Leveraging Zoom Tools to Facilitate Engagement

What tools in Zoom promote active learning and help keep your students engaged during your synchronous classes? How do you use them? In this workshop, designed for instructors comfortable with the basics of Zoom, we establish a framework for thinking about student engagement and, generally, how to maximize it. Then, we explore Zoom’s interactive tools (chat, non-verbal feedback, polling, annotation, and breakout rooms), discussing them from both a technical and pedagogical standpoint. 

How to Get Started

Step 1: Determine your goal(s).

What engagement challenges would you like to solve in Zoom? Technology should follow pedagogy…in other words, use tools because they serve a teaching purpose. 

Using Zoom’s tools can help students achieve learning objectives, and are especially good for:

  • Keeping students’ attention and keeping them on task.
  • Gauging student learning and offering feedback in real time.
  • Providing opportunities for students to learn from each other.
  • Providing opportunities for students to participate in collaborative problem solving.

That said, a fun or interesting activity now and then to keep things lively and keep attention is not wrong…and can serve a larger teaching purpose like building rapport, creating a supportive learning environment, or providing a break from hard mental work. Using Zoom’s interactive tools to help develop connections with and between students and form a community is a valid and important goal (See step 4 – Invest time in creating a supportive learning environment.)

Step 2: Identify tools you can use in Zoom for interaction and active participation.

(Click on hyperlinks to access Zoom’s help documentation.)


ChatAllows participants to post questions and comments to the chat box during the meeting. The host can allow public posts only, or allow chatting privately with other participants.
Non-verbal feedback and reactionsWith the click of a button, participants can give quick non-verbal feedback or a reaction with a symbol or emoji.
Advanced Polling and Quizzing
Participants answer a variety of question types during a meeting. The host or co-host can display a summary of responses to participants and retrieve a report (spreadsheet) of responses after the meeting. For quizzes, the host can set a correct answer for participants to see after they have responded.
AnnotationParticipants can draw or type on any shared screen (a slide, web page, document, etc.) or a whiteboard so that all other participants can see the annotations.
Breakout roomsSmall groups of participants can join separate rooms within a meeting for a time. Participants can decide which room to join, or the host can assign them to a room.

Step 3: Update your Desktop Client regularly to get the latest functionality, and encourage your students to update their software as well.

Screenshot of Zoom client home page with user menu and "check for updates" highlighted
To update your Zoom desktop client, click on your user icon in the upper right corner, then click “Check for updates” in the menu options.

Step 4: Invest time and energy in creating a supportive learning environment.

The more supported, respected, valued, and heard by others (peers and instructors) students feel, the more positive their attitude will be about the course and the more motivated they will be to engage in active learning. While building a community may take a little time you’d otherwise spend on core content, the potential payoff in student engagement and thus learning is real. One example is to provide opportunities for your students to introduce themselves to each other, either to the whole class or in breakout rooms. Another is to take some time before the session starts to chat with students, perhaps presenting a lighter slide with conversation spark. This will help break the ice!

Recognizing, respecting, and incorporating flexibility due to possible barriers students may face due to disability, Internet access, hardware, or environment will help ensure equity for all students. Consider not requiring students to have their videos on. See this article for 5 good reasons, including (1) avoiding the anxiety and stress it creates; (2) reducing “Zoom fatigue;” (3) respecting students’ competing obligations in the home; (4) respecting privacy; and (5) recognizing access issues. Here is a nice infographic from Oregon State about the pros and cons and other considerations.

Take time during Zoom to discuss expectations, upcoming assignments, and other class updates. Follow this up with something written, but understand that lack of clarity or a sense of unease about upcoming assignments is a big cause of stress for students. Be sure to spend some time going over assignments or large projects and answering questions during your Zoom sessions.

Best Practices

1. Consider using Moodle for most content delivery.

If you deliver the majority of your content (i.e. recorded lectures, readings, slide presentations, etc.) in Moodle for students to study independently before class, then you can use Zoom sessions to focus on those activities that can only be done synchronously (discussion, group work, supported problem-solving). This is similar to the concept of a flipped classroom.

Marie Norman (2017) suggests, “If it suits your topic and students’ developmental level, rather than using synchronous sessions for didactic purposes, have students bring challenging dilemmas or problems and get the group’s input and advice.”

2. If you lecture in Zoom…

Try to make your lectures more like conversations, or incorporate something interactive every 10 or 15 minutes. You could use a poll, invite questions in the chat, invite annotations on a screen, or plan anything else that helps students process and reflect on what you just went over. This will help your students stay engaged and give you and them the opportunity to informally assess learning.

