Top tips for large and small group (online) teaching

This post aims to provide some quick tips and tricks to help improve student engagement during online teaching sessions. We understand that group sizes mean different things to different people, a small group in one discipline may be considered a large group in another, but try to take a look through the prompts below and see what may work in your teaching context.

Small groups

Firstly encourage students to engage by using the microphones and turning on their webcams. It can be difficult to get students to enable their cameras, and we definitely don’t want to force students to turn them on for a number of reasons, but try to encourage this as a normalised behaviour for your class and emphasise the benefits – both that you get from seeing them and that they get from seeing each other. 

In a smaller group it’s also a lot easier to ask students to contribute verbally and the raise hand feature in Zoom can be really useful to facilitate this and avoid students feeling like they have been talked over or haven’t had a chance to contribute. Remember to mention ‘mic etiquette’ to your students to ensure that they mute themselves when they are not contributing (and remember to unmute themselves when they want to speak!). 

As students could potentially be feeling more isolated at this time it’s a great idea to include icebreaker activities at the start of your teaching sessions. This could be a planned activity, perhaps a short gamified quiz using tools like Poll Everywhere or Kahoot!, but it doesn’t have to be and doesn’t need to take too much time away from the module content. Your ‘icebreaker’ could just be a chance for you to check in with your students to see how their week has been going and to provide a more personal touch.

Another way of allowing students to participate more actively in a teaching session is to hand over the Zoom screen sharing capabilities to them. In the same way that hosts can, participants have the ability to share their screen with the rest of the group. There are a number of ways that you could use this, for example for more formal student presentations or to allow students to feed back on the output of an activity they have been working on. You can even ask multiple students to share their screens simultaneously.

Large groups

In large group teaching settings, as with in-person teaching, it’s easier for individual students to feel isolated or lost, so it is really important to try to build a sense of community among your cohort. There is some great advice on building online learning communities on the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere Canvas site.

One tool that can be really useful to help break up these large groups and allow students to interact more with their peers is the breakout room feature in Zoom. This allows you to split students into smaller groups in a number of ways to allow them to carry out activities or engage in discussions, providing them with a greater opportunity to participate actively and to engage with other students. The post Encouraging engagement in breakout room activities takes you through a number of strategies that you can put in place before, during and after each activity to try to encourage students to engage with and make the most of these breakout rooms.

When teaching large groups it is important to manage the Zoom Chat carefully as it could get very busy. You may want to define set times that you will be addressing questions so that you don’t feel like you have to stop the flow of the session whenever a message comes in and so that students know that their question or issue will get addressed. In addition, you could collect questions before a teaching session via a Discussion in your Canvas module. This will allow you to identify possible themes beforehand and then use these to feed into the direction of the session. 

Student response systems can also be really useful in large group teaching sessions. These are tools that allow you to gather opinions and feedback from students or to pose quiz questions. To do this you could use either the Zoom polls, which allow you to pose multiple choice questions, or Poll Everywhere, which allows you to use a wider range of question types including word clouds, open ended questions and clickable images. These activities allow you to embed points of interaction throughout your teaching session to ensure that students are actively participating.

Further support

Please contact if you would like any further support with the tips mentioned about or if you would like to explore any of the tools further. You can also visit the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere for additional guidance.

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Posted in Learning Design

Encouraging engagement in breakout room activities

Zoom breakout rooms can be a great way of facilitating interaction between students during online teaching sessions. They can be particularly useful when teaching large groups, when the possibility of student contributions is more limited. However, there is a danger that these rooms can become silent spaces where students are not actually interacting and when we aren’t able to circulate around a room to check on student progress this can be difficult to monitor and mitigate. 

Below are a series of practical tips for setting up and facilitating breakout room activities. We have split these into what you can do before, during and after an activity to provide students with the knowledge they need to make the most of this opportunity to interact with their peers.


Make sure to set out the activity instructions and timings clearly. What is the purpose of the activity? What will students need to produce or communicate back? How long will they be spending on it? It is a good idea to include this information on any slides or resources you are using so that it is as clear as possible to students what is expected of them. You should also provide direct links to any resources that students will be required to use so that they don’t need to spend the time allocated for the activity looking for these. These resources might include any articles, case studies or collaborative documents they will need to access. The easiest way of doing this is through the Chat within Zoom.

