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Active Learning Techniques

for Biology
Creative ways to improve learning outcomes in advanced
biology classes

Megan Tillery

Patrick Henry Community College

Class Activities that Use Cooperative Learning

Most of these structures are developed by Dr. Spencer Kagan and his associates at Kagan
Publishing and Professional Development. For resources and professional development
information on Kagan Structures, please visit:

1. Jigsaw - Groups with five students are set up. Each group member is assigned some unique
material to learn and then to teach to his group members. To help in the learning students across
the class working on the same sub-section get together to decide what is important and how to
teach it. After practice in these "expert" groups the original groups reform and students teach
each other. (Wood, p. 17) Tests or assessment follows.

2. Think-Pair-Share - Involves a three step cooperative structure. During the first step
individuals think silently about a question posed by the instructor. Individuals pair up during the
second step and exchange thoughts. In the third step, the pairs share their responses with other
pairs, other teams, or the entire group.

3. Three-Step Interview (Kagan) - Each member of a team chooses another member to be a

partner. During the first step individuals interview their partners by asking clarifying questions.
During the second step partners reverse the roles. For the final step, members share their
partner's response with the team.

4. RoundRobin Brainstorming (Kagan)- Class is divided into small groups (4 to 6) with one
person appointed as the recorder. A question is posed with many answers and students are given
time to think about answers. After the "think time," members of the team share responses with
one another round robin style. The recorder writes down the answers of the group members.
The person next to the recorder starts and each person in the group in order gives an answer
until time is called.
5. Three-minute review - Teachers stop any time during a lecture or discussion and give teams
three minutes to review what has been said, ask clarifying questions or answer questions.

6. Numbered Heads Together (Kagan) - A team of four is established. Each member is given
numbers of 1, 2, 3, 4. Questions are asked of the group. Groups work together to answer the
question so that all can verbally answer the question. Teacher calls out a number (two) and each
two is asked to give the answer.

7. Team Pair Solo (Kagan)- Students do problems first as a team, then with a partner, and
finally on their own. It is designed to motivate students to tackle and succeed at problems which
initially are beyond their ability. It is based on a simple notion of mediated learning. Students
can do more things with help (mediation) than they can do alone. By allowing them to work on
problems they could not do alone, first as a team and then with a partner, they progress to a
point they can do alone that which at first they could do only with help.

8. Circle the Sage (Kagan)- First the teacher polls the class to see which students have a special
knowledge to share. For example the teacher may ask who in the class was able to solve a
difficult math homework question, who had visited Mexico, who knows the chemical reactions
involved in how salting the streets help dissipate snow. Those students (the sages) stand and
spread out in the room. The teacher then has the rest of the classmates each surround a sage,
with no two members of the same team going to the same sage. The sage explains what they
know while the classmates listen, ask questions, and take notes. All students then return to their
teams. Each in turn, explains what they learned. Because each one has gone to a different sage,
they compare notes. If there is disagreement, they stand up as a team. Finally, the disagreements
are aired and resolved.

9. Partners (Kagan) - The class is divided into teams of four. Partners move to one side of the
room. Half of each team is given an assignment to master to be able to teach the other half.
Partners work to learn and can consult with other partners working on the same material. Teams
go back together with each set of partners teaching the other set. Partners quiz and tutor
teammates. Team reviews how well they learned and taught and how they might improve the
Class Icebreakers- Introduction Games

The Perfect Body

The instructor writes all the different body systems on the board. Each pair or groups have to
examine each body system and write how they would change the system. The class and
instructor then has to explain why the system is made the way it is.

Ex. Nervous System- No pain, no tumors, increase intelligence, etc.

Body System 3 Ways You Would Change A System





Special Senses







Rank the Importance of Each System

The instructor hands out a sheet of paper with all the body systems written on it. The pair or
group has to rank the body systems from most important to least important and explain why they
chose this order. The answers are always very different. After the groups have decided on their
order, try to get the class to think about drugs and ways of treating disorders and disease.

Ex- Endocrine- Many different drugs can control hormone levels so would this still have the
same rank?

