Volume 48, Issue 5 p. 538-541
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Using share-out grids in the online classroom: From icebreakers to amplifiers

Cait S. Kirby

Corresponding Author

Cait S. Kirby

Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA


Cait S. Kirby, Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37232.

Email: [email protected]

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First published: 07 September 2020
Citations: 2


Many institutions of higher education will use online teaching in some form in the coming months. Active learning strategies in online classrooms can present new challenges, especially for quiet or shy students, or students who are not in a location where speaking is feasible. Further, development of student science identity, class community, and structure are crucial in the online classroom, especially in times of crisis. I propose one online teaching strategy using what I call “student share-out grids” that is useful for many types of students and promotes community and structure in the online classroom.


Due to the widespread prevalence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) it is apparent that many institutions will utilize online teaching to some extent in fall 2020. Active learning strategies have been used for decades and research demonstrates that these strategies improve student outcomes, especially students from marginalized groups.1-4 Faculty often focus on active learning strategies that require students to verbally share their answers or to work in groups.3 Students who are shy, disabled, accustomed to different cultural norms, or learn by internal processing are disadvantaged by these fast-paced speech-focused techniques, especially with the added layer of online modalities which can be complicated, confusing, and isolating for students. Further, students may be unable to verbalize their answers if they are attending class in a library, in a crowded home environment, or for other unforeseen reasons that may emerge as the coronavirus situation progresses. We know that feelings of belonging and self-efficacy, as well as recognition by peers and important others, help build student identity.5-7 Taken together, some online strategies are likely to negatively impact student science identity. Thus, providing an online active learning strategy that benefits students who are not inclined or able to speak will promote the engagement and belonging of those students. Finally, promoting structure, community, and predictability in the classroom is especially stabilizing and supportive during this traumatic time. Here I describe an online teaching strategy that promotes engagement in classroom activities without requiring students to speak and promotes community, structure, and science identity in the classroom.

1.1 Icebreaker

This is an adaption of the commonly used icebreaker bingo card activity. A grid is shared with the class via a shared Zoom screen. The grid contains rectangles in which students can type answers. Student rectangles are pre-identified with their names. In the beginning of class, the grid is used as an icebreaker activity and contains a low-stakes, identity-building question for students to answer (Figure 1a). I encourage instructors to use questions that build identity around the course, as shown in the example prompt, wherein students are asked to share their favorite fictional scientist. Using the annotate feature in Zoom, students can type in their answer and see other students' answers (Figure 1b). This question is low stakes in that students do not need to know any course content information to provide an answer and because it is their opinion, there are no wrong answers. As the semester goes on, instructors may include more course content (e.g., “What is your favorite complex in the mitochondrial electron transport chain?” or “What is your favorite statistical test and why?”) By encouraging students to consider questions that position them adjacent to science, they can build their classroom science identity. Similar relevant questions could be used in class in other fields to promote their classroom identity in those fields (e.g., in an anthropology class you might ask: “Do you prefer structured or semi-structured interviews and why?” or in a literature class you might ask: “Which is more compelling for you to read: a story in first person or a story in third person?”). Altogether, this promotes community and mimics the experience of idle chatter at the beginning of class.

Details are in the caption following the image
(a) Empty icebreaker grid with student names pre-arranged and an identity-building prompt in the right corner. (b) the Zoom annotate features that allow students to type, draw, or stamp emojis onto their or other student answers

1.2 Student share-outs

The grid is also used to share out student approaches, answers, or reflections. For example, individuals could be asked to analyze a data set and would be given a few guiding questions that should produce the answer facilitators want them to share on the grid. The empty grid is shared with the class and students each complete their rectangle (Figure 2). Importantly, facilitators can provide prompts before class as homework, which is especially beneficial for students who take time to process or are still getting used to jargon in class. If an instructor wants to use group work, the share-out grid can contain group numbers instead of student names. In this way, students who normally would not share out group findings in class because they are uncomfortable speaking may share out their group's answer via text. Since shy students can now be recognized by their peers via their text share-out answers, this activity should promote development of their science identity. This visual platform is different from the chat function, as all rectangles are visible at once and student participation is solicited. Further, this activity could be used by small groups in breakout rooms if one student is assigned to share their screen and “hosts” the grid. This may be particularly useful for non-verbal communicators and again provides an opportunity for them to be recognized by their peers.

