Almost two years ago, the global pandemic ushered in a major increase in the use of the synchronous online teaching modality (aka teaching a live class via Zoom). Remote teaching has