Boosting Active Engagement while Teaching Online: Pedagogy in a Pandemic

By — on / Pedagogy at PON, Teaching Negotiation

negotiate online

How do you combat Zoom fatigue with your students when teaching online? How do you encourage students to participate in group discussions when they are physically removed from their peers? Now that teachers and trainers have had their first taste of remote learning, and might be facing another semester of virtual classes, the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC) asked some of our experienced faculty to share their perspectives on teaching online and how to boost active engagement.

Michael Wheeler, Professor Emeritus of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, shared some of the insights he gained teaching online and how to encourage participation:

“The hallmark of Harvard Business School classes is spirited discussion. We never lecture, not even in large courses. And 50% of a student’s grade is based on their class participation. When my Negotiation Mastery course [of 55 students] went virtual in mid-March, the challenge was maintaining a high degree of active engagement.

After stumbling at first, I learned that the best approach was a combination of cold calling (so that everyone is always paying attention), plus frequent use of breakouts.


  • To kick off debriefing simulations, I’d pre-populate the small groups with the people who had just negotiated and have them all unmute so we could jump back-and-forth among them.
  • Or, when we were debriefing a case or analyzing video, I’d put a leading question to groups populated according to participation frequency. That way I could then quickly locate people who hadn’t spoken much lately.
  • Finally, ten or fifteen minutes before the end, I’d ask randomly constituted groups to share their take-aways from the session. I’d leave time to call on a few of them and add my comments. But I’d also ask each group to contribute their conclusions and questions to the public chat. That way everyone could benefit from these smaller discussions.
  • It’s a big help if you can recruit an assistant to curate the chat from start to finish. Via email or text, they can flag issues and topics that students are exploring. (And it lets them know you’re paying attention.)”

Frequent small group discussions can boost student engagement with the material as well as with their peers. Structuring groups so that less vocal students have more opportunity to participate can also boost engagement. Additionally, it can be helpful to incorporate frequent breaks into the session so that everyone can have a few moments away from their computer to reduce fatigue and eye strain.

This post is part of our ongoing Pedagogy in a Pandemic series. Have you used breakout discussion groups in your online courses? What other techniques have worked well for encouraging student engagement? Please leave us a comment with your feedback.


Take your training to the next level with the TNRC

The Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC) offers a wide range of effective teaching materials, including

Most TNRC materials are designed for educational purposes— for use in college classrooms or corporate training settings. TNRC cases and exercises help mediators and facilitators introduce their clients to a process or issue and help individuals who want to enhance their negotiation skills and knowledge.

Role-play simulations introduce participants to new negotiation and dispute resolution tools, techniques and strategies. Videos are also a helpful way of introducing viewers to key concepts, and TNRC books, case studies, and periodicals address the theory and practice of negotiation and conflict management.

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