Details are in the caption following the image
Completed grid with question prompt at the top right, student answers, and emoji stamps to demonstrate agreement

1.3 Additional considerations

Facilitators should consider content and student needs when using and adapting this activity. In some contexts, concealing student identity may be favorable, especially for students who are shy or anxious (e.g., instead of including student names, assign each student a word or shape in place of their actual name so students still know where to provide their answer, but others do not know their identity.). It is also possible to use this as the “share” portion of a think-pair-share or write-pair-share activity. Additionally, this strategy works best when facilitators are interested in student process or thinking as opposed to the end product (e.g., “What was your favorite strategy you learned about?” or “How will you apply this knowledge?” instead of “Define this concept.” or “Determine the slope.”). Finally, this activity is not accessible to visually impaired individuals so a screen-reader-friendly version of the final screenshot that is shared with students after class must be created so that the text can be read aloud by a screen-reader. To make this activity accessible to visually impaired students during class, if all answers are not read aloud by someone, a teaching assistant should be assigned to transcribe student answers into the chat window in real time or the instructor can copy and paste the answers into the chat window using the select tool (Figure 1b). There are four technical considerations when using this activity. 1) The host of the meeting must allow participants to annotate the screen by toggling the annotation button in the Zoom meeting settings via the online Zoom portal before the meeting. 2) The annotate feature for participants is found in the “view options” menu that is found when participants view a shared screen. This menu is adjacent to the green “You are viewing someone's screen” text, found at the top of the screen. 3) The annotate feature may not be available via web browsers and other technologies besides the Zoom desktop client. In the case where a participant cannot use the annotate function, a participant can provide their answer in the Zoom chat and the instructor can paste their answer into the appropriate rectangle. 4) After typing, participants must click out of their text box to allow other individuals to see their text. These technical details are subject to change as Zoom updates occur.

1.4 Facilitator engagement

There are many ways that facilitators can engage with this activity to promote student science identity, metacognition, and learning. The facilitator can read out select answers and students can use the Zoom emoji feature to anonymously add a heart or star to answers they agreed with or enjoyed (Figure 2). Further, facilitators can ask students to speak out loud, if they would like (e.g., “Alicia, I really enjoyed this answer. Did you want to add anything else?”). This question confirms to the student that you appreciate their answer and provides them the opportunity to speak up if they want to or decline if they do not. Otherwise, facilitators can simply acknowledge the answer and comment or elaborate on it. Facilitators should take a screenshot of the grid and can share the grid with students later as a tool to promote metacognition. Facilitators can also review the grid after class to identify points of confusion for later clarification.


Students were observed to be enthusiastic about sharing answers, and appreciative when their answers were verbally acknowledged. Students reported that they enjoyed the grid and explicitly requested to keep the completed grids so they could reference other students' answers after class. The completed grids may be useful content additions so that students are learning from each other.

2.1 Discussion

This activity promotes student development of science identity, especially in shy, anxious, or processor students. Further, this activity promotes metacognition by asking students to describe their thinking process, as well as asking students to review and consider other students' answers. Using the grid at established intervals in class provides a sense of stability and structure that is crucial during times of crisis and beyond. Finally, the use of the grid as both a fun icebreaker activity and to solicit answers from students can promote your students' enjoyment of the grid, the class, and the content. This share-out grid works as an icebreaker and as an amplifier for shy, nonverbal, disabled, and neurodiverse voices.


I would like to thank Dr. April Dukes for introducing me to the concept of an icebreaker bingo grid. I would also like to thank Dr. Annette Dean, Hannah Facknitz, and Dr. Emily Mehlman for their thoughtful reviews of my manuscript draft and insightful comments.


    The author declares no conflict of interest.