3 Highly-Effective Instructional Strategies to Engage Students—Both in the Classroom and Virtually!

3 Highly-Effective Instructional Strategies to Engage Students—Both in the Classroom and Virtually!

3 Highly-Effective Instructional Strategies to Engage Students—Both in the Classroom and Virtually!

By: Steve Ventura

When it comes to teaching students virtually, instruction often differs from what teaching looks like in the classroom. As we enter the 2020-21 school year, we know that districts have varied plans for what in-person and remote learning will look like, and we are well aware that things can change at any time, and school buildings could end up closed once again. As teachers and leaders grapple with the “new normal” of school, instruction that can meet the needs of learners in any setting should be top of mind.

We’ve compiled a few of the best instructional strategies that transfer easily from the classroom to a virtual learning environment. These instructional strategies are teacher actions designed to raise student levels of thinking and learning around specific learning intentions or goals. They are purposeful methods of instruction that help create vibrant, independent students who can assess their own learning, whether they are in your physical classroom or learning from a distance.

Metacognition: Thinking about your own thinking.

Metacognition is a valuable tool to use in the classroom to enhance student learning both for an immediate outcome or for providing students with skills to understand their own learning process. Research shows that metacognition is a skill that, when explicitly taught to students, becomes central to other skill sets such as problem-solving, decision making, and critical thinking. The skill of teaching students to manage their own learning and train their own brains has never been more important with the switch to virtual learning.

Here are four ways to increase your students’ understanding of what it means to “think about your own thinking”:

  • Teach by Example: Guide students explicitly through the process of problem-solving  through mistakes and successes as you model aloud how you learn a new concept. This can be done in the classroom or on a prerecorded video clip for virtual learning. For example, model the act of learning a new app you just downloaded on your phone. Think aloud as you model how to solve problems and learn about the app and how it can work to meet your needs. If you are teaching virtually, the program Screencastify allows you to prerecord a video and upload it for students to view.
  • Freedom or Choice: Give students a choice over which projects, activities, or questions they can choose to complete first. This will generate more interest and responsibility. For example, instead of ending a unit with a traditional written test, allow students to choose showing mastery via a written essay, a completed project that was pre-approved by you, or something else.
  • Look for Opportunities: Model and apply metacognition across subject areas and in a variety of lessons to allow students to transfer their understanding and see the value. This can be achieved by discussing a narrative story and annotating the key points, words, and phrases on a Google doc, to illustrate thinking about it while you are reading. Other examples include discussing mental math while solving problems on a whiteboard or virtually on a platform like Jamboard or thinking aloud about science hypotheses while conducting experiments live or using a tool like Screencastify.
  • Encourage Metacognition through Student Response Activities: Use exit strategies in the classroom or daily check-ins virtually to have students record their own comprehension and summarize their learning. One great example is from The Teacher Toolkit with their 3-2-1 Exit Strategy. By asking students questions about their interests and learning from that day's lesson, you are encouraging metacognitive thinking while capturing data around reteaching needs and student interests. This can be done virtually on tools such as Padlet, Google slides, or Google forum.

Jigsaw: Cooperative learning through shared responsibility.

Jigsaw is a cooperative learning strategy that has been around for decades. When used correctly, it is a great way to build dialogue, study skills, confidence, and teamwork as all students are responsible for a piece of the learning puzzle. It can be a compelling way to get students to take ownership of their learning by having them teach content to other students, though it is a strategy that is often overlooked and not always used correctly.

Jennifer Gonzalez wrote a blog post about the Jigsaw Method in her popular Cult of Pedagogy blog where she referenced the history of why this strategy was developed. In 1971, social psychologist Elliot Aronson developed the Jigsaw Method as a response to racial tensions caused by desegregation in Austin. The goal was for students to work together and learn from each other, creating an organic partnership built on joint success. This method shifted the culture of competitiveness to cooperation and is still widely used in classrooms today.

Using the Jigsaw strategy in the classroom creates a sense of belonging and self-worth in students. As students begin to see that as they are teaching others, they see themselves as a piece of the classroom community.

Here are five steps on how to use the Jigsaw whether you’re teaching in person or from a distance:

