5.2 Before the activity

Before the activity

Key Concept: Include group-forming tasks, even for face-to-face cohorts undertaking online activities.

Directing students to the activity

If you have the opportunity to introduce your online activity in class, show students where to find the activity during your lecture.

As discussed in 2.1 Module sites, signposting ensures students spend more time on task and less time clicking links to get to resources and activity spaces. For example, within your Yorkshare module site, if you require students to undertake tasks after the lecture, include a note within the description for your lecture slide content item directing students towards the online activity for that week. Refer to the left menu item first, then any folders and finally the exact title of the task as it appears to students.

Group size

You may need to break larger timetabling groups down into smaller groups for online working. As discussed by Jacques and Salmon (2007, p.161), online groups of 10-15 people are about right for ease of facilitation and encouraging participation from most of the people in the group. Smaller groups, whilst easier for the facilitator to manage, may suffer from a lack of diversity of viewpoints and set a high expectation for levels of contribution, in particular in discussion-based tasks. Larger groups are more difficult to facilitate and can be dominated by a select few or cliques of participants based on friendship groups or workplaces.

Getting a good balance between diversity of students, whilst also ensuring the group is not too large so that everyone still feels able to contribute something fresh to the discussion will help to engage students in the activity.


Whilst students may already be familiar with each other in the face-to-face space, if there is group collaboration only in the online space, you should design in an ice-breaker activity. Ice-breakers are essential for activities that:

  • require students to share personal perceptions or experiences,
  • require participation from all students for success, or
  • have long-term investment, for example a module-long project.

These activities are part of the group forming process, establishing a common approach to contributions and rules of engagement. It also allows students to form their online identity and voice that may be different from how they would contribute in face-to-face environments. For example a shy student may find it easier to write their contributions in an online forum using the time and space to think about their responses that they wouldn’t otherwise have in the classroom environment.

Examples of ice-breaker activities

  • Sharing an image that represents something about themselves.
  • Posting a list of favourite hobbies/societies to find similarities amongst students.
  • How would you spend £200/£1,000/£100,000?
  • Posting something about your home town.
  • Create a ‘skills market’ where students share what skills they are strong in and could support others with.
  • Establish one rule that the group should abide by during the activity.
  • Establish collectively what the group wants to achieve by participating in the activity.

Adapted from: Salmon (2005, p.117-119).

Exploring different methods of student contribution

Guidance for what is recommended to contribute needs to be provided within your instructions at the start of the activity, whether you wish to encourage a wide range of contributions and so welcome different formats, or require evidence of application of specific skills or learning.

In some cases it may be appropriate not to tie students down to text-based contributions only. For activities where students are posting personal contributions, they may feel video or audio offers a better medium for them to convey their argument. Similarly, images may also be particularly powerful in conveying ideas, either photographically, or with infographics or simply snaps of hand-written diagrams uploaded to a Yorkshare blog using the Blackboard Mobile App. Even with text-based submissions, you may suggest students include pictures, graphs, tables, specific layouts or designs.

The use of synchronous tools such as Collaborate can be used to explore higher-order learning by asking students to apply understanding to a problem during an activity. For example, presenting a case study and asking students to analyse it on-the-fly.

Aligning contribution format to learning objectives

Different methods of student contribution will also support forms of learning across the three domains of learning suggested by Bloom et al. (1956): cognitive (knowledge), affective (attitudinal) and psychokinetic (practical skills). As an example, provision of a video to portray how a social issue affects individual people may develop learning in the affective domain, particularly for those who watch the video. Similarly, video or photo submissions could be used to show how students have developed practical skills.

Online interventions

E-Learning Walkthrough

Problem Based Learning

Supporting Problem Based Learning

E-Learning Walkthrough

Blended approaches

Expanding the lecture with screencasts
Using resources to introduce topics or consolidate learning after class.

Case studies

E-Learning Walkthrough

Blended Problem Based Learning

Using technology to support group work
John Bennett, The York Law School
View Case Study

E-Learning Walkthrough

Ensuring essential prior knowledge for lab work

Using online activities to ensure students have the safety knowledge to enter the lab.
Dr Nigel Lowe, Chemistry
View Case Study

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