Before sending students into their breakout rooms, check that they understand what is required and allow some time for them to ask questions about the activity. You can also take this opportunity to remind them of the ‘Ask for help’ button within their breakout room. This allows them to indicate to you that they have a question or are stuck and call you into their room. 

Finally allocate your students to their groups. There are a number of different ways you can do this, you can assign groups randomly, allow students to self select into groups or you can set up groups in advance by pre-assigning them. Think about what will work best for the activity you have prepared and bear in mind that allowing students to self select their groups may take more time out of the session.


Once students have joined their breakout rooms you can use the tools within Zoom to check on student progress. Instead of circulating around the room, as you would when teaching in person, you can drop into each room to see how they are getting on with the assigned activity, encourage further discussion and check that they are on task. It may be a good idea to let students know you will be doing this beforehand as this will hopefully encourage them to start interacting. You can also use this time to respond to any requests for help that you receive. 

Consider requiring students to contribute to a collaborative resource, for example a shared Office 365 document or a Padlet wall. This requires students to create some kind of output during the activity, hopefully encouraging them to engage. It also makes feeding back to the whole group quicker, particularly for larger cohorts, and provides students with a resource they can take away at the end of the session. 

Padlet wall with posts arranged in columns

Don’t forget that you can send text/chat messages to students while they are in their breakout rooms. You could use this feature to send reminders of timing, for example that they have two minutes left or that they should think about moving on to the second half of the activity or a second discussion question.


Once students have returned from their breakout rooms you should require them to feedback into the session, this provides more of a purpose to the activity as students can see how it feeds into the wider teaching session. There are a number of ways that you could capture this. Firstly, you can ask students to report back verbally, this could be a nominated member of the group or all students within a group. Secondly, you can ask them to post a summary in the Chat and then read this aloud to share with the whole cohort. Finally, you could do this by looking through the contributions that the groups have made to a collaborative resource. This approach is particularly useful for large groups when asking each group to report back verbally would be very time consuming. Once you have done this aim to then sum up the key points from the activity. 

Get in touch

Don’t forget that breakout rooms aren’t the only way of encouraging student interaction online and won’t necessarily be the best approach for every activity, there are many other options to explore. If you would like support using breakout rooms or other learning technologies within your teaching please visit the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere support site or contact We’re happy to run through any ideas that you have for different activities and to help you think through how to redesign in person activities for online teaching.

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Posted in Active learning, Blended learning, Learning Design

Free images to use in presentations and Canvas

colourful autumn leaves

Images can add so much to a presentation or a Canvas site, to illustrate a point, supplement your words or grab viewers’ attention. But where can you find good images that don’t breach copyright?

Too many people just use a Google search to find an image and think that if it’s on the internet it’s okay to use – it’s not. Most images you will find using internet image searches are copyrighted. 

It is possible to modify a Google or Flickr search to show just the images that have Creative Commons licences but there are other options. There are many sites that bring together images that are free to use, either using their own licences or CC0 (Creative Commons No Rights Reserved). Often these images will be mixed with some paid-for images to tempt you, but you can search just for the free images.

Some of our favourite sites

The image at the top of this post is from Unsplash for education which is one of our favourites, alongside Pixabay and Pexels (now both owned by Canva, the graphic design platform). Between them they have millions of images so you are likely to find something that communicates what you want. 

You may also want to look at these sites which have a mixture of images including some CC0 images:

Specialised image collections

There are also many more specialized sites that curate collections of images around particular topics or themes or from particular sources.

Rawpixel public domain contains images of ‘antique books and chromolithographic plates’ alongside photos which might be particularly useful for arts and humanities.

old painting showing people eating a meal around a table in a town square

Art museums and libraries are also great sources, with lots of great quality, free to use images if you search for CC0 or ‘public domain’. For example, you might want to look at:

If you are looking for clipart and logos without any background you might like PurePNG or Clip Safari. The Noun Project  has some public domain  icons amongst many CC-licensed ones, including a recent collection Redefining women icons.

icon of woman in hijab, standing at lectern and pointing to slides.
Keynote speaker icon from Redefining women icons

Students using images

Abstract concepts can be harder to find images for than concrete objects, but often the process of finding an image that represents what you want to say helps in thinking about it, so asking students to find a free or CC-licensed image that represents a particular concept could be a useful activity. In the process, students can learn about searching for free-to-use images and how to reference them when required.