Body System Rank Two Reasons Why





Special Senses







Review Games

Review Activity #1


The class before a big exam, I do a little review session. The class is divided in base groups or
random groups of four. I take a review sheet with around 30 questions on it and divide the
questions into six groups of five questions. I put the first five questions on one page spaced out
to allow students enough space to answer the questions. I make photocopies of these five
questions for how many base groups that are participating. I then make a second page with
questions 6-10 and photocopy for the number of base groups. This is completed after all the
questions have been written and photocopied.


The day of the review, I divide the class into base groups. For this particular example I have five
base groups. I hand out the first review sheet with the five individual questions face down on
each group‟s desk. When I say go, each group must complete the five questions in a timely
matter. Each student must also participate. This is seen by having four types of handwriting on
the answer sheet. The first group to finish has to have the paper in hand up in the air. I check the
paper for accuracy and if all the questions are correct, I award the first group five points (because
there are five groups). The next group to correctly complete the first five questions will receive
4 points and so on. I keep the score on the board. After each group has completed the first sheet,
I hand out the second sheet face down with questions 6-10. The group that completes the paper
correctly receives five points all the way down until the last group receives one point.

This is a great activity to do with labeling body systems. It makes each group work together to
win points.


Positive Interdependence- Each group will receive a higher score if everyone in the group takes a
question and answers it. Only one paper is used per group, so the team has to work together.

Individual Accountability- Each person in the group must write on the answer sheet.

Review Activity #2


Tell each student in the class to come up with five possible test questions before the review
session. Explain the importance of being creative with the questions. Extra credit can be giving
if the instructor actually uses the question.

Put students in pairs. This can be random or dividing a base group in half. The students have to
quiz each other with their questions he or she created. Together the pair needs to make ten good
questions. If the same question is duplicated between the pair, a new question needs to be added.
After this is complete, each pair should join another pair. In the square format, each pair will
quiz the other pair with the ten questions. After each pair has finished, the best 15 questions
should be written down on a sheet of paper. After all squares are finished, the competition
begins. Each group stands out of their seat with their sheet of 15 questions. The first group
picks one student in another group and asks one of the questions. If the student gets the question
right then he or she remains standing. If the student answers incorrectly, he or she has to have a
seat and may not answer any more questions. The answering student‟s group will then ask
another individual a question. The base group with the most people standing at the end is the

Review Activity #3


In Anatomy and Physiology, functions of different organs are important to learn the physiology.
Before class I make index cards with parts of the system I am going to discuss in class or review.
If I want pairs then two cards of each organ will be the same. For example, I will discuss the
different parts of the digestive system in class. On two cards I will write mouth and then two
more cards I will write esophagus. The following cards will have stomach, small intestines, and
large intestines. If you have a large class then you can throw in gastric secretions and cell types,
pancreatic hormones or digestive enzymes.


I randomly pass each card out at the beginning of the class. I tell the students that they need to
write as much information on the card as they can when I go over their topic during the lecture.
After my lecture, each person has to find their partner, or the one with the same card. The pair
will share information they each wrote down. At the end of the class or during a review session,
I will individually call the pairs up to the front of the room to teach the class their topic. They
are considered the experts and have to answer any questions from the class or from the

Review Activity #4


Make a list of possible test questions for review. Many of these questions can have multiple
answers to increase participation. A powerpoint presentation with a question per slide is helpful
for the whole class to learn.

Like a spelling bee, have the class stand up. Go around the room and ask each student a
question. If the student gets it wrong the student must sit down and the next student will be
asked the same question. The last student standing should receive an award. Encourage other
students that have sat down to take notes to help them study

Review Activity #5


Create a large amount of multiple choice questions with answer choices A-D. Placing a multiple
choice question per powerpoint slide helps with this review activity. Each group will need four
different colors with four different letters on each (ex. Red-A, Yellow-B, Green-C, Blue-D). The
questions may be given to the group to work on before or they may be new questions that no one
has seen.


Each group will receive the four different color papers with the different letters. Each person in
the group must hold a different sheet of paper. The instructor will then start asking questions to
the class. The first group to hold up the correct letter wins a point. This activity may be done
with the groups discussing the answers or in silence so each person in the group is responsible
for raising their letter.
Subject Specific Activities

Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology

Body Regions Group Quiz

Divide the class into groups of four. Tell each group to pick the best artist to come to the board
and draw a life size human in anatomical position. The instructor picks five body regions and
reads them out loud. The student at the board has to label the body and spell each region
correctly. The fastest student‟s group gets the top number of the points while the last group gets
one point. The next student approaches the board and has to label five more parts. This goes on
until all the anterior parts are labeled. The artist then draws the posterior view and the game
continues. The group with the most points wins.

