Synchronous Strategies

Online Synchronous Strategies

If you include an online synchronous component that occurs in real-time in your course, you may have questions about setting the stage for student success. Here are some strategies to answer commonly asked questions about productive online synchronous class sessions using Iowa State’s live web conferencing software, Webex, Zoom Pro, or MS Teams (for small groups). To maximize the value of synchronous communication with your students, incorporate the following practices into your teaching repertoire.

Which online activities are synchronous? Or asynchronous?

As the first step in planning, determine which online activities to do synchronously or asynchronously. Consider dividing classroom learning activities into two general categories: presentational and interactional.

  • Presentational activities are things like lectures, student presentations or performances, or other one-way communication. One person or group is doing all the communicating, and the other person or group is taking it in.
  • Interactional activities require everyone to be actively involved in real-time (active learning). Live, synchronous interactions might include group discussions, perhaps using techniques like fishbowl or breakout rooms, polling, or Q&A sessions.

One of the most helpful things you can do for making productive use of web conference time is to identify and tease which parts of your face-to-face (f2f) time with your students is a presentation and what parts are interaction—a conscious uncoupling if you will. All instructors, no matter their teaching style, do a little of both just in different proportions. Consider including mostly interactional activities when using web conferencing software.

You can structure your class, so the presentational elements are asynchronous learning activities before students come to the online synchronous session via Webex or Zoom. For example, you can extract the lecture portions of your lesson plan and turn those into asynchronous videos for students to watch before the meeting. Then, focus your video conference on the parts of your f2f class that are interactional.

Connect the synchronous with the asynchronous

While synchronous sessions should connect to other elements of the course and build toward common goals, there should always be added benefit to attending it, such that students don’t like to miss class for fear of missing something important.

  • Before the synchronous session, give students assignments/readings to complete. This step will help them to be prepared and mention how it connects to the overall course objectives. Need ideas? Use the Online Course Module Structure page.
  • During the session, remind students of the work they did relevant to the current discussion. Share discussion board posts or annotations pertinent to the current one. Occasionally and briefly pointing out connections is a natural, helpful step.
  • After the session, share materials right away. Upload recordings to Studio, get them captioned. Then, share accessible presentations files, and transcripts where attendees can find them and review. Give students the maximum amount of time possible to review before the next session or any quizzes, tests, etc.

Planning the synchronous session

To promote meaningful learning is to chunk class time into segments. Consider the facilitating a 10-minute lecture, 10-15 minutes of students engaged with active learning (discussion, problem-solving, low-stakes assessments), another 10-minute lecture, and 5 minutes of student reflection to enhance engagement. This strategy will help students remain engaged and active in their learning. Below is a table that outlines one approach:

 Setting stage Performance Processing
Time5-10 minutes15-30 minutes5-10 minutes
PurposeCommunity building and accountability.Provide context and explanationChecking knowledge.
Student ActivityAction: Respond to a question in chat or share a discussion post that is pertinent to the topic.Action: Lecture with Top Hat quiz, use quick polling in Webex/Zoom, and small-group work.Action: Reflection and/or application in problem set.

Engaging students during synchronous sessions

You may use many strategies, many of which are the similar strategies used in a face-to-face classroom. Others are specific to video conferencing especially practices regarding webcams on the Be Flexible page, For example, if you lecture over video conference and are unsure if your students are tracking, you have options. You can:

  • Prepare. Include a page in your Canvas course that clearly states, “How to Join Class Synchronously.” Here you will provide students with detailed directions for joining your synchronous meeting using one of our web conferencing tools. You may also want to provide students with directions about how to join and interact in breakout rooms.  
  • Structure. Write a clear agenda for the meeting that students see in advance to give them time to prepare their contributions. Furthermore, consider asking students to make the meeting ahead of time as part of their asynchronous learning activities. Giving students specific instructions and then building in time for them to prepare is a recipe for success.
    • Invite students to think about the particular topics related to your subject matter, but not extensively covered in your instructional materials.
    • Suppose students have difficulty with a particularly challenging issue or have another round of review before a midterm exam. Ask them to send the requests and use these as opportunities for learning.
  • Quick participation pulse. Either display a problem with a plausible solution or a prompt to non-verbally respond using icons on the feedback bar in Webex and Zoom. These feedback bars provide a way for your students to raise their hand (✋), answer in the affirmative (✔️) or negative (❌), or express themselves using a few emojis like happy (☺️), thinking (🤔), coffee (☕), and more. As emoticons display by their names, call on students to explain their choices.
  • Pause. Yes, be silent. Sometimes we may have to endure some uncomfortable silence before students respond to our questions. It’s okay to pause in your synchronous sessions to give students time to think and answer. 
  • Use informal and formal polls. Before you use topic-based, consider getting to know your students with these types of questions:
    • Which superpower would you like to have? (Multiple choice)
      a) Mind reading
      b) Invisibility
      c) Teleportation
      d) Flying
      e) I already have a superpower
    • Are you an early bird or night owl? (Multiple choice)
      a) Early bird
      b) Night owl
    • What’s your best personal online learning advice? (Open text)
  • Special guests. Invite speakers to join the synchronous meeting to address a topic or share stories.
  • Answer in chat. Pose a question and ask students to send replies to the chat area. As you read through their answers, call on students to expand on their responses.
  • Share out. Invite students to share out via audio and or audio/video. This option should be optional and encouraged, not forced. Shift to encouraging responses in the chat, but don’t give up on encouraging audio and video participation. Sometimes, it takes a bit of time for students to work up to this.
  • Annotation tools. Allow students to use the annotation tools as you present. For example, ask them to circle a specific part of the graph or underline keywords.
  • Try using virtual breakout rooms. You can split students into multiple Zoom or Webex rooms to work on a collaborative project (perhaps via Google docs) or discuss a topic as a smaller group. These can be an option to switch up the energy of a session and can be useful for creating a less intimidating space for  students to share out. Note: Webex training breakout rooms are audio-only.
  • Create highlights. Assign note-takers to record the highlights of the synchronous session. Use a shared Google document for collaborative notes (Google Suite).
  • Use a backchannel. Set up a simultaneous online chat so students can add to an ongoing backchannel while they listen. You might even assign a handful of students to be the backchannel moderators. The moderators’ job would be to ask questions, engage with classmates, and speak for the class when the instructor pauses for questions. Video conferencing software like Webex or Zoom comes with a built-in chat tool. Canvas has a discussion board (view Discussion Overview video [4m 52s]), and Chat tool (view the Chat Overview video [2m 19s]), or you can use a discussion tool like Slack or MS Teams.
  • Record. Go asynchronous and record your lecture as a video. Then use a video annotation tool to have students actively engage with the asynchronous video. Recognize that the better practice is to “chunk” the video into shorter videos (5-10 minutes).

Well structured, interactive video conferencing meetings that ensure student engagement are a better way to get everyone into the video conference ready to learn.

Incentivize attendance, but not via grading

In an ideal world, all of your students would show up to the synchronous sessions feeling excited to learn and ready to contribute. However, for reasons outside of their control, that might not always be the case. Forcing students into complying with specific video conferencing policies might seem like a shortcut to engagement, but can also cause more harm than good. Carefully consider how much grace you can show your students, and set policies that balance your teaching preferences with student realities. Here are a few examples that may require careful attention.

What will happen if students are unable to attend the synchronous sessions?

Perhaps because of time zone issues, technology limitations, or health reasons, you may find that you have absences not covered in your typical face-to-face attendance policy. Consider if it will be possible to provide other ways for students to engage in the interactional activities if they are unable to attend a synchronous meeting.

In these instances, consider alternatives that might be available. For example, instead of tuning in to a live lecture, could students read an equivalent option or watch the recording? Or, for a group activity, could students who can’t attend complete a comparable asynchronous task?

Consider recording the session, give students access via a video annotation tool, or ask students in the synchronous session to take collaborative notes shared with everyone. Then assign the student(s) who were unable to attend to read the session notes and ask questions the discussion boards. With some creativity, everyone can be involved in class, even if they cannot be there synchronously.

Use student pods (groups)

Consider dividing a larger enrollment course into smaller student pods: it is easier to manage interactions in sessions with 50 or fewer attendees. You will have time for clarifications and questions and maintain the chat area, where text-based messages can quickly add up.

For a small enrollment course, set up a Webex meeting inside your Canvas course.

For a larger enrollment course, use a different strategy:

  1. Divide students into pods using Groups in Canvas (To learn how, watch the Groups Overview video, 4m 51s). Important: Name each pod clearly (Stats 101: Tuesday or Phys 221: Thursday) so that students are able to identify the group quickly. To see how students access Groups in Canvas, watch this Groups Overview video (2m 41s)
  2. Navigate to the ISU Webex dashboard (outside of Canvas) login using Okta authentication to create a unique Webex meeting for each student pod (group).
  3. In your Canvas course, create a no-submission assignment to be released to a student pod/group (follow the steps in the Assignment details guide).
    1. Include the Webex meeting information and login instructions within the assignment description.
    2. Note: If you release the assignment to a specific pod/group, other students will not see the login instructions.
  4. Upon session completion, you can unpublish the assignment, so that the associated column does not appear in your Gradebook.

Make it accessible

Make sure you prominently state in your syllabus when you are holding online synchronous sessions, so your students will have ample time to request accommodations via Student Accessibility Services.

Explore ways to prepare, create, and edit accessible videos

Incorporate writing into classes across the curriculum

Teach and interact with students virtually in real time

Provide greater access, while using your time efficiently

References and Resources

Costa, K. (2020, July 30). Making shapes in Zoom. Retrieved (August 25, 2020) from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/making-shapes-zoom-karen-costa/

Online Synchronous Strategies, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Online Synchronous Strategies, is a derivative of Synchronous Meetings Overview developed by Stacey M Johnson, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (retrieved on August 25, 2020) from https://www.vanderbilt.edu/cdr/module-2/synchronous-meetings/