One platform which can be useful for not only finding images, but also showing how a CC-licensed image should be referenced is Photos for Class which searches Flickr, Pixabay and Pexels for Creative Commons images then embeds the citation into the image as in the example below. As the name implies these are images intended for schools, so a filter is applied to surface only age appropriate images for K-12 which may mean that you won’t always find what you want, but it’s a good way to show how a Creative Commons licensed image should be referenced (unless it’s CC0).

autumn woodland scene with attribution embedded at the bottom

Further considerations and resources

Don’t forget that whatever images you use, it is essential to add alt-text for accessibility.The Digital Accessibility toolkit on the Technology Enhanced Learning web pages has lots of guidance on making all your digital materials accessible.

You can find out more about copyright in teaching materials from the library.

If you have a favourite source for free-to-use images please do share it in the comments.

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Posted in Images and Copyright

The Great Firewall of China: restricted access to commonly used websites and resources

In the current climate of travel restrictions, shielding and limits to student numbers on campus, the student body is much more dispersed than in previous years. This has brought with it new challenges in providing for the significant number of our students resident in China. Due to local regulations, many commonly used websites, tools, apps and information sources are blocked for people on the Chinese mainland (China’s Special Administrative Regions such as Hong Kong and Macau are not affected). This has an implication for our students who are currently studying there and needing to access online teaching content. In this post with support from our colleague Sarah Ison, we will list some of the most common and popular sites and information sources that are currently blocked by the Chinese firewall and some sites that we rely on for teaching which are available to our students there. We’ll also look at what you can do to limit the impact of these restrictions and ensure the best learning experience for all of our students.

Sites that are unavailable

A large number of the websites that we all use on a daily basis are blocked. Perhaps the most significant for many is YouTube, but the list includes the full Google suite of collaborative apps as well as services from Facebook, Spotify, Wikipedia,, and a host of popular news sites. 

Websites that are inaccessible in China.
Productivity: Gmail, Dropbox, Google apps, Google play.
Social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit.
Streaming: YouTube, DailyMotion, Vimeo, Periscope, Spotify, Soundcloud.
News: BBC, FT, Wall Street Journal, CNN, New York Times, Reuters.
Search: Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo.

Fortunately, however, the University has a core set of tools which are available.

Software and services that are available in China 

Canvas, Talis Aspire, Panopto and Turnitin

These sites all work from China, so students should be able to engage fully in their online learning and submit their assignments, but there may be slower upload or download times using these. It would be advisable to check through resources or readings in your online reading list to see if you are linking to news articles or websites that are currently unavailable (please see our list below, or for further detail on this china travel website which is updated regularly). If you are linking to a resource which is not available in China, the library can provide support in finding an alternative.


Zoom is also known to work well for students in China. As with those working closer to home, students in China may still experience different connection speeds, so account for this in your planning and be understanding if they turn off their webcams.

Microsoft Office 365 

The full Office 365 package works in China, including OneDrive (students may experience slow uploads), Teams*, Outlook and the software applications.  Students could be encouraged to use OneDrive for sharing and collaboration rather than Google docs if group work is required for teaching and you know that some of your students could be in China.  It is also a useful reminder to students that they can download Office 365 for free, including the Office Suite applications and use them on up to 5 computers and 5 mobile devices.  Full information is available on the ITS Office 365 guidance page

Other tools

The picture becomes less clear with tools like Padlet and PollEverywhere, however we have had reports from colleagues that these are largely available.

If you are keen to use a particular web-based tool you could try using a checking website like This will give you a good idea if something definitely won’t work, however where you receive a positive result, we would still advise treating this with caution. Students may still experience slow download speeds or access may vary. 

What can you do?

Use the core university tools

As mentioned already the core set of university tools are known to be accessible to our students in China so sticking to these is a safe bet.

Allow time 

Allowing extra time for synchronous activities and providing resources in advance gives students time to overcome any access issues prior to the session. Running asynchronous activities can also help to account for websites which are slow to load and with time zone differences. 

Group work

Group work helps to mitigate some access issues, for example grouping students in breakout rooms via Zoom and asking one student to summarise the group’s response reduces the need for any one student to be able to access a particular resource.

Ask your students 

Even with the measures mentioned above the picture may vary between cohorts so the best way to get a clear idea of what will work is to ask your students and be willing, where necessary, to provide an alternative.

