top of page

Active/Engaged Learning During a Pandemic: Yes, It Can Be Done

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This fall, we face challenges as we return to onsite classrooms. Bringing students together with social distancing presents limits to the instructional strategies that engage students with their peers. We see students sitting together, some masked and some not. Putting students into groups based on their maskedness is undoubtedly awkward, and I suspect, not allowed on many campuses. Asking students to work together in small groups when some are masked and others are not masked poses health risks and increases tension in the classroom. Finally, distancing students within the classroom, yet having them close enough to work in groups, is highly problematic given the noise level in the room and how difficult it becomes for students within a group to hear each other. Taken together, I fear many faculty assume lecturing is the only option.

Based on extensive evidence, we know that lecturing does not hurt learning (Zakrajsek, 2018); however, the evidence is unequivocal that students learn better using active/engaged strategies along with mini-lectures. Lecturing throughout the entire class shows the least amount of learning compared to just about every instructional strategy in use (Freeman, 2014). Active learning is an instructional approach where students are engaged in the learning process by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. A subset of active learning is collaborative learning. Collaborative learning consists of teaching strategies in which students work in groups to learn, often to solve a problem or search for information. There are ways to use active and collaborative learning techniques without having students sit in small groups or pair off and discuss.

Rather than reversing instruction to lecture format only, we need instead to maximize student engagement when the limiting factor is space. I propose that active and collaborative learning teaching strategies continue to be practiced – with precautions in place. So, how might one teach in the current environment? The following includes strategies that embrace pandemic-era, mask uncertainty, vaccine unpredictable conditions in which faculty may implement active and collaborative teaching strategies during face-to-face formatted classes.

Pandemic-era Active Learning Strategies

Pause Procedure

An instructional technique in which the instructor presents a mini-lecture of 7 – 10 minutes and then stops. During these strategically placed pauses, students are to review the material and complete a task. The task could be to summarize the main point in their own words, identify one key point noted, write out a possible multiple-choice or essay question, or just about anything that gets the students actively engaged in the material. As the instructor, you can call on one or two students following the pause and ask them to report out quickly. Calling on a few students holds them accountable during the pause. Depending on what the student does during the pause, this teaching strategy helps check for understanding, encourages critical thinking, and may enhance the transfer of learning.

Interpreted Lecture

Accuracy of content presentation by faculty and reception by students is highly dependent on a host of variables. Some of these variables include the difficulty of the content being taught, any differences between a faculty member teaching a class and students in that class, and instructor expertise in the field (highly experienced people often have very technical vocabularies on their subject matter). For the interpreted lecture, deliver a lecture of 5 – 10 minutes. Then ask to "translate" what they just learned into plain English that students in the class are more likely to understand. Expressing material in one's own words is an excellent way to check for understanding and encourage critical listening skills.


This teaching strategy can be set up as a game for students in any course. At the start of a

mini-lecture, announce that there will be one flaw introduced in the material. Students are to raise their hands as soon as they think they have found the flaw. One way to play this classroom game is that if a hand is raised for something not a flaw, that person is "out" of that round. This keeps a student from simply raising her hand as each concept or idea is taught. The find-a-flaw strategy teaches students that there may be misinformation in any material. It also helps with listening skills, critical thinking, and the integration of material. This activity can be used in synchronous online classes by having students type into the chat as soon as they feel they have heard an inserted flaw.

Graffiti Board

Use Grafitti Board to bring online learning strategies into the classroom. Identify a prompt for a block of material pertinent to the learning outcomes for the day. Set up a Padlet (you can quickly get a free account at if you don't have one) and a project that Padlet onto whatever screens are available in the classroom. There are seven options for pads within Padlet. I would suggest a canvas pad (note this is a type of Padlet pad and NOT the Canvas LMS). Project the QR code and URL link to the pad for all students in the class. Have students independently post information on the pad related to whatever prompt you provided. This activity can help students think more critically about a topic, see what others see as important, and promote strategic web searching skills.

Pandemic-era Collaborative Learning Strategies

Caution: I would suggest NOT asking students to chat with one another using their phone numbers; please respect and maintain privacy. There are a host of chat apps that will allow students to communicate through a neutral platform.

Graffiti Board

The strategy noted above can also be done as a collaborative learning strategy. Instead of a canvas Padlet, use a shelf Padlet. Put students into groups and number or name each group. Each group is then to work on the column that matches their group number or name. The Padlet, with group names or numbers, will need to be set up before class. Students can communicate with one another through GroupMe or some other group chat app that does not require students to reveal their phone numbers. Ask your students which they recommend and have them help decide how to do this part. The point is to give students in the same room the opportunity to “speak” with each other without talking. Think two teenagers sitting at the dining room table, phones out, talking to each other about the meal while you are eating. Aside from Padlet, Google Jamboard can also be used. Just set up a different page for each group.


Most educators use this strategy regularly. Students are given 30 seconds to a minute to think about a prompt given, then turn to a neighbor to pair and discuss what they are thinking, followed by sharing information discussed with the entire class. The challenge here is to have the pair section that does not require students to sit close to one another. The share section can be done in class just as any student question or response might be done. For the pair part of the activity, students can communicate through GroupMe or another group chat app they prefer, just as noted above. The think-pair-share is helpful to check for understanding, think critically about the material, and teach each other challenging concepts.

Note-taking Pairs

For this teaching strategy, assign students in-class material to read or deliver a short lecture. Have students take notes on what they have read or heard. Give students ample time to read the material presented. Ideally, it is best to post the material before class to allow students who need more time to read the opportunity to read the material at their own pace. Then during class, those who have not read the material can read it, and those who have can reread it. Then have students compare their notes, pointing out the main issue presented or learned. It is also valuable to ask students to come up with one application or way in which they interpret the content. Students can communicate with each other through GroupMe or another group chat app that they prefer. They will have one they prefer.

Classes with mixed maskers and no personal information about vaccines create an extremely stressful and challenging teaching environment. That said, there is no need to default to lecturing all of the time, as there are many ways to include active and collaborative teaching strategies into any course (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2021). The challenge is to identify ways to do that in classrooms that do not require students to talk in small groups or directly with one another in a way that might spread a COVID variant. I have seen my daughters have friends over to the house, all sit in one room, and interact with one another without uttering a word. If middle schoolers and teenagers can pull that off, so can we.

Discussion Questions

1. What teaching strategy did you use previously that you found difficult to use in classrooms where students cannot be put into situations whereby they chat with each other? What is the limiting factor in using that strategy in classrooms during pandemics?

2. What is your favorite educational technology to use in the classroom? What does the use of that technology promote: critical thinking, reflection, or as a learning check? How might that technology be adapted to make it even more effective in your next class?

3. Once teaching during a pandemic is behind us, and it will be one day, what teaching strategy have you developed that might be used to benefit a classroom where students are freely able to get into groups or pairs to speak with one another? What will this strategy promote: web searching skills, application, listening skills?

References and Additional Resources

Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus

Freeman, S., et al., (2014). Active learning books performance in STEM courses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8410-8415.

Major, C.H., Harris, M., Zakrajsek, T.D. (2021). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed activities to put students on the path to success (2nd Ed). Routledge.

Zakrajsek, T. (2018). Reframing the lecture versus active learning debate: Suggestions for a new way forward. Education in the Health Professions, 1(1), 1-3.

About the Author


bottom of page