Body Systems Report

Randomly give every group or pair a body system to research. Each group has to name each
organ of the system and its function. You may also do the icebreaker games which are
mentioned above.

Directional Terms

Simon Says put your hand posterior to your abdomen. Even though this sounds elementary,
students learn directional terms really quick. Each student goes around the room to the class and
says a directional term with Simon says or not. If a student moves then he/she needs to sit down.

Post-It Notes

Have a list of anatomical regions on a sheet of paper. Give each team of four a pack of post-it
notes. They must write a region on each note and organize them on the desk. Each student in
the group will be assigned a number 1-4. The instructor calls out two numbers (1-4) with one
being a “model” and the other a “sticker”. The model must stand still while the sticker has the
post-it notes. The instructor calls out four body regions to the class. The sticker must find these
post-it notes and stick them on the model. The fastest three groups will receive points (3, 2, and
1). The group in the end with the most points will receive some sort of recognition.


Birthday Bond

Tell each student to look at a periodic table and find the number of the month they were born (1-
12). Require each student to draw this element on their paper. After discussing the different
types of bonds (covalent and ionic), let students walk around the room and make molecules.
Each group will come to the board and draw their molecule and explain the bonding.

For this activity you will need models with sticks and elements (chemistry set) or you may use
different colored paper for elements. Have speed contests between each student by calling out a
molecule and see which student can build it the fastest.


Giant Cell

Usually before Anatomy and Physiology class, students have an understanding of all the
organelles in a human cell. In the class, go around and give everyone a number. If you have a
large class, split the class in half so two people have the same number. With a large dry erase
board and colored markers, start discussing the cell. When an organelle is mentioned, call a
random number and make the student(s) draw that organelle on the board with each component.
The cell membrane and the components should start the discussion to make this easier. A blank
chart is also handed out with all the organelles to guide the students.

Organelle Components Function

Cell Membrane

Group Case Studies

In groups of four, hand out case studies with different scenarios about organelles. Each group is
assigned a case study to discuss and present to the class for questions. This is an easy way to
teach eight case studies at a time. The case studies follow.

Cell Structure and Function Case Study

1. Erythrocytes (red blood cells) have no nucleus, mitochondria or other organelles at

maturity. These organelles are ejected when the RBC enters the bloodstream or shortly
thereafter. Should this still be considered a cell? What will be the effect of having no
nucleus? In these cells, the lack of mitochondria is an advantage. Why?

2. Pompe‟s disease is one of a class of lysomsomal storage diseases in which one or more
enzymes that are normally found in the lysosomes are defective or absent. In Pompe‟s
disease, the enzyme that normally breaks down glycogen is absent. Describe what you
would see in an electron micrograph of a liver cell from an individual with Pompe‟s
disease. What are some possible consequences of having such a disease? Can you think
of an effective way to treat it?
3. You are studying a biopsy of the liver of an alcoholic. What cellular organelle might you
expect to see in larger than normal quantities? Explain why.

4. Many anticancer drugs are directed at either stabilizing or destabilizing the tubulin
protein that makes up microtubules. Although these drugs are often effective in treating
cancer, treatment can lead to hair loss and nausea. Explain.

5. In cystic fibrosis, an important protein destined for the plasma membrane never makes it
beyond the Golgi complex. This protein is necessary for Na + and Cl- transport and is
critical for maintaining mucous secretions of the appropriate consistency. Devise an
explanation for why this may occur.

6. “Imagine a major city with half its power plants shut down. At best, such conditions
would produce a „brown out‟ with large sections of the city working far below optimum
efficiency. Now imagine your body with one-half of its energy-producing facilities shut
down. The brain would be impaired, vision would be dim, muscles would twitch
spastically or would be too weak to allow your body to walk or write, your heart would
be weakened and would not be able to eat and digest your food”. Which organelle is
being referred to in this description? What is its normal function in the cell?

You Tube

Go to and type in Biovisions to find the Inner Life of a Cell. Use the video that is
around three minutes long. Have the class watch the video and write down all the organelles that
were seen.

