Group Work with Contact Tracing, Quarantine, Social Distancing, and Masks in Mind

Group Work with Contact Tracing, Quarantine, Social Distancing, and Masks in Mind

Written by Megan Haskins, Faculty Developer of Integrative Learning and High Impact Practices

A core element of active learning is group work. In some cases, this includes formal group projects while others incorporate collaboration informally through classroom dialogue. Many instructors have experienced the challenge of transitioning the collaborative experience to the online space. At present, we are looking at how to transition back to the classroom with added layers of unpredictable quarantines as well as changing social distancing and masking expectations. As we begin a new quarter with new expectations AND new uncertainties, Virginia Pitts’ 2020 blog, “What to do when it all feels new: Teaching at a social distance” feels especially relevant.

While this quarter undoubtably presents new challenges, we offer a few ideas for how to incorporate collaboration in the face of changing guidelines and needs. There is no “one size fits all” approach to group work because it is impacted by a variety of unique circumstances. Below are a few options for how instructors might adapt their group work to better suit the current situation.

Group Work and Contact Tracing

To facilitate contact tracing, for classes of 20 or more, faculty will be asked to record and submit students’ preferred seats. If students move seats and are in close contact for more than 15 minutes, a new submission will be needed. For more information review the COVID Classroom Protocol. See our Sample Syllabus Statements page for language to include this policy.

Here are a few practical tips to support contact tracing AND foster active collaboration while students remain in their selected seat for the duration of the quarter.

  • Live Polling (Bruff, 2020)
    • Jumping straight into group discussion can present a challenge for students who are less likely to talk in groups. Live Polling allows students to engage with the material and add their thoughts to the discussion without being put on the spot to speak. Additionally, this does not require students to be in close contact or rearrange their seating.
    • Consider a user-friendly option such as Poll Everywhere for check-in questions. These could be content focused, or you could use this time to gauge how students are feeling about other topics.
  • Digital workspace
    • Providing groups with a digital workspace allows absent students to engage in conversation and benefits all students. A digital workspace allows students to revisit the material and continue conversations after class is over.
    • Provide students with recommended workspaces and include resources for how to use them. DU supports Microsoft Teams, Canvas, and more and the OTL can support you with this process.
  • Think, Pair, Share
    • Masks can create a challenge for group work. Think, Pair, Share allows students to work with those directly next to them, decreasing exposure and noise levels. Think, Pair, Share has many known benefits, including providing students with the opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts and ideas before being asked to share.
    • Consider creating a new seating chart each month to allow students to think, pair share with different people without creating too much labor on the instructor or confusion for students.
  • Pods for the Quarter
    • If you have large class sizes, then the uncertainty and added labor of seating charts and exposure mitigation may be a concern. Consider creating core groups that stay the same throughout the quarter (or, pods). This lessens the logistical labor and adds pedagogical value for students. These groups will have the opportunity to foster deeper group dynamics by working together for extended periods of time. You can utilize different group sizes by breaking the pods into smaller groups depending on the goal of the activity.
    • Foster engagement within the group by providing time to establish group norms and communication preferences. For more information on group contracts, check out this resource by the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence.
  • Collaborative Notetaking (Bruff, 2020)
    • If a course involves lecture (whether video recorded or live) provide students with a space to take group notes. A collaborative document allows students to share and review information, ask questions, and engage regardless of modality. Not only does this support students that may need to be absent for quarantine or illness, but also aligns with Universal Design for Learning principles that support note taking accommodations.
    • DU supports Microsoft OneDrive, which allows for collaborative writing.
  • More Activity Ideas
    • This Google Doc lists a range of typical classroom-based learning activities with their alternatives in the physically distanced, online synchronous, and online asynchronous environments. It was created by Dr. Jennifer Baumgarner at LSU and is updated by education professionals from around the globe.
  • We’re here to help!
    • Our team is available to support a variety of course contexts, including a variety of modalities, large enrollment courses, challenging room layouts, and more.
    • Utilize our OTL Inclusive Teaching Checklist and establish ground rules as provided in our Inclusive Teaching Practices website to ensure that you are fostering a productive learning environment.
    • Want 1:1 support with course design? Schedule an appointment with an Instructional Designer. IDs can support you at any stage of the course design process, including topics like educational technology, assessment practices, and more!
    • Visit the OTL events page for current programming. Be sure to check the modality for events that you want to attend as we will be offering in-person and online events.


Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning. Office of Teaching & Learning. (n.d.).

Baumgartner, J. (2020). Teaching Tools: Active Learning while Physically Distancing. Louisiana State University. CC BY 4.0

Bruff, D. (2020, June 11). Active learning in hybrid and physically distanced classrooms. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Lightner, J. & Tomaswick, L. (2017). Active learning – Think, pair, share. Kent State University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Pitts, V. (2020, September 14). What to do when it all feels new: Teaching at a social distance. University of Denver Office of Teaching and Learning.

Schwartz, J. &Tango, V. (2021, July 16). What do instructional designers actually do? University of Denver Office of Teaching and Learning.