Engaging students in virtual and blended learning can feel challenging and overwhelming. When students feel connected to the learning, they are more likely to engage into the tasks. One approach is to build structures where students make active decisions and take actions during the lessons, which is the focus of this writing. For ways to engage students as proactive, there are many strong practices and approaches used in brick and mortar schools that can be easily adapted to the virtual world. Once accomplished, one benefit is that virtual settings can be utilized back in the brick and mortar schools through a blended learning approach. (Also, explore more content in this article series listed at the end of this post)

The tools explored here fall under three categories: Protocols, Groups Activities for Learning, and Virtual Student Management. Find at least one idea in each section to try in your classroom or share with teachers.


Wouldn’t it be great if students lead conversations around content-related topics. Students dig into the concepts and problem solve through respectful conversations, while the teacher takes notes on areas to add or expand ideas. The answer is using protocols. These structured conversation guides give participating students specific roles and actions. Many have specific time frames so that participants know what they should do and when. When students become experienced with the protocol, they can eventually run them independently, while the teacher focuses on supporting groups of students for personalized coaching. Check out these for high impactful experiences:

Save the Last Word for Me (pdf)

This reading comprehension protocol guides students through a closed reading activity that includes sharing ideas based on quoted passages. The steps are simple and easy to follow. Put students in groups of 3-4 in breakout rooms to maximize participation and time management. One result is deeper comprehension of the reading assignment.

Chalk Talk

This silent discussion protocol empowers all voices. From chart paper to virtual collaboration boards, students post questions and statements based on focus topic, without talking. The silence allows for the “conversation” to be simultaneous. One variation of this strategy is Making Meaning Routines: view these resources and directions and examples.

Milanote is a good option for a virtual collaboration board. Its whiteboard feature is great for teams to ideate together. This free online tool offers invaluable webbing capabilities where ideas can be visually linked to each other.

Gallery Walks

Use this collaborative protocol for a variety of purposes. Activities could range from posting 3-5 examples or models in a content area –one per slide or page–and have student groups review and comment about each. Or, post student work and have groups review them and post feedback that is specific, constructive, and kind. Use Talk Moves (see below) to reinforce professional conversations. Use breakout rooms or tools like Nearpod (see below) to guide instructional learning.

For more ideas on protocols, check out this curated collection of additional resources.

Group Activities for Learning

When we put students into groups to work on subjects there are many benefits. Participants can support each other with understanding of any tricky or difficult concepts. Another benefit is grouping students is a way to manage class size. For example, groups of four students makes 32 students become 8 groups to manage learning. This is especially important when we must find solutions that are within our locus of control. However, groups need to be used purposefully to ensure the value of learning occurs. Here are some examples for engaging student groups in a productive way.

Learning Stations

Like protocols, learning stations provide specific tasks that are time sensitive and include directions that students can follow independently or in groups. They can be experienced by students in person and virtually. However, when done virtually, the content lives beyond the timestamp of the lesson. The stations are always available for students to access and review content whenever needed. Here are three voices about how to launch stations. Use their advice to adapt to your virtual stations.

1st: 5 Types of Learning Stations You Might Want in Your Classroom

2nd: 6 Tips for Supercharging Your Learning Stations

3rd: How to Create Learning Stations Students will Love

Think Dots

Try this fun activity to engage students with content in a variety of challenging ways. Think Dots includes six squares containing a task. For each task, the approach uses different modalities or learning preferences. For example, one task may require drawing, another solves a visual puzzle, while another provides a real-world problem to solve. Students are NOT assigned, nor choose to do one task. Student groups do ALL tasks, preferably as a collaborative team. The result is that learners experience the core academic concept in multiple contexts and perspectives. Students take turns picking a task that the team completes together.


One challenge with running a virtual session is when sharing links some participants will struggle navigating to the links or get lost in the link that they cannot find their way back to the virtual presentation. Checking for understanding is another challenge for teachers to monitor virtually. Nearpod provides a means to solve both problems while transforming learning into a more student-activated approach to learning. Peardeck is another options that teachers use.

Virtual Student Management

Classroom management is a hallmark of brick and mortar teaching and learning. Effective teachers are known for having a foundation in managing their classroom of students. How does that get addressed in a virtual environment? There are similarities. What follows are strategies that are excellent and proven in both worlds, while also engaging students in taking the lead of their learning.

Establishing Norms

The Science Behind Classroom Norming is a good start to exploring the value of having students create norms for the virtual classroom. When students create the “professional behaviors that will support the learning culture,” they have ownership and accountability for protecting their learning environment.

Talk Moves

Respectful conversations about important topics that have complexity requires teaching and coaching. Talk Moves provides five categories of starter statements and question starters for students to practice when talking or writing during discussions in real-time or on discussion boards.

Mediation Process

Establishing Norms and using Talk Moves are important ways to set up students for success when interacting with each other virtually and in person. However, we also need to empower them with the tools for dealing with negative or problematic interactions among teams and small groups. The Mediation Process provides students with steps on how to address team issues before they become toxic and chaotic.

Next Steps

Engaging learners into curriculum work is a challenge in physical and virtual classrooms. Choose any of these strategies and resources and test-run it with your students. Find your success, while making modifications that make sense for your classroom culture. Then do two things:

First: Share the resource and this blog with your colleagues so that they can add more ideas to their existing toolbox.

Second: Post in the comments below what you found successful and what you see is a challenge needed to be addressed. We are all in the business together for helping students be successfully engaged and learning.

For more exploration and reflection on practices,
here is a list of the articles in this series:

Written by John McCarthy, EdS, author of So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation
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