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engaging students semi-synchronously: the “puzzle” approach

After listening to Donna Masini and others in our faculty meeting this week, I’ve been thinking about how to hang onto the dynamism of synchronous discussion while getting away from my droning at everyone or even being the emcee at every moment. Donna described a discussion model in which each student passes the ball, in effect, to a peer rather than having discussion ping-pong back and forth with the instructor (mixed sports metaphor: alas). I’ve seen that work great in face-to-face and will try it in Zoom this week.

But I wanted to suggest another approach: what’s sometimes called the “puzzle,” when a single topic is broken into numerous pieces, each of which is addressed by a small group. Then the “puzzle” is assembled in the big group, with each small group presenting its piece. I do this (like many of us, I’m sure) in breakout rooms, and I find that it allows the small-group interaction while guaranteeing that the class as a whole covers the entire reading load, at least superficially.

My new wrinkle is to use collaborative writing to make the breakout room discussions more focused and to give me something to do while they work. I would recommend Dropbox Paper (which I use because CUNY faculty and students have free, secure accounts) or Google Docs: both offer link sharing and real-time simultaneous authoring. So all you do is share a link (here’s a template in Dropbox format) in the Zoom chat, make sure each breakout room knows which number question to respond to, and Bob’s your uncle. As you can see on my template, I give them clear guidelines regarding time budgets and what they’re supposed to achieve in the timeframe. While they’re writing, I get on the document as well and make marginal comments (using the helpful “comment” function): to me, this is a less intrusive way to dip into groups’ activities: actually joining the groups is a conversation killer, I find!

Added bonus: any students who can’t participate synchronously can “comment” just like I did, adding detail to the group’s responses and “participating” ex post facto.

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One Response to engaging students semi-synchronously: the “puzzle” approach

  1. Karen Greenberg says:

    THANK YOU! Again and Again

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