Using Structure to Promote Equity and Engagement in Live Remote Sessions

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Using structured interactions in remote courses reduces the cognitive load students may experience as they navigate the tasks and processes of group work, while creating an inclusive climate in which students can learn.

Using Structure to Promote Equity and Engagement in Live Remote Sessions
Credit: PayPau / © 2021

Adjusting to remote teaching has been both exciting and challenging. On the one hand, breakout rooms and live remote chats present opportunities for enhanced teaching and learning. On the other hand, the loss of the physical tools and spaces that we as teaching and learning professionals were accustomed to required us to change our teaching practices. Interaction is central to effective communication and, by extension, effective teaching and learning.Footnote1 Therefore, finding ways to allow students, who may attend classes at different times and in different places, to productively engage in content-rich, learner-centered interactions, has been central to our planning since we first ventured into the Zoom classroom.

Interaction Enhances (Remote) Learning

Interaction facilitates learning and plays a central role in active learning.Footnote2 Research across various disciplines has shown that students are more engaged and achieve more academically when they engage in active learning than when they listen passively during lectures.Footnote3 In a highly cited study published in 2014, Scott Freeman, a teaching professor emeritus at the University of Washington, and his colleagues carried out a meta-analysis of 225 studies of active learning. They found that students who learned under an active learning condition increased their average exam scores by six percentage points. The researchers' analysis also showed that students who were taught using active learning failed at lower rates than students who were taught with traditional lectures.Footnote4 Grades don't tell the whole story, but interaction seems to play a key role in learning.

In the face-to-face classroom, some interactions seem to unfold naturally. The physical tools and the space—the whiteboard, desks, and the room—help structure those interactions. The remote classroom, however, is a new kind of space—one without the built-in structures of the physical classroom. Students can't simply "turn to a neighbor" to engage in pair discussions as they would in an in-person classroom. If these built-in structures are essential to successful and productive interactions, then without similar cues in a remote-teaching space, students may find that turning off their cameras and working alone is easier than trying to overcome the newness of remote teaching and learning.

Structure Facilitates (Remote) Interaction

Research has shown that structure is key to effective collaborative group work. At Giessen University, Marina Supanc and her colleagues found that students in an active learning group that was highly structured by the instructor experienced greater learning gains than students in low-structure and control groups. They also found that students whose instructors provided structured group work had higher levels of self-perceived competence than students in the control group. Students in the structured-work groups also perceived the tasks they engaged in as more valuable.Footnote5 At one time or another, most teaching and learning professionals have heard students say that they found their group work to be pointless "busy work."Footnote6 When students don't see a clear reason for group work, or when group work is poorly organized, students may perceive the work as unproductive or as a waste of time. At the root of these complaints may be a lack of adequate structure to mediate students' interactions with each other or with the content and tasks.

Structure Promotes Inclusivity

Structure is also central to inclusive modes of teaching. The notion of a high-challenge classroom, supported by structures that scaffold students' ability to engage in high-level cognitive tasks, was articulated in the late 1990s and early 2000s by scholars researching second language literacy.Footnote7 The methods used to support student learning in these contexts include clear structural components. These components are intentionally designed to be equitable and inclusive so that students who are learning a new language while also learning content in that language can participate in rigorous and challenging learning tasks. Structural components include providing clear, well-sequenced instructions, defining group roles, and assigning transparent tasks, among many others. Scholars are exploring the integral relationship between structure and inclusive teaching of various disciplines at the postsecondary level, especially as it relates to enhancing teaching and learning for underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students.Footnote8

Structure Helps to Establish Productive and Inclusive Remote Interactions

Supanc and her colleagues defined structure as "a dense web of cooperative tasks and incentive structures stimulating the members of a team to share their knowledge, support each other, reflect on their joint efforts, and take responsibility for their individual accomplishments."Footnote9 In our view, this definition includes structures that scaffold both the processes of group work and the interactions that are important to many forms of active learning. If structure is indeed key to successful collaborative interactions, what can we do to provide more structure to students in ways that will lead to better interactions and enhanced learning in our live remove sessions? Following are some methods for designing cooperative tasks and incentive structures that can help students have productive interactions and engage meaningfully with course content. These techniques may also dispel the perception that collaborative work—especially in a cloud-based learning environment—is "busy work."

