Speed research pods: A flexible tool for collaborative and authentic learning experiences

The activity

Peering at rows of busy frames with small, static faces and navigating staccato speaking cues is not exactly the perfect recipe for comfortable, collaborative or creative classroom sessions! Whilst Zoom has enabled valuable synchronous learning opportunities and ensured a vital continuation of learning during the pandemic, it has not been without its challenges for teaching. In particular, in encouraging meaningful student engagement.

This activity has helped smooth some of the rough ‘Zoom edges’ by facilitating a space in which students have greater autonomy and control of their learning. It shifts the tutor-led transmissive teaching mode (Sterling, 2013), to a more student-centred experience, flipping responsibility for learning onto the learners themselves. It also creates an authentic purpose for collaborative activity: to inform and teach others. Pedagogy aside, it allows everyone valuable thinking and breathing space. It is easy to set up, monitor and evaluate.

How do speed research pods work?

Speed research pods can be used to introduce, review or extend content on any module, regardless of discipline. The basis for the research pods is creating small working groups of 3–6 students, who are given a task of researching, reviewing or summarising a learning area. 

  1. Allocate groups in the Zoom breakout room facility, or manually set them up to best suit the class. 
  2. Allocate each group a topic area to research, or better still let them select their own, and set a specific timeframe (anything from 10–25 minutes depending on the nature of the task).
  3. Groups research their area/work on their task and must prepare to present 2–5 slides, a Padlet or any other digital artefact to present their ‘findings’, using the Zoom screen sharing facilities. Any platform works, as long as it is accessible and offers synchronous collaboration.
  4. Groups self-allocate roles of chair, presenter(s), timekeeper, references keeper.
  5. Students work in breakout rooms or collaborate in their preferred digital space, provided they complete their ‘product’ in the time allocated. Tutors/elected students can monitor and support as needed.
  6. The final stage involves each pod presenting their ‘findings’ to the whole group. This feedback in plenary can be further enhanced by sharing the newly created digital resources and evaluating the most comprehensive, well-evidenced or digestible work.

The many uses of speed research pods

Task options are unlimited. Jigsaw research pods can facilitate co-operative learning (Anderson, 2019) where individual pods research intersecting information towards the completion of a common goal. For instance, learners from different pods can be invited to explain, justify or compare their findings or tasks with those from other pods. This encourages collaboration, critical thinking and communication—all essential 21st century skills (Scott Luna, 2015).

Speed research pods also work well when exploring different perspectives and polemics, pairing pods on either side of a debate or issue in the final stage.

Scaffolding more challenging topic areas, or less confident learners, can be done by creating teams of pods that research the same topic initially. They can then compare, combine and refine understandings.

Impact on students

Speed research pods create student directed spaces that can offer authentic co-operative learning opportunities, hone transferable skills and build academic literacy. The process can reveal key trip hazards to identifying robust, reliable sources, as well as live practice in appropriately acknowledging spoken sources. As a student, speed research pods offer a productive platform, instead of a receptive aisle seat, reducing ‘Zoom freeze’ tendencies during more ‘chalk-and-talk’ approaches.

Student feedback on speed research pods has been consistently positive and sessions are often lively! Learners are engaged by collaborating on content that is shared and can be reused, encouraging ownership of learning. Students commented on really ‘liking the way they were learning’ and ‘the interaction’ in this group activity.

Final notes and advice for readers

Tips for setting up the task

  • Make considered decisions to ensure a productive balance of learners within pods, appropriate level of task, suitable amount of time, etc.
  • A broad policy of ‘cameras on’ in pods is important.

Tips for conducting the task

  • Be explicit about the pedagogy and purpose of the task: headline transferable skills and that it may be challenging the first time (screen sharing, as tutors well know, is not entirely intuitive!). Relatedly, bear in mind that it is an iterative process: expect the first time to be a little ‘clunky’, but familiarity with the task builds competence and quality of results.
  • Underline the fact that presenting the final product is not the only purpose of the task. 
  • Less is more: 2–3 good slides/entries trumps 5–6 poor ones.
  • Keep to a strict time limit.
  • Invite reflections on challenges and lessons learned. How can this inform future practice? What strengths or weaknesses were identified (e.g. in the research stages or  the collaboration or presentation section)? 


Anderson, J. (2019). Cooperative learning, principles and practice. English Teaching Professional, 121, 4–6.

Luna Scott, C. (2015). The futures of learning 3: What kind of pedagogies for the 21st century? UNESCO Digital Library. Retrieved 5 August 2021, from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf000024312

Sterling, S. (2013). The future fit framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE (guide). Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 7(1), 134–135. https://doi.org/10.1177/0973408213495614b