Bringing Classroom Activities to Life Online

06 Jun 2020 8:24 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By: Alison Jane Martingano, M.Phil, M.A., New School for Social Research

Students learn by getting their hands dirty. But while we all strive to keep our hands clean during COVID-19, it’s important to ensure that our teaching does not become sterile. Here, I share some of my favorite classroom activities and how I have translated them into an online format.


ICEBREAKERS AND CLASSROOM INTERACTIONS

As teachers, we tend to have a favorite icebreaker that we use at the beginning of every semester. Perhaps you ask your students to turn around and introduce themselves to the people next to them. Or maybe you ask them to get up and find someone in the classroom who shares their taste in music. These sorts of activities help students familiarize themselves with their peers and set the tone for classroom discussions.

My Favorite Activity: I like to begin with an icebreaker that prompts students to think about how they would test difficult psychological questions. I present a list of provoking statements such as “video games cause violence” and “democrats and republicans have different morals.” These statements are tailored to each class and also give a preview of the course content. I ask students to decide if they agree or disagree with each statement and find someone in the classroom who holds an opposing viewpoint. Students then sit with their new partners and I give them some time to get acquainted. I then ask the pairs to discuss what empirical evidence would speak to (if not resolve) the statement they disagree on.

Putting It Online: To recreate the feeling of getting up and walking around the classroom, I recommend using Online Town. This is a free website that allows students to control an avatar in a 2-D virtual classroom. When students “stand” their avatar near another person’s, the audio and video from their webcams will automatically sync, allowing them to talk to each other in pairs or small groups. When they have finished their conversation, they can simply “walk” away and talk to another group.

GROUP ACTIVITIES AND DISCUSSIONS

Group activities in the classroom help students consolidate the information they’ve been learning. This might involve pondering a discussion question about the topic or completing a worksheet together. Hearing other students rephrase and use information not only helps students who may not have understood it the first time, but also challenges able students to explain their thinking.

My Favorite Activity: I like to assign students to small groups and give each group member a different section of a longer reading. I ask my students to complete their sections of the reading, then share what they have read with their group members. Students then answer a set of questions. These questions are written in such a manner that they cannot be answered without sharing what each student knows.

Putting It Online: Breakout rooms in Zoom are invaluable for group activities. You can allow Zoom to automatically assign students to breakout rooms or choose who is in each group. As the host of the session, you can jump from one breakout room to another to see how your students are doing. Breakout groups can be disorienting for students because they suddenly have limited contact with you, so make sure you set a clear goal for their activity. I like to ask students to work together to answer questions in a Google document, which helps to give them focus during their discussion.

PRACTICAL DEMONSTRATIONS

There’s nothing quite like seeing a live demonstration in class. Students are far more likely to remember the time their professor showed them something rather than simply told them about it.

My Favorite Activity: I demonstrate classical conditioning using lemonade powder. I instruct students to place a little lemonade powder onto their tongues each time I ring the bell. The lemonade powder makes a small fizzing sensation on their tongue prompting salivation. In my experience, about 80% of students successfully condition themselves to salivate at the sound of the bell. Over time the conditioning wears off, demonstrating extinction. I can also demonstrate spontaneous recovery and use different tones and buzzers to demonstrate stimulus discrimination and stimulus generalization.

Putting It Online: Choose demonstrations that can be achieved by using household objects and be flexible with what is possible. No lemonade powder? Try a different food or drink or have students condition themselves by slapping their own thigh. For a variety of demonstrations, Zoom polls are a useful resource. You can ask students, “Did you feel a fizzing sensation when the bell rang?” Zoom will then calculate what percentage of students answer “yes.” Responding to polls keeps students engaged. Polls are one of the few things that are better online – no more counting how many hands are raised! In Zoom, polls need to be programmed in advance. To reduce your workload, you can reuse a poll with answers A, B, C, & D, and then write what each answer corresponds to on your PowerPoint slide or virtual whiteboard.  

RESEARCH PARTICIPATION

With so much psychological research now being conducted online, there are many online resources that can be integrated into your class to give students a taste of the research process.

My Favorite Activity: In a class on implicit bias, I ask students to take an online Implicit Association Test. After taking the test, we discuss their thoughts about the pros and cons of measuring implicit bias in this way. The test is available for free here

Putting It Online: Does your institution offer students the opportunity to take part in online research? If not, you can simulate the experience using public online resources: an online public goods game, poverty simulation, and questionnaire measures of the five factors of personality and morals. Make sure you give students the opportunity to share their experiences after completing online research studies.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLES

With 24-hour news and social media, your students may be locked inside, but they are not cut-off from the world. Just as you do in the classroom, applying psychological theory to real-world examples is critical. None of us can be aware of every new development, so take advantage of the fact that a wealth of information is at your students’ fingertips and have them search for examples online.

My Favorite Activity: When teaching about shooter bias, there are all too many recent examples of unarmed black men being shot by police in the USA. I ask students to think of their own examples and devote time to discussing the extent to which shooter bias may have been relevant in any particular case. It is important to help students understand the complexities of real-world examples and not to use them simply to illustrate a definition without expansion.

Putting It Online: In an online class, you can give students 5 minutes to find an example online and then share these links with the class using the chat function in Zoom. You might ask them to find examples of conformity, obedience, dehumanization, etc. One of the perks of teaching online is that every student can submit a response via chat rather than only the most eager students who raise their hands. As the instructor, you can share your screen and click on a few of the students’ links while asking them to describe what they found. In this way you can make sure that every student is involved.

ASSIGNMENTS AND HOMEWORK

Despite your best efforts, there may be some classroom activities that simply do not translate well online. For these activities, consider assigning them as homework for students to complete with family or friends.

My Favorite Activity: After teaching about police interview techniques, I ask students to question a willing friend or family member to try to establish if they are lying. Students generally fail miserably at this task, leading to a discussion about the validity of such techniques.

Putting It Online: Many practical homework assignments can be submitted as videos rather than written assignments. I ask students to record their interview and post the video online. Alongside the video, they submit a short description about why they concluded their friend was lying or telling the truth, and whether they were correct. Students seem to enjoy this activity and it helps to bring the online classes into their households which helps strengthen their interest and commitment to completing the course. Students can also record themselves giving presentations using screen share on Zoom.


As online learning becomes more commonplace, there are many solutions to ensure the dynamic classroom experience is not lost. Classroom activities are a great way of keeping students engaged and break-up extensive lecture material. Just like you wouldn’t lecture for hours in a classroom without stopping for questions, debate or demonstration, make sure you add variety online too!

Preparation and planning online activities takes time. But it will be worth it when you hear a student explain the meaning of a psychological concept by saying: “Do you remember when we did….?”


Alison Jane Martingano is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department of the New School for Social Research. She specializes in social and personality psychology, with a particular interest in empathetic processes. Alison Jane holds an M.Phil. and M.A. in psychology from the New School for Social Research and a B.Sc. (hons) from the University of York. She is passionate about teaching and holds positions as an adjunct lecturer, teaching fellow, and guest faculty member at various higher education institutions.

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