Group Organelle Report

Randomly pass out cards with an organelle on each. The groups meet by the common organelle.
Each group must make a quick presentation about that particular organelle that includes: a
drawing on the board, parts, function, relate the function to a real life situation and have a logo
for the class to remember what it does.


Memory Game

Take a group of pictures from slides and make individual cards. These cards are best when in
color. On separate cards, place a cell on one of the histology cards or name of the tissue.
Students in groups will try to match the cells to the pictures for review. To make the game more
difficult, try to find pictures of slides that are irregular, inflamed, immature or diseased.
Histology websites are great to find pictures.

Slide Challenge

In powerpoint, I make a jeopardy game with pictures of different slides. Each group picks a
topic and a number and looks at the slide. If they get the slide correct, then that team receives
the points.

Skeletal System

Bone Formation and Growth

Divide the class into four groups or if a large class 8 groups. Group one will research and draw
pictures of endochondral ossification. The second group will examine intramembranous
ossification while the last two groups will look at interstitial growth (zones of the epiphysiseal
plate) and appositional growth. Try to have the class relate each type of growth and the stage of
human life.

Bone Formation and Growth

Break the class into four groups. Assign each group a type of ossification or growth. They must
relate the process of the growth to a real life situation and make a sentence with the first letters of
the words for the students to remember. Ex: Four zones of epiphyseal plate: Resting,
Proliferative, Hypertrophic, and Calcification (Real Parents Have Children).

Bone Puzzles

Use a skeleton system handout or real bones to reconstruct a human. Make sure the students can
label every piece.

Muscular System

Muscle Coloring Contest

Use an unlabeled picture of a man exposing all his muscles or individual pictures. Make sure
leader lines are not present on these pictures. On another handout, divide up the muscles that
you expect the class to know. Assign a color to each muscle and have the class in groups color
in their worksheets. This assignment is challenging when you use unusual pictures that make the
class think.

Red Green Pink Yellow

Sternocleidomastoid Pectoralis Major Iliacus Latissimus Dorsi
Gracillus Obicularis Oculi Rectus Abdominis Semitendinosis
Piriformis Anterior Tibialis Biceps Palmarus Longus
Rectus Femoris Plantaris Teres Major Mentalis

Parts of a Muscle Contraction- Jig Saw

On seven index cards, place a letter A in the right corner and in the left corner place a number 1-
7 which stands for the step of a muscle contraction that needs to be explained. On the next 7
cards, place a B in the right corner and a number 1-7 in the left. Continue with the next seven
cards that contain the letter C until you have reached the number of students in your class. This
may be altered with the number of steps you have taught with a muscle contraction. The steps
used are below:

1. Nerve Impulse/Neurotransmitter Released

2. Receptor Stimulated/Action Potential (AP)
3. AP travels down the sarcolemma to the T- Tubules
4. SR is activated at the terminal cisternae and releases Ca+
5. Ca+ binds to troponin
6. Contraction Cycle
7. SR reuptakes Ca+ for muscle relaxation

Form groups by the number found in the left corner. With groups A, B, and C each number
group should have three people together. Each number group will research their particular step
of the muscle contraction. After each number group is finished, groups A, B and C will meet.
Seven students should be in each group all representing the muscle contraction. Starting at the
first card, step 1 will explain all the pieces of that step that includes the nerve, types of
neurotransmitters that can be released and inhibitors. By the end of the activity, group A, B, and
C should have learned all steps of a muscle contraction.



Divide a dry erase board in half. On one side write Sympathetic and on the other side write
Parasympathetic. On a nice warm day, have the class walk outside and take deep breaths.
Increase the pace of the walk until you have reached the classroom. Pass markers around the
room for each student to write a physiological change while exercising. Evaluate your list by
adding other sympathetic responses that were missed (dry mouth, pupils, digestive tract
inhibited). Next, teach about the receptors (pre-ganglionic, post-ganglionic, alpha and beta).
After completing the sympathetic response, turn the lights down and lead the class through a
relaxation technique. Now pass the markers around and have each student write one
parasympathetic response. Finish the discussion with receptors and physiological control.
Parts of the Brain

Many textbooks come with interactive tools to help assist students in studying brain parts. These
are great to use in class to help students learn.

You Tube

Show different brain surgeries such as deep brain stimulation, brain tumors and stroke repairs.
Tell each student to take notes and tell the class something the saw!


