This blog post is co-authored by Monica Axiak, Kristina Vojvoda, James Wakefield and Raechel Wight.

Peer support and networking is a critical part of a student’s university experience. In the traditional face to face classroom, this is easily achieved through collaborative work in class, where students can come together, learn from each other, support each other, and develop important professional and life skills. Transferring this experience to the online environment, however, has been a challenge for both staff and students, particularly first year students who have yet to develop meaningful relationships with their peers in the on campus setting.

What are we doing to facilitate a collaborative learning experience?

Facilitating Zoom tutorials in Introductory Accounting this year, we have become aware of the need to encourage students to turn on their webcams, contribute to class discussion and generally be involved in class activities. However, we also recognise that this may be confronting for students in a tutorial class of 40 students. To help students feel more comfortable with engaging in this setting, we use the breakout rooms in Zoom where the students can work on exercises together. To assist students with their engagement, we scaffold the experience using the following strategies:

Before class

  • As homework, students work independently on the assigned set of accounting exercises which they need to bring to class to share with their peers
  • In preparation for class, the teaching team create a MS Teams Excel worksheet in MS Teams that replicates the homework exercises and which all students will be able to work on simultaneously when they come to class (see Figure 1 below)

During class

  • Students are randomly assigned to breakout rooms of 4-5 students.
  • Each breakout room is allocated a sub section of one of the exercises in the Excel worksheet provided in MS Teams (see Figure 2 below).
  • A designated amount of time is given to complete the exercises.
  • In the breakout room, the students learn from each other by comparing their homework responses, agreeing on the best response and entering that response into the MS Teams Excel worksheet (see Figures 1 and 2 below).
  • Each breakout room allocates a spokesperson to share their group’s responses with the rest of the class once all students return to the main Zoom session.
Figure 1 – In each introductory accounting tutorial’s MS Teams page, Excel worksheets are provided in the ‘Files’ section.
Figure 2 – An Excel worksheet used in introductory accounting which was shared in MS teams to facilitate student participation and collaboration. Tutors can provide students with feedback on their work by commenting in the MS Teams Excel worksheets (tutor comments are highlighted here in orange).

What are the advantages our approach?

This type of collaborative work is important in first year accounting, and other applied subjects, for a number of reasons including:

  • Assigning students to different breakout rooms each week gives students the opportunity to meet and connect with other students, which is an important aspect of their overall experience at university.
  • Students discuss common areas that they find challenging, collectively learn from each other and listen to different perspectives to close gaps in their understanding of different concepts. It reduces students’ sense of isolation, their feelings of ‘falling behind’, and their ability to see that grappling with challenging content is a shared experience.
  • The tutor can watch over students’ entries into the MS Teams Excel worksheets, join different breakroom rooms to better understand the challenges faced by students, and enter comments into the MS Teams Excel worksheets to provide students with feedback on their work (see Figure 2 above). This enables the tutor to then tailor the tutorial accordingly once all students return to the main Zoom session.

It reduces students’ sense of isolation, their feelings of ‘falling behind’, and their ability to see that grappling with challenging content is a shared experience.

What are the challenges?

Feeling awkward

At the start of a teaching session, students are often reserved in speaking up and sharing. Establishing small breakout rooms, where students have a specific task to complete together, reduces their apprehension as they are given the opportunity to communicate with a smaller group of students. Students are also encouraged to spend a few minutes getting to know each other, recognising that connection with other students is important in order to build trust to share their ideas.

The new normal

It is very important to set the expectation at the start of the session that breakout room activities will be the norm and that students are expected to actively engage in these sessions. For example, students are expected to turn on their webcam, if their technology allows, contribute to discussion and assist with developing responses that are entered into the MS Teams Excel worksheets. To reinforce this message, tutors check into all breakout rooms to ensure that students are engaging. From our experience, informing students that the tutor will be doing this further encourages student participation and interaction.

Confident with the technology

Students are generally proficient in using the technology, however, to avoid delays, students need to ensure that they are logged into MS Teams at the start of the tutorial to access the relevant MS Teams Excel worksheets. Via the share screen function in Zoom, students are directed to the Excel worksheets in MS Teams.

Shifting enrollments

Enrolment changes during the teaching session also mean that student enrolment in the MS Teams page needs to be updated. However, this is easily addressed by asking students who do not have access to the MS Teams page to add their UTS email into the Zoom chat, which the tutor can copy and paste into the ‘Add member’ function in MS Teams very quickly.

How do I get started?

ZOOM break out groups

In terms of using breakout rooms in Zoom, whether you randomly assign students or keep students in the same group each week will depend on what is best for your students. Random assignment of students into breakout rooms during the early weeks of the teaching session, particularly for first years new to university, can help students make a variety of new friends. However, assigning students to work with the same breakout room each week may help develop students’ confidence to collaborate with others. In particular, the same breakout room each week may be preferred by third year students with established learning networks, or by students who work together on a group assignment who may benefit from being in the same group each week. You can assign students to breakout rooms using the meeting options in Zoom, remembering that students will need to be logged on via SSO.

Separate MS team pages for tutorial groups

In Introductory Accounting, a separate MS Teams page is created for each tutorial, which is where MS Teams Excel worksheets are uploaded to facilitate collaboration during tutorials. A central MS Teams page for all students studying the subject can also be created, where students can be added to different channels based on their tutorial enrolment (where a channel is created for each tutorial). In Introductory Accounting, we created separate MS Team pages for each tutorial, rather than channels, due to the high number of tutorial groups. To set up the MS Teams page for each tutorial, student emails can be individually added to each MS Teams page, or a request can be lodged with the LX Lab to set up the MS Teams page for each tutorial.

Written by: Monica Axiak, Kristina Vojvoda, James Wakefield, Raechel Wight

Acknowledgement: Thank you for Kathy Egea’s (Coordinator, FFYE Program) encouragement to write this blog and valuable feedback, and Alisa Percy for her valuable suggestions.

Teams and collaboration on Futures

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