  • Home Groups: Divide students into equal groups of four to six people and appoint a leader. These groups will be the “home groups.” These groups should be made up of diverse populations of students allowing members to collaborate with students of different genders, performance levels, ethnicities, races, etc.
  • Chunking the Group: Divide the day’s lesson in four to six chunks. Explain to the group that each member will be responsible for learning about and teaching one section of the content to their home group. For example, in a middle school history lesson, students may read about a technological contribution created by the ancient Romans and how it improved daily life. For primary students, you might try this with a topic like the life cycle of a butterfly, assigning simple explanations of the assigned stage characteristics. If this is a virtual assignment, divide students into groups and assign chunks of different content to learn via Google Classroom or another similar platform. Likewise, you can use a tool like EdPuzzle and post video clips with questions that will guide student responses.
  • Expert Groups: Once each student in the home group has their assigned chuck of the information, they move out into “expert groups” made up of students with the same information. Each student should silently read their assigned information and then begin a discussion on the main points. This is where you may want to assign question stems for the group to use during their discussion. For example, when reading about the Roman technological advancement, the guiding questions should have students explain the invention, explain how it was used, and describe the affect it had to improve the quality of life. For primary grades, divide students into expert groups for each butterfly lifecycle stage: egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), and adult. Students would illustrate and label the parts of the butterfly in their expert groups. When doing this part of the Jigsaw virtually, use a tool like Seesaw where students can draw and record their explanations and responses or for older students, use virtual discussion boards for the expert groups.
  • Bring it Home: After preparing their thoughts and presentations in expert groups, students will move back to their home group. Each student will present their findings to their home group. Presentations can be shared through discussion, poster, Google slide, or another way that would allow the group to summarize their findings.
  • Assessment: It is important to assess how well all students understand the content since each member of the home group will be responsible for learning the content. Students could fill in a graphic organizer regarding all the Roman technological advancements, create a poster showing the connection between the advancements and Roman life, complete a digital or paper quiz, create a virtual slide show as a team, etc. Primary students could fill in a graphic organizer or Thinking Map showing the life cycle of the butterfly or virtually you could hold a class discussion where home teams answer questions as you show illustrations of the butterfly’s life cycle.

Classroom Discussion: Student-led dialogue and discussion.

Have you ever presented a lesson or topic to your class with no feedback on how they interpreted the information? This has been especially difficult during the virtual learning. Many students miss the collaborative engagement that takes place in the classroom, and teachers miss the connections they have with their students.

Intentionally building in time for classroom discussion to take place in which the teacher and students have time to interact with each other after new information has been presented is powerful. Increasing more dialogue and reducing monologue through classroom discussion after lecturing for a short period of time and then providing thought-provoking questions to prompt discussion provides teachers with feedback, helps students to learn from one another, and promotes better retention of information.

Here are four benefits and ways to infuse classroom discussion into lessons:

  • Increased Student Engagement: Blending lecture with time for students to discuss information creates a strong sense of classroom community. Students learn from each other and make deeper connections to the content. When students feel that their voice is validated, they become more involved in their own learning. One way to incorporate this into the classroom is through and an activity called Numbered Heads Together. This is a cooperative learning strategy where students work in groups to come up with a group answer to a question. Each student is responsible for the answer because they may be called on to share their thinking aloud. When teaching virtually, use a tool like Padlet where students create stickies to frame their answers and then come up with a team answer in the form of a Tweet.
  • Promotes Higher-Level Thinking Skills and Feedback: To make learning meaningful, engage students in discussions by using questions that require students to think critically. This can also be done by posing open-ended questions where students generate answers and share their thought processes. Through these discussions, you will receive feedback on students’ understanding of the topic and you can provide students with guidance on the correct answer. One activity that can be used to promote higher-level thinking is the Fishbowl strategy. Start by dividing the class into two circles. Students in the inner circle participate in a class discussion while the students in the outer circle make observations and take notes. Author and education expert Catlin Tucker has also developed a way to bring the strategy virtual through the Online Fishbowl in a recent blog post.
  • Provides Opportunities for Language Development: When you create safe environments for students to engage in discussions, you are preparing them for real-world situations for public speaking and dialogue. Classroom discussions give English language learners opportunities to interact with their peers and develop vocabulary through positive interactions. This strategy also provides scaffolding to help students grasp the concepts in content areas. This might be developed using a technique called Give One, Get One. Students fold a piece of paper down the middle and write down everything they remember from a story or lesson on the left side of the sheet. Then they go around the room and find ten people who have a different answer and record that on the right side of the paper. This could be modified virtually through Google forum, Pear Deck, or Padlet.
  • Increased Classroom Control: When students are actively engaged in the learning process, classrooms have fewer discipline problems. Engaging students in academically challenging and equitable discussions provides students with an opportunity to be heard and feel connected. Here are a few more ideas that can increase classroom discussion and motivation: Gallery Walk, Socratic Seminar, Four Corners, and Think-Pair-Share.

When educators focus on instructional strategies, students are more engaged in learning and research shows they likely see an increase in student achievement. Whether you teach in a traditional classroom this fall, find yourself teaching in a hybrid model, or teach 100% remote, using strategies to focus on instruction and engagement of all students will make an impact, regardless of the teaching mode that is used.


List of Online Tools

Here is a full list of the tools I referenced in this post. Many districts have contracts or partnerships with some education companies, and so you may be limited to use what your school has available, but many of these are free for educators. Please check with your school leadership or technology team to understand which tools your school or district approve to use virtually.


List of Recommended Instructional Strategies

Here is the list of instructional strategies I referenced in this post, that originated from other education experts. To learn more about each strategy, follow the appropriate link.


Catlin Tucker, “8 ideas designed to engage students in active online learning” Catlin Tucker (blog), July 9, 2020, https://catlintucker.com/2020/07/8-ideas-designed-to-engage-students-online/.

Ellen Key, “English language learners in the elementary classroom: a handbook for beginning teachers” Penn State College of Education, December 8, 2004. https://ed.psu.edu/pds/elementary/intern-resources/esl-handbook.

Jennifer Gonzalez, “4 things you don’t know about the jigsaw method” Cult of Pedagogy (blog), April 15, 2015. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/jigsaw-teaching-strategy/.