Flow Charts

Flow charts are very helpful when discussing the endocrine system. Charts also bring all the
hormones together. Both these visual displays can help students learn about hormone control as
well as learn how the body is maintained.

Have students study the Endocrine system and come up with personal teaching methods and flow
charts. You will be surprised how creative some students are and find different ways to teach the
endocrine system.

Grouping Pathogens

Pass out cards with different pathogens on each card. On the board write up the different
divisions of living organisms plus viruses: Animal, Bacteria (Monera), Protist, Fungi, Virus.
Each group will receive a couple of the cards and must decide which group to place the cards in.
Many cards go in more than one group. Here are some examples of the cards I make: pathogen,
eukaryote, prokaryote, influenza, ringworm, yeast, cocci, bacillus, spirilus, MRSA, Amoebic
dysentery, mold, athlete‟s foot, ticks, lyme disease, meningitis, resistant, malaria, STD,
penicillin, antibiotics, parasites, vaccine, common cold, streptococcus, nonliving, pneumonia,
normal flora, lice, nematodes, and endospore.

Interactive Labs


Board Drawing

On two cards I will write mouth and then two more cards I will write esophagus. The following
cards will have stomach, small intestines, and large intestines. If you have a large class then you
can throw in gastric secretions and cell types, pancreatic hormones or digestive enzymes. I
randomly pass each card out at the beginning of the class. I tell the students that they need to
write as much information on the card as they can when I go over their topic during the lecture.
After my lecture, each person has to find their partner, or the one with the same card. The pair
will share information they each wrote down. At the end of the class or during a review session,
I will individually call the pairs up to the front of the room to teach the class their topic. They
are considered the experts and have to answer any questions from the class or from the
instructor. The students need to draw their organ on the board and discuss with the class the
functions and special cells.

Cellular Respiration

On the board draw the pathway of glycolysis, Krebs Cycle and Electron Transport Chain. To the
right of the drawings, divide the board into three sections each labeled with a section of cellular
respiration. Distribute 10 index cards to 10 students that have 8 cards with NAD in the corner
and two with FAD. Have each student draw a car of their choice. After drawing the steps of
cellular respiration on the board, take 6 post-its with CO2 and place in appropriate places. Take
12 post-its not the same color as CO2 and place every place NAD will take away protons. The
other students who did not draw cars are in charge of ATP post-its. You need 40 of these. After
explaining glycolysis, demonstrate how a car(NAD) picks up a H+ post it and takes it down the
ETC to produce 3 ATP that need to be stuck on the board under ETC. Remember that FAD
approaches the second H+ pump so only two ATP are produced.


Pathway of Glucose, Urea and Blood Cells or Protein through the Kidneys

Hand out cards with all the blood vessels and pathways of the kidney- Renal Artery (A),
Segmental Artery, Interlobar A, Arcuate A, Interlobular A, Afferent, Glomerulus, Bowman‟s
Capsule, Efferent, Peritubular Capillary, Interlobular V, Arcuate V, Interlobar V, Segmental V,
Renal V, PCT, Loop of Henle, DCT, Collecting Tube, Ureter, Bladder, Urethra. Have students
walk around room and when you call out glucose molecule the students have to line themselves
up to follow a glucose molecule through all the parts of the kidneys. Mix it up by following a
glucose molecule through a diabetic or a dialysis patient. Use urea to follow through the
nephrons and large proteins that don‟t enter Bowman‟s capsule or PCT.

Reproduction and Pregnancy

Stages of Pregnancy

Pass out pictures to groups of embryo and fetuses and ask each group to exam the characteristics
and how old. You can also make folders with sonograms at the same age as the pictures.

Oogenesis and Spermagenesis

Group work that looks at the formation of sperm and oocytes to follicles.

NOVA video

Great video for online labs or class discussions. Students can watch this online and answer


Hand out cards with A, G, T(U on the back) and C. Have each student find their match and line
up in a DNA strand (pairs next to each other). As the instructor, go through the different
enzymes that cut and break the strand apart. Act out these reactions. Mix the students up to
make an RNA strand. Flip the T to the U. Now with the new RNA strand move through the
ribosome drawn on the board. Have each codon (every three students) look on the codon chart
and tell the class what amino acid is made. Remember the start and stop codons!