  • Have a clear pedagogical reason for the task, and share it with your students. What outcome do you want students to achieve by completing a given task? Do you want them to discuss a concept to discover gaps in their understanding or practice a skill that you have just taught? Do you want students to formulate a critique of a particular viewpoint? Perhaps you want them to reflect on how a concept you've discussed could be applied in an authentic, professional context. Students perceive tasks as "busy work" when the reasons for doing them aren't clear. Group work for the sake of group work is rarely productive; there must be a pedagogical function behind it. Know yours and tell students about it.
  • Give clear guidelines for the task. As instructors, we often expect students to read or listen to instructions and immediately begin to work productively. Sometimes, our instructions are not as clear as we think they are, or a student's attention may momentarily stray. Taking time to explain the task can make the difference between an excellent group work experience and a mediocre one.
    • Construct a clear, specific prompt. There's a difference between the prompt, "Discuss what we just talked about in pairs and report back afterward," and "Discuss at least two differences between a behaviorist and a social constructivist view of learning using information from the lecture and the readings. Then, formulate a possible critique of each theory. You'll report back after twelve minutes." The first doesn't provide enough information; the second lays out the topics that students should discuss, articulates an expectation for what they should produce, and gives students a time limit for accomplishing the task.
    • Present the prompt to students verbally and in writing; putting it on a slide works well. Both seeing and hearing the prompt as you go over it clarifies the task for students and encourages them to engage seriously with the material. After presenting the prompt, you might also copy and paste it into the main session chat before assigning students to breakout rooms. The prompt will then be visible to students after they go into their designated rooms. This will help them remember the specifics of the task and will serve as a reference while they work.
  • Establish structures for interaction. Interaction can be more challenging when students are expected to communicate complex concepts across a digital divide. When the instructor puts structures in place that streamline interactional processes, cognitive load is reduced. Students spend fewer cognitive resources on navigating the procedural elements of group work and instead focus their cognitive efforts on engaging with the material in meaningful ways that promote learning.
    • Structures that prepare students for interaction. Providing students with an opportunity to prepare for their group interaction can smooth the way to meaningful conversations. It can also reduce possible feelings of surprise or panic among students when they are asked to comment spontaneously. A structure that creates space for this type of preparation is a "QuickWrite." Immediately before engaging in group interactions, students are invited to spend between one and five minutes writing a response to a prompt. Once they have completed this task, they will be ready to share something during their group interaction.
    • Structures for turn-taking. Without a table to go around or a neighbor to turn to, students may find it difficult to begin talking to one another, which stalls interaction. One way an instructor can structure remote interaction is by doing a "round-robin alpha" activity—a variation on the in-person round-robin, where students take turns speaking. In this remote-learning-compatible variation, students speak in alphabetical order by first name, as displayed in their web-conferencing interface.Footnote10 Once everyone has had a chance to speak (or to "pass"), regular conversation ensues. When the instructor establishes a turn-taking structure, students can focus less on managing the conversation and concentrate more fully on learning course content. Round-robin is also an equitable practice that creates space for every student to speak, not just those who are more likely to speak in the first place.Footnote11
    • Structures for engaging with content. An effective method for encouraging students to deeply engage with the course content is to use graphic organizers (GOs) to structure learning activities or tasks. Numerous studies have shown that GOs facilitate learning by supporting the integration of new knowledge with knowledge the students already have.Footnote12 Other research has found that GOs are particularly effective for learning because they allow students to immediately see key relationships among concepts.Footnote13 Putting a simple graphic organizer in a Google Doc for students to discuss and complete during breakout-room discussions can help structure their group interactions, and it gives students a task to complete, which helps to ensure that interactions are productive and on-topic. More complex GOs can be given to students to complete outside of class time. The completed GOs can then be used in the next class to focus students' conversations in breakout rooms as they compare and discuss their respective GOs through screen sharing. The students' completed GOs can be collected and reviewed by the instructor as a formative assessment to inform later instruction. (See figure 1 for an example graphic organizer used as part of a lesson about formative and summative assessment.)
    Figure 1. Modified Frayer Model Placed in a Google Doc to Structure Group Work in a Live Breakout Room.
    Title: Activity 2. Modified Frayer Model on Formative or Summative Assessment. Instructions: Discuss your assigned assessment type (formative or summative) with your group members, discussing its definition and characteristics, based on the article we read for this week. You should also try to think of examples and non-examples of the type of assessment you have been assigned. Then, complete the grid below with the information you discussed. Each person in your group should use a different-colored font when contributing to the grid. Grid Title: Breakout Group 2: SUMMATIVE ASSESSMENT. Grid: 4 quadrants- Definition, Characteristics, Examples, Non-examples.
  • Don't require camera use, but explain the usefulness of having cameras on. Being able to see the people they are speaking with facilitates students' interactions. It also helps to establish trust and a sense of class community. However, because students may have valid reasons for not using cameras, we don't require camera use—no questions asked. We do, however, invite students to use their cameras if they feel comfortable doing so. This allows for non-use of cameras while giving students an invitation to use their cameras if they wish to.
  • Visit breakout rooms during group work. During in-person classes, instructors often circulate among groups as they work, listening in and occasionally answering questions. This is also possible online. Before sending students to breakout rooms, tell them that you'll randomly visit their rooms to listen and offer help if needed. You may want to mute yourself and turn your camera off, only intervening if asked. This will prevent you from distracting students and let them know that you are there for support. Visiting the rooms can also provide information about whether students are understanding the topics being discussed. This information can be used to inform the next steps in instruction.
  • Debrief to deepen learning. Students will also feel the work they are engaged in is valuable if they know that they will need to report back. When students return to the main session, you can ask each group to report back and use that time to probe students' understanding and engage them in critical thinking around the topic. This final step helps students consolidate their understandings and provides an opportunity to extend the discussion or transition to the next topic.