3. Think ahead and prepare.

Incorporating polling, annotation, and breakout rooms effectively requires some thought and planning prior to the session. Attempting to use these “on the fly” can take precious minutes from class time, and you might lose momentum and your students’ attention. Unlike in a face-to-face class, students can’t chat with their classmates while you find a resource or get organized. They are more likely to get distracted with other tasks while they wait.

  • Create and add polls to the Zoom meeting in your Zoom dashboard prior to the meeting and plan when you’ll use them.
  • For annotation: decide what slide, document, or other shared content you will ask students to annotate on, or whether you’ll use the whiteboard. Prepare documents as needed.
  • For breakout rooms, see the Teaching Resources page on Using Breakout Rooms in Zoom for a detailed list of preparations and considerations.

4. Minimize avoidable distractions.

You’ve probably been in a Zoom call where distractions compromise the experience (think low light in videos, poor audio or background noise, the wrong Zoom window layouts, etc.). Best case scenario is that these are annoying to participants, but the real danger is that they draw attention away from the content of the meeting. Do what you can to avoid these in your meetings.

Learn about spotlighting certain participants’ videos so that they are the most prominent for all those in the meeting.

5. Motivate students to engage in online meetings.

  • Start your session with a fun and thought-provoking welcome activity in Zoom to prime students for interaction and get the session going.
  • Make the online session relevant and compelling. Communicate clearly what you’ll be doing online and how the session will help students succeed in the course and achieve the learning outcomes.
  • Be sure to offer something that students will not get through asynchronous materials in Moodle, but make connections to asynchronous materials.
  • Prime students for learning ahead of class. Marie Norman (2017) suggests: “Send a quick email or a 1-3 question survey a day or two before class asking students about their experiences or opinions relevant to the session topic…Collecting information from students in advance will help you prepare appropriate questions and materials. It will also show students that you’re interested in what they have to say, which will help spur discussion in the synchronous environment.”
  • Ask students to come with one question about the topic.

6. Consider accessibility.

  • When annotating items, verbally describe what is being annotated.
  • If you have keyboard only users or screen reader users, limit whiteboard board use
  • When sharing your screen, describe what is on it, including slide numbers of a presentation.
  • Share a link if presenting a web page or an accessible version of the file you are sharing.
  • Learn more about accessibility in Zoom


Read through just a few ideas of specific ways you can use these tools below.


  • Invite questions (privately or publicly) on what you are presenting.
  • Invite students to offer comments or their insights on content. 

Non-verbal feedback and reactions…

  • Check the class temperature: Are you ready for me to move on? Give me a thumbs up/ green checks (yes), red x’s (no).
  • Invite student voices: “Give me a green check if this is true for you…”
  • Identify students who want to speak: “Click the “raise hand” button if you have something to share.”


  • Have some fun and build community. Share fun information at the start of class by asking about a current event, sports, pets, food, etc. and share results.
  • Find out what your students already know or what they think about a topic to inform how you proceed. Quiz them on material you just went over to be sure they “got it,” and identify areas you may need to review again.
  • Kick off a discussion. Marie Norman (2017) suggests asking students to pick a side: “When students are asked to state an opinion, they become more invested in discussing it. So, consider asking a content-relevant either/or question, e.g., “What is more essential to professional success: being organized or being creative?” “Overall, do you think the impact of the Internet has been positive or negative?”


  • Record a brainstorming session. You can divide the whiteboard or slide into sections if needed.
  • Get feedback or opinions. Ask students to mark up a slide to get feedback from them. 
  • Gauge learning or encourage reflection. Share a slide with images and/or text and ask students to stamp or circle content that resonates with them, that is correct vs incorrect, that they’d like more help on, etc.
  • Check the class temperature. Ask them to mark their feelings or thoughts along a continuum.
  •  Tips
    • Take advantage of your ability to “select” using the host annotation toolbar. Use this to move your students’ annotations around.
    • Have some text pre-composed in a document that you can copy and past onto the white board instead of having to type out a prompt in real time.
    • Use the “Save” button in you annotation toolbar to capture work you and your students did to share or post later.
  • View this workshop video (~23 min) for more ideas and instructions for annotation.

Use Breakout Rooms…

Find more great examples in Indiana University’s “Zoom to the Next Level” ebook.


Student Engagement & Teaching Online

Workshop Video

External Resources

In-meeting Chat

Help Documentation

External Resources

Non-verbal feedback and reactions

Help Documentation


Help Documentation


Workshop Video

Help Documentation

Breakout rooms

Minimizing distractions

Workshop Video

Help Documentation

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