If you have any other questions about making your teaching work for everyone, please contact

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Posted in Blended learning, Canvas, digital skills, Learning Design, Learning Technologies

Online Group Presentations

Student presentations are beneficial to student learning. For example:

  • They engage students in the learning material and encourage them to be active in learning the topic they are presenting on.
  • They develop professional and transferable skills. 
  • They give students ownership of their learning.
  • Preparation for a presentation requires students to decide what they want to say and in doing so they must be selective of the materials and theories they are learning. This develops their critical thinking skills. 
  • The experience of giving presentations grows the students’ feeling of expertise and therefore sense of belonging to the discipline. 

Group presentations have additional benefits. The knowledge we disseminate during taught sessions becomes learnt at a deeper level by the students as they prepare for the presentation. They require students to work together which is an important transferable skill and they develop their communication skills using disciplinary-based language. The more they talk, the more they analyse the topic. I could go on.

However, there is at least one downside to traditional, in class, student presentations.They take up valuable seminar time and the quality of the presentations can be variable, therefore not making the best use of face-to-face contact time with your students.

How to do group presentations online

One upside of the current pandemic is that it has forced us to rethink the norm. Many of us using group presentations have thought about ways in which we can bring them to the blended learning environment. In doing so, we have realised the value in students doing a presentation in their own time and submitting a recording of it. This provides the opportunity for maximising the use of face-to-face teaching time for other tasks that the tutor leads.

Our recommendation is that students do group presentations together in a recorded Zoom meeting started in their Sussex Zoom account. They can create the slides together and share the screen when presenting. The tutor and other students can attend but do not need to be there.

All Zoom meeting recordings are transferred to Panopto so the student that has hosted the Zoom meeting will find it in the “Meeting recordings” folder in their Panopto “My folder”. The host will need to move the recording to a Panopto Assignments folder created by the tutor and would need to submit it on behalf of the group to a Canvas Assignment.

Depending on how you have set up the Group Assignment you can grade and leave feedback on the student contributions individually or as a group. You can use the SpeedGrader functionality but you can also use the Panopto Discussion feature to add comments at certain points during the presentation recording. If you wish the presentation to be peer reviewed you can allow peer review in the Assignment settings.

We have a guide on setting up a Group Presentation assignment  and a guide for students using this method. If you are interested in doing group presentations and you would like some help please contact and the team will get back to you.

As always we have many good ideas on the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere site so we recommend you take a look, enrol and check regularly for updates.

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Posted in Blended learning

Co-created marking criteria

Over this summer the University of Sussex Business School embarked on a project to co-create new marking criteria for assessments within their courses. This project saw students, academics and professional services staff come together to collaborate on and produce a common set of criteria and descriptors that were accessible to students.

The project aimed to address differential criteria in place across departments, ensure quality assurance by anchoring the revised criteria to the national standards for each level of study, and address NSS scores and feedback from students. This feedback had highlighted the need to create a consistent set of criteria that used accessible language in order to allow students to engage with the assessment and feedback process. When asked why having a clear criteria was important from a staff and student perspective students answered:

  • To be able to understand what is expected.
  • Transparency.
  • Motivates students and gives directions for improvement and developing potential.
  • Less ambiguity and misunderstandings.

This project employed a number of Student Connectors both from within the Business School and from other academic schools who provided insight into the students perspective and experience. 

Click the image to play the video.

A set of generic criteria is important to provide students with consistency, however it was important that this was able to be adapted for individual assessments to allow for variation in assessments and to ensure that students receive individualised feedback. Each level has been created as Turnitin and Canvas rubrics which staff can apply to their assessments and then adapt as needed, providing additional contextual information for students.
Technology Enhanced Learning are running workshops for University of Sussex Business School staff to provide guidance on using the school marking criteria and providing effective feedback – book a place. If you would like to find out more about this project please contact

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Posted in Marking and assessment

Student engagement in Zoom

We all know that trying to focus on someone speaking for long periods can be very draining, more so when we are increasingly holding digital meetings where a plethora of distractions lurk behind every browser tab (the rise of the digital world appears to have decreased our already fragile attention spans), so in a situation such as this how can you ensure that you keep your students’ eyes and minds engaged and focused on your teaching and their own learning?


