students and teacher in a physically distanced classroom

There’s understandably been a lot of discussion about teaching in an online setting since the pandemic forced us all online in March. But the physical classroom will also be quite different for those of you teaching in-person this fall. During this post, we’re going to talk about what to expect and provide some resources and strategies for engaging students in a physically distanced classroom.

What Should I Expect in My Classroom?

This document details our Standard Operating Procedure for Class Sessions Following Public Health Guidance. It’s important to note that physical distancing, reduced density, and the use of face coverings are three key components required for our learning spaces during this pandemic. This means you will likely be teaching to a subset of your students who will all be sitting at least six feet from one another wearing a face covering of some type (the College has also created a very thorough FAQ with pictures of various classrooms).

These logistical considerations may present a challenge when we start thinking about engaging students during class in ways we may have in the past. Faculty teaching in these situations have presented a variety of constraints including: difficulties hearing one another, challenges with group work, difficulty learning students’ names because of masks, and not being able to move around the room as much as they normally would (McLoon & Berke, 2020; McClure, 2020).

Engaging Students in the ‘New’ Classroom

Given these constraints, what can we do to keep students engaged while in the classroom? Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University crowdsourced a pretty impressive document this summer with suggestions for Active Learning while Physically Distancing. This resource is currently nine pages long with activities suggested for a variety of goals such as engaging students, monitoring for understanding, and reflecting on learning. They are adapted across different contexts (online-synchronous, online-asynchronous, and a physically distanced classroom). Derek Bruff, Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University also offered some very practical suggestions on his blog.

Here are a few ideas for your classroom adapted from some common active learning practices many of us already use in our classrooms without social distancing (Bruff, 2020; LSU, 2020).

  • Polling: polling is still a great activity for engaging students. There are a variety of digital polling tools out there that we would be happy to consult on, but if you can’t stand the thought of using another tool, colored index cards that students hold up in class (pink for A, blue for B, etc.) work just as well.
  • Turn and talk: for this activity, you assign partners in the classroom to discuss a question. If the class is small enough, pair them (six feet apart) throughout the classroom. If that’s not possible, or noise becomes an issue with too many students, they can “talk” through texts on, a shared Google doc, or by sharing cell phone numbers.
  • Collaborative note taking or summaries: for this approach you would create a class Google doc for note taking and assign 2-3 students to take notes during any given class session. You could do the same with class summaries or a variation might include having students first start by creating their own class summary and then working out of class with a small group to compose a “best-of” summary that each group shares with the class. You can even discuss that process in the following class (e.g., which summary was the best and why, did they miss something that other groups included, what did they learn by summarizing).
  • Minute paper/muddiest point/quickwrite: pose a question or two and have the students write a response. Have students turn their responses in at the end of the class (you could also do this digitally through Canvas or using a Google form)
  • Posters, whiteboards, or gallery walks: Put students in small groups (still sitting six feet apart) and assign each to a poster or space on a wall. Have students contribute one at a time on the wall by writing on poster paper, a white board, or adding a Post-It note. When the group has finished, one student should take a picture and share with everyone in the group or the class.
  • Pro/con list: Have students generate pros and cons around an idea or issue in a class Google doc.
  • Fishbowl discussion: have the students in the fishbowl participate remotely (Zoom, chat, or a Google doc) while the students in the classroom listen. You can then lead the whole class discussion among the listeners afterwards.

A Detour: Caring for Students

It might be worthwhile to check out this Twitter thread by Dr. Jessica Coblentz, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College. She notes that despite her campus providing a great deal of support to students, almost all of her students have reported feeling “overwhelmed”, “helpless” or “out of control” during a time where we are in the midst of a global pandemic as well turmoil around social justice issues. She cautions that we need to be prepared and plan for this as best as we can.

Here at the CAT, we had similar discussions in our peer-to-peer sessions over the summer. Take a few minutes to read this article on trauma-informed teaching and learning by our wonderful colleagues at UNCG. Another great resource is Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher-Ed Landscape, a collection of multimedia resources (videos, audio podcasts, interviews, infographics, and articles) from sixteen current and forthcoming authors in the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education book series from West Virginia University Press.

It’s going to be a challenging semester. Take a deep breath, keep things as simple and manageable as possible, and give yourself (and your students) lots of grace and empathy. We’re cheering for you and are here if you need us.


Active Learning while Physical Distancing by Louisiana State University (LSU) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Bruff, D. (2020). Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms.

Lederman, D. (2020). Can Active Learning Co-Exist With Physically Distanced Classrooms?

McLoon, A. & Berke, S. K. (2020). A Dry Run at a Socially Distanced Classroom.

McClure, C. I. (2020). Experiencing COVID-Style Classroom Teaching.

Mondelli, V. & Tobin, T. J. (eds.) (2020). Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher-Ed Landscape.

UNCG Teaching and Learning Commons (2020). Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning.

Wake Forest University College (2020). COVID-19 Classroom Policies and Information.