallery view

During a ‘lecture component’ of your session, if you have slides on the screen, you can promote interaction by taking a moment to stop screen-sharing and asking students to turn on their web-cam (if possible), followed by a period of question and answer. This can help create a sense of group presence.

Allow students to use screen-share to show their own work with the group

Students can share something they have created by sharing their screen. They may choose to share slides, a proposal, workings, or even a video they’ve made, etc.

Preparation is key

In face-to-face settings it can be easy to bring activity handouts at the last minute, however with live online sessions it is always a good idea to prepare students ahead of time.

  • Provide relevant materials in advance – slides, tutorial activity sheets, discussion topics, instructions via LMS/email,
  • Let students know what is planned for the session,
  • Set expectations that online learning is a different experience to face-to-face,
  • Prior to the session, ask students to think about what questions they have. You may also want to allow students vote on other students’ questions,
  • Consider having a blended ‘flipped classroom’ approach with some pre-session activities in the Canvas subject, with the follow-up activities in Zoom or MS Teams.

Thank you to all the staff who contributed to this successful workshop - we appreciate you sharing your experiences of how to encourage students to interact online.

A number of platforms are available to conduct online classes:

Microsoft Teams


If you would like to discuss live online teaching further, please contact Learning Environments.

Students online laptops