Remote teaching has provided teaching and learning professionals with opportunities to try new instructional methods and adapt existing ones to the remote format. The strategies described in this article can be used in face-to-face instruction as well. Structured interactions reduce the cognitive load students may experience as they navigate the tasks and processes of group work while creating an inclusive climate in which students can interact. This allows them to concentrate on content while reaping the many benefits that come from engaging in interaction with peers in the context of active learning.


  1. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); Debra L. Linton, Jan Keith Farmer, and Ernie Peterson, "Is Peer Interaction Necessary for Optimal Active Learning?" CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 243–252. This assertion is further informed by the authors' backgrounds in interactional linguistics (Turner) and second language acquisition (Merrill). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Elli J. Theobald, et al., "Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117, no. 12 (March 2020): 6476–6483; J. Patrick McCarthy and Liam Anderson, "Active Learning Techniques versus Traditional Teaching Styles: Two Experiments from History and Political Science," Innovative Higher Education 24, no. 4 (June 2000): 279–294; Mark Killian and Hara Bastas, "The Effects of Team-Based Learning on Students' Attitudes and Students' Performances in Introductory Sociology Classes," Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 15, no. 3 (June 2015): 53–67. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Scott Freeman, et al., "Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 23 (June 2014): 8410–8415. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Marina Supanc, Vanessa A. Völlinger, and Joachim C. Brunstein, "High-Structure versus Low-Structure Cooperative Learning in Introductory Psychology Classes for Student Teachers: Effects on Conceptual Knowledge, Self-Perceived Competence, and Subjective Task Values," Learning and Instruction 50 (August 2017): 75–84. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Yunjeong Chang and Peggy Brickman, "When Group Work Doesn't Work: Insights from Students," CBE—Life Sciences Education 17, no. 3 (September 2018): ar52. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Luciano Mariani, "Teacher Support and Teacher Challenge in Promoting Learner Autonomy," Perspectives: A Journal of TESOL - Italy 23, no. 2 (Fall 1997); Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons, "What Is Scaffolding?" in Scaffolding: Teaching and Learning in Language and Literacy Education, ed. Jennifer Hammond (New South Wales: Primary English Teaching Association, 2001): 1–14. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Sarah L. Eddy and Kelly A. Hogan, "Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?" CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 453–468; Scott Freeman, David Haak, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, "Increased Course Structure Improves Performance in Introductory Biology," CBE—Life Sciences Education 10, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 175–186; David Haak, Janneke HilleRisLambers, Emile Pitre, and Scott Freeman, "Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology," Science 332, no. 6034 (June 2011): 1213–1216; and Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan, "Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here's How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive," Chronicle of Higher Education, July22, 2019. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Supanc, Völlinger, and Brunstein, "High-Structure versus Low-Structure Cooperative Learning," 78. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. The idea for using alphabetical order for round-robin alpha came from Cecilia Gómez at UC Davis. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Aída Walqui and Leo Van Lier, Scaffolding the Academic Success of Adolescent English Language Learners: A Pedagogy of Promise (San Francisco, CA: WestEd, 2010). Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. David P. Ausubel, "The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material," Journal of Educational Psychology 51, no. 5 (1960): 267–272; William B. Cutrer, Danny Castro, Kevin M. Roy, and Teri L. Turner, "Use of an Expert Concept Map as an Advance Organizer to Improve Understanding of Respiratory Failure," Medical Teacher 33, no. 12 (2011): 1018–1026; Dung C. Bui and Mark A. McDaniel, "Enhancing Learning during Lecture Note-Taking Using Outlines and Illustrative Diagrams," Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 4, no. 2 (June 2015): 129–135. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Douglas F. Kauffman and Kenneth A. Kiewra, "What Makes a Matrix So Effective? An Empirical Test of the Relative Benefits of Signaling, Extraction, and Localization," Instructional Science 38, no. 6 (2010): 679–705. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.

Patricia Turner is an Education Specialist in the Center for Educational Effectiveness at the University of California, Davis.

Margaret Merrill is a Senior Instructional Design Consultant at the University of California, Davis.

© 2021 The Regents of the University of California, Davis campus. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.