Zoom has the ability to pose questions to participants at any point through the Poll tool which allows you to pose multiple choice question/s to your students. You can use this to poll students on how they are finding the current session or what topic they’d like to cover next.

screenshot of a poll in Zoom

For guidance on using Polls in Zoom see the Zoom guidance on Polls


Ask students to put suggestions or ideas to a topic within the chat, even if you can’t respond to all the responses due to a large cohort size or time constraints you can respond to a few responses and build on them, just the fact that your getting students to think about the question your asking them and formulating a response through typing will increase engagement and attention.

screenshot of Zoom Chat box

Non-verbal feedback

Probably the easiest way for students to interact with just a click of a button is for them to use the non-verbal feedback tools within Zoom. This allows students to choose an icon that will appear next to their name within the Participants menu within Zoom. Even with large cohort sizes this makes it very easy to quickly get some clear feedback from students.

You can use this to have regular check-ins with your students to assess their understanding and comprehension of the topic at hand, if they need a break or to see if you should adjust the pace of your session.

It may also be good as a way to engage students who feel too shy or anxious about typing a response into the chat.

screenshot of non-verbal feedback options in Zoom

See Zoom’s guidance on non verbal feedback for more information


The whiteboard functionality in Zoom allows you to display a whiteboard onto the screen which students can write, draw on and annotate, this can allow for a bit of informal engagement, getting students to write out a response or even draw a response to a certain question or prompt onto the whiteboard.  See Zoom’s guidance on whiteboards for more information

If you’d like help with any of the features of Zoom or any of the other technologies we support then please contact Technology Enhanced Learning at 

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Posted in Learning Spaces

Managing online activities with Canvas Sections and Groups

Tutors want to divide up students for a range of purposes, from the administrative to the creative. Canvas has two tools for this which work in distinct ways providing lots of opportunities, but sometimes causing some confusion. This post will explain how Sections and Groups work and offer some ideas for how you might use them.

What are Sections and Groups in Canvas?

Sections are created automatically from the data in Sussex Direct and divide students into teaching and assessment groupings so that e-submissions can be managed. Each Canvas module site will contain a number of these sections and extra ones may be created during the year for things such as resits. Although Sections are created largely for administrative purposes they can then be used to manage some activities within a module.

Canvas Groups are not created automatically and should be thought of as primarily student-led spaces within and alongside a module. When Groups are created within a module, each group has its own group space, like a mini-module within which students can work together. Once Groups have been created, by tutors or students, they can be used to manage some activities.

How can you use Sections to facilitate online learning?

Sections are primarily used to manage e-submissions and marking. If you want to create a formative assignment for one or more seminar groups you can choose which section(s) you assign it to. 

When it comes to marking you can filter by sections if you need to mark a particular seminar group’s work. There is guidance on this on the TEL website, see  e-Submission and e-Feedback: Guidance for staff.

You can also use Sections to create Announcements and Discussions that are visible only to selected Sections. This would be useful for sharing a Zoom link for an online seminar or setting up a pre- or post-class Discussion. For either of these activities just choose the Sections you want in the ‘Post to’ field when creating your Announcement or Discussion.

If you want all the students to discuss the same topic, but only with others in their seminar Section you can duplicate a Discussion and post each copy to a different Section.

screenshot of the 'Post to' options

How can Canvas Groups be used in online learning?

When staff or students set up a Group in Canvas a separate mini-module is created which can be accessed either within the module or from a student’s Groups item in the global navigation menu. The group space is controlled by its members so it is more a peer collaborative space than a ‘teaching’ space. You can read more about Groups in Canvas Highlights – Groups

If Groups have been set up in a module, they can also be used in other activities such as Assignments and Discussions. When creating a formative assignment you can choose to make it a ‘group assignment’ so that one member can submit for the whole group. This could be useful for students submitting group presentation slides or for an asynchronous version of a small group seminar activity. 

Setting a Discussion as a Group Discussion will create multiple instances of the same discussion topic, with each student only seeing their own group’s version, but the tutor having access to all of them. This could be a good asynchronous online alternative to the sort of small group discussions you may have in a face-to-face seminar.

Guidance and support for Sussex staff

The Technology Enhanced Learning team are running webinars on this topic as part of the current programme of workshops and there are lots of useful guides on topics such as constructing collaborative activities, setting up online assignments and building communities online in the Teaching Online Learning Anywhere site. You can also email us at to discuss how you might use these, or any other Canvas tools in your teaching.

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Posted in Canvas

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We are the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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