Unknown Practice (Online)

Place students in small groups. Give each group three cards with a letter on it. Only the
instructor knows what bacteria each letter is in. Give the group a clue where the bacteria can be
found in the environment. The group needs to ask the teacher questions about the bacteria and
pick diagnostic tests for identification. The instructor can only say positive or negative. A flow
chart of the procedure must be turned in. This is a great exercise after all the different bacteria
are discussed.

Bacteria Oral

You and a partner will be given a type of infectious bacteria. You will need to do a quick 5
minute PowerPoint to help the class understand your bacteria. Slides from the book have been
posted on blackboard for you to use and add to. You need to have the following information in
your presentation:

A. Name of bacteria
B. Different Strains
C. Type of bacteria (Shape/Gram)
D. General Characteristics
E. Scope of Clinical Disease- Common name- Types of infections
F. Diagnosis/ Testing
G. Treatment

Antibiotic Oral

This can be done the same way above with breaking up the groups with killing mechanisms or
properties of the antibiotic.

Unknown Group Project Oral

It is important to learn about microbiology and our environment. Microorganisms are

everywhere!!! You and your group will be given a certain part of the environment. As a team
you are required to take samples, identify at least five microorganisms and write up a report.
The report should be written up in a science journal format. A class presentation with a full
scientific poster will also be included in your final grade.

I. Your topic _________________________________

II. Format of Report
A. Abstract (Introduction)
B. Literature Review
C. Materials and Methods
D. Data (Graphs/Flow Charts)
E. Results
F. Implications
G. Conclusions
F. References (at least 10 scientific journals, plus only .gov or .edu websites)

Content Title Page( 5 points)

50 points Collecting Procedure(10 points)
Tests Procedure(10points)
Results (10 points)
Implications (10 points)
Conclusion (5 points)
Presentation 20 points
Spelling and Spelling
Grammar Grammar
10 points
Group Score 20 points
20 points
Formal Group Disorder Papers and Presentations


With your selected two organ systems, each group must write a report on a disorder associated with what you have
learned. This is a great opportunity to learn about a personal condition or a disease of a family member or friend.
Please use appropriate sources and do not cut and paste!! This is plagiarism. Follow the outline below.

1. Name of the Disorder or Disease

2. Population- Who is most likely to develop this disorder?
3. Etiology- How does this disease happen? What causes this condition? Here is where you can wow me
with using anatomical and physiological words.
4. Symptoms and Signs
5. Diagnosis- Tests and Measurements
6. Treatment – Drugs, Surgeries
7. Prevention


Each group will do a ten minute presentation on the topic. Videos, guests and handouts are encouraged. Your
presentation will be graded on appearance, content, proper pronunciation and peer review that looks like the chart

1-Strongly Disagree 2-Disagree 3- Agree 4- Strongly Agree


Research, reading, and
assignment complete
On-time and stayed
for duration
Contributed best
academic ability
Positive and
Initiated and
Group Grading Ideas

The hardest part of having groups is making sure that everyone in the group is participating. The
first step is to keep the groups small. By assigning roles to a group, each person is responsible
for a piece which keeps him or her engaged. Here are some ways to make each member of a
group accountable.

Participant Log

Along with each project, a participant log needs to be turned in. This way the evaluator can see
when emails were sent and how much time each member put into the project.

Discussion Board

If you use Blackboard for the class, make every conversation between the group members be on
the discussion board. This will include drafts of the paper, websites and research used to
complete the project. You can also see what references the group is using as well as who is
doing all the work.

Presentation Questions

When giving an assignment, tell the class that you will pick who presents what on the day of the
presentation. Using the disorder example above, I will assign the different sections when the
group approaches the front of the room. I will also ask at least three questions to select
individuals. If the person does not know the answer, then the whole group‟s grade will be

Rank Your Partners

Have each group member rank each other in the group 1-3. Explanation must follow.

Distribute Points

With groups of four, give each student 30 points to distribute amongst the other three members
of the group. No student can receive more than 15 points. For example, student A has 30 points
to distribute to his other three teammates. Student B did the most work so she received 15 points,
Student C was average so was given nine points and so Student D, who didn‟t do anything
received six points (30-15-9=6). Add up all the points each student received and then adjust the
percentage for group participation.