This article is intended to help you explore four key aspects of teaching: activating prior knowledge, teaching new content, developing understanding, and assessment and feedback. Using it, you can quickly identify potential teaching strategies that meet your needs in physical and virtual learning environments. Click the tabs to explore.

Surveying your students is a great method to assess preparedness and jog their thinking by refreshing past learning experiences:

  • Use pre-class surveys to assess students’ background and interests
  • Embed surveys or low-stakes quizzes in content or activities to draw students’ attention to specific things they have learned (for example, a reading comprehension quiz before participating in a discussion sparks more thoughtful conversation
  • Poll students during class (with or without technologically-mediated polling tools)
  • Design visual and active exercises to help students organize their knowledge
    • In the classroom: use the whiteboard and/or sticky notes for things like mind maps, brainstorming webs, sorting and classifying ideas, etc
    • In digital environments: use Jamboard to replicate whiteboard and sticky note strategies, or collaborative group documents (both of which allow students to retain, refine, and share ideas)

Other options include scaffolding assignments to draw on earlier, simpler tasks and skills; start-of-course review modules, and reflective activities.

The classic method of delivering new content is the lecture.

  • In the classroom: organize lectures in 15-20 minute blocks that allow you to intersperse delivery, demonstration, Q&A, practice, and/or discussion
  • In digital environments:
    • For lecture videos, create multiple short, topical videos (under 10 minutes in length; 5-7 minutes is a great target), and combine them with a structure of other activities like discussions and quizzes; Panopto allows you to embed interactives in videos
    • For synchronous digital environments, have students watch videos in advance, or if you lecture live, make sure to record those portions of your class
    • Alternatives to lecture videos include written materials, curated instructional videos found online, slides with presenter notes, or a combination

Regardless of your environment, you can consider using the Flipped Learning model to maximize interaction during class time and ensure students can review lecture content as needed.

Facilitating students’ path to understanding is the heart of teaching content and skills. While some disciplines have specific strategies and structures for this process, the following strategies can benefit many kinds of classes.

Individual Participation

Discussion is a classic approach in the humanities and social sciences–but frequently, class discussion would benefit from a more structured approach. Learn more about discussion strategies for the classroom and the Canvas Discussions tool. For digital environments, consider our guidance on discussion in online teaching and inclusion in online discussions.

Social annotation (using tools like Perusall or Hypothesis) allows students to “write on” the same digital copy of a text. This enhances collective understanding by providing an opportunity to flag and discuss questions or points of confusion, highlight key terms and ideas, and provide context right in the reading. Learn more about using social annotation, including using it to enhance equity.

  • In the classroom: use social annotation as an out-of-class preparation or participation assignment
  • In a digital environment: enhanced use of social annotation can supplement — or in some cases, even replace — a discussion forum. Social annotation may be incorporated into other instructional strategies (for example, having students consult or contribute to annotations during a synchronous class session).

Group Activities

Group work, in many forms, is an excellent strategy for facilitating understanding, reflection, and application. Simple informal formative exercises increase engagement as well as understanding.

  • In the classroom: small group discussions, think/pair/share, and short collaborative tasks are classic in-class group strategies to break up lectures or full-class discussions and ensure a larger number of students participate (see the discussion strategies article above for more ideas). Group projects are also widely used, and you can dedicate a short block of time to ongoing project work during class meetings to ensure you have time to check in with students.
  • In a digital environment: breakout rooms, Jamboard, and Google’s collaborative productivity tools allow you to replicate many in-person informal group strategies in synchronous and asynchronous formats online. Canvas also allows the creation of group discussion forums; for regular asynchronous Canvas group discussions, you can create more permanent groups so students work with a consistent group of people. Learn more about other strategies for enhancing community with breakout groups in virtual learning.

Debate is a great strategy for enhancing a class where lecture and discussion have gotten a bit stale, teaching critical thinking and argumentation, encouraging collaboration, or discussing a complex or controversial issue that benefits from structure and “rules” for conversation. The Bok Center at Harvard provides an excellent resource on organizing low-stakes classroom debate for students and faculty who don’t have experience with the format. TeachHub offers some variations on the form of debate that you can match with your goals.

  • In a digital environment, consider strategies that stress group collaboration in breakout rooms or collaborative documents to prepare for a synchronous debate. A more formally structured debate with defined/elected student roles and preparation tasks may be more productive than the strategies above. See guidance from the Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository for suggestions.

The Jigsaw strategy emphasizes students teaching each other. Content for the day is divided into small sub-topics and students are placed in groups so each group member takes one topic. Give students time to research their topics and clarify their own understanding and questions, then provide time for them to teach each other and discuss. This strategy may be especially useful for review sessions, surfacing questions and confusion, or giving students an opportunity to contextualize course materials.

  • In the classroom, this can be an exercise that structures most of a class meeting, especially a review session.
  • In a digital environment, the Jigsaw can be adapted into a variety of synchronous and asynchronous forms. Student contributions to a class blog that contextualizes course readings are a long-term option. You can use a discussion forum to create a “gallery” of knowledge contributions. Collaborative documents for reading notes, in which each student summarizes and asks questions about one section, are another approach. A more traditional Jigsaw can also take place in breakout discussions.

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

CATs provide a quick check of students’ progress and allow you to ensure your teaching is working in real time. Angelo and Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers is a full guide to CATs; we offer some sample strategies here.

These types of assessments are also a great way to assess participation fairly and transparently (rather than grading each one). On the other hand, you may wish to use them as low-stakes iterative assignments.

  • 1-minute paper or 1-minute paragraph: students use a form or prompt to write a one-minute summary of key points from the day. Collect submissions on paper, via a Canvas post, or using a Google form.
  • Think/pair/share: ask students to summarize their thoughts (key points and/or questions) from this classic quick discussion strategy. In the classroom, they can share with the class or turn in notes; online, try think/pair/share in a discussion forum.
  • Mastery/recall: use an in-person or digital quiz (graded or ungraded) to quickly assess comprehension and retention.
  • Presentation: use a quick and informal presentation exercise (for example, during class, ask students to find an example of a course concept online and report back to the class) to assess students’ progress in applying concepts. In a digital environment, host this exercise in a discussion forum.
  • Student feedback: invite students to submit feedback on their perceived progress and what’s working for them in your class using a print or online anonymous form.

Assessments with Feedback

These types of assessments are more appropriate for major graded assessments.

Presentation with feedback: a more formal class presentation, with an opportunity for peers to ask questions.

  • In a digital environment, adapt the traditional classroom presentation by having students create a video recording and share it on Canvas. Using a Canvas Discussion for these videos allows peer feedback. We do not recommend having students do a major presentation over live videoconference because of the potential for technical difficulties.

Peer review: have students share drafts or other works in progress with a peer or peers, either once or on an iterative basis. Students can be graded on the feedback process. If peer feedback is taken into account in a project grade, we recommend co-creating a rubric with your students in advance that is specific to peer feedback, and having students use that when reviewing each others’ work.

  • In the classroom, a live conversation and written form ensures thoughtful feedback and an opportunity to practice giving and receiving constructive thoughts.
  • In a digital environment, use Canvas’s peer review functions to simplify peer feedback and make the process transparent to you.

Projects: see our guidance on project design. Projects (versus tests) are an excellent option in digital environments, but carefully consider whether all students will have access to material resources (like video, audio, computer, or lab equipment) necessary to complete the project.

Exams and tests: may include traditional exams, take-home exams, open-book exams, etc. We encourage faculty to continue using what they may have learned about testing during Covid-19 when designing this kind of assessment. Consult our guidance on designing effective exams.

  • In the classroom, be cognizant of what can be completed in the time allotted. At the same time, experiment with formats that best suit your outcomes and teaching philosophy.
  • In a digital environment, use Canvas’s Quizzes tool to create and grade quizzes, tests, and exams, particularly question types that can be auto-graded and assessments with a time limit. If you are concerned about academic dishonesty, essay or take-home-style exams may be the best choice. Champlain does not provide digital proctoring solutions to detect possible cheating while taking an exam; however, TurnItIn originality checker is available in Canvas.

This article is not meant to be exhaustive! We welcome your suggestions that you would like to share with peers; feel free to email us at with “website suggestion” in the subject line.

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