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Ice breakers
Calling on students
Engaging activities
Engagement strategies on Zoom

Below are strategies that will help you build community and inclusivity in your classroom. You don’t have to use them all, but try a few out and see what works best for you. We encourage you to use immediacy behaviors throughout the quarter. These include: getting to know your students’ names, letting them get to know you, and moving around the class instead of standing at the podium. 

Ice breakers

Get the class talking about anything to get them to talk more in class. This is important on the first day of the quarter to set expectations, and you may want to remind them throughout the term. Here are some ideas.

  • Check in question: This is something you can use to start every class throughout the quarter. Ask two questions - they can be related to class, current events, or something else. Have students share their responses with others, and/or find students with similar interests/answers. For example, “What song could you listen to on repeat?” “What superpower would you choose?”
  • Two truths and a lie: For your first class session, ask students to write down two things that are true about themselves and something that are not and then talk with people around them to see if they can pick out the lie for each person. You should be prepared to share your two truths and a lie, too. It’s a great way for students to get to know you and each other.
  • Barnyard animalsOn the first day of class, ask groups of students (4 to 5 in each group) to choose a barnyard animal sound that they will make, e.g., pig, cow, chicken. When you say “go,” students have to all make their sounds together as a barnyard. (You should include yourself in this.) The rationale is that everyone has already done an embarrassing activity in front of everyone else–so it takes the edge off of asking a “dumb” question. This silly ice breaker sets a tone for the culture of the classroom. Some faculty love this. Your mileage may vary!

Calling on students

Make sure you give everyone a chance to answer questions, not just the few who quickly raise their hands. Here are some ideas.

  • Popcorn: Give the class a question (with multiple possible answers or perspectives) for them to think about for a minute. Have one student give a response and then call on other students to add on to the idea -- depending on your class, you can have students call on each other, or you can. You can write notes on the board and then review the answers as a class. 
  • Popsicle sticks: Use a random student picker in your classroom to ensure equity and inclusion when calling on students to participate. You can download the app for free from Apple or Google. To avoid the stress that students may feel being called on randomly, you can have students first work in pairs or small groups and then ask the randomly selected person to share out the consensus from the group.
  • Two cents: Give everyone two pennies (or two chips, or something else). They must use them (and only the two) to make substantive comments/contributions to class each session.

Engaging and inclusive activities

  • Think-Pair-Share: Pose a question to the class and have them work individually at first, and then with another student or small group to finalize the answer. Next, call on different students to share their responses.
  • Word cloud: Use Poll Everywhere (or another tool) to create a word cloud based on a question you pose to the class that can be answered in one word, ideally. For example, “What’s one word that comes to your mind when I say ‘research’?” Project the final word cloud and engage in a conversation about the themes that emerged in their responses.
  • Polling: A common lecture activity involves asking questions periodically to gauge students' understanding and check their attention levels. Polling the whole class—asking questions where everyone participates—changes the typical classroom dynamic where only a few students have a chance to answer. Poll Everywhere is helpful for all sorts of polling of the entire class. It’s quick and anonymous. You can use the free online version if you have fewer than 25 students. For classes with more than 25, email Eric Haynie ( to request a license through SCU.
  • Send a problem:  Break your class into small groups. Each group will write a quiz question or problem. After that, each group swaps with another group to answer the questions or solve the problems. As a class, talk about all problems and solutions.
  • Small group engagement (3- 4 students): Break your class into small groups and give each group a question (it can be the same question or different ones). Have the group work on that question and then ask them to report their findings to the class. If you like, you can have students write a one-sentence response on the board or in a shared google doc.
  • Jigsaw: a cooperative group activity in which students are interdependent to achieve a common goal. First, each group is provided a different prompt (this could be a paper to read, an essay prompt to answer, etc.). The group members become experts on that prompt and create a group response. Next, new groups are formed composed of students from different “expert groups.” Each student in the new intermixed group teaches the other group members their prompt-response from their previous group. The intermixed groups then complete a new task. The success of the group depends on each individual and therefore prompts engagement from individual students.
  • Concept maps: Also known as mind maps or idea maps, these can be made by you in advance to show how topics are related, or they can be generated by your students individually or collaboratively.

Concept Mapping Tools

  • - online tool allows you to create up to 3 maps for free
  • CMap - free downloadable tool for creating and sharing maps – site contains research publications and white papers
  • Gliffy - online tool


Engaging Students in Zoom Sessions

  • Give students ownership:  Students don’t just have to be participants in the Zoom session; they can also serve in facilitation roles. For instance, students designated as discussion leaders could synthesize the week’s Camino discussion forum posts and identify key themes for further conversation. If students are posing questions in the Zoom chat for clarification or discussion, one student could serve as the moderator and summarize the top questions that were raised.
  • Make the most of the chat function:  You can invite students to use the Zoom chat function in a number of ways. You might incorporate small breaks into the session where students can jot down their questions in the chat box. You could also ask all students to write a response to a question posed at the beginning and/or end of the class session (for instance, “What was the most important concept you learned from our last session?” or, “What point is still confusing after today’s session?”). Used in this way, the chat can serve as an entry or exit ticket, and you can also save the chat if you want to review students’ responses later or give them completion points.
  • Use breakout rooms:  Speaking in a Zoom breakout room is often less intimidating than answering a question in a whole-group Zoom session, so utilizing this feature is a great way to provide students with opportunities to discuss and apply course concepts. Breakout rooms can also be used in conjunction with other Zoom features; for instance, you could ask students to answer a Zoom poll question and then discuss their response within a breakout room. Since you can't get a bird's eye view of students' breakout room conversations in the same way that you can in a physical classroom, it's important to have clear instructions and protocols for sharing out to ensure that the conversations are productive.

Additional Resources

Bruff, D. (n.d.). Classroom response systems ("clickers"). Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Using concept maps. Eberly Center.

Cavanagh, S. (2019, March 11). How to make your teaching more engaging. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bates College - Collaborative Learning Techniques Quick Reference


Page authors:

Dr. Justin Boren, Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University

Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University

Dr. Patti Simone, Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University

Dr. Rachel Stumpf, SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

Dr. Lisa Whifield, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at Santa Clara University


Last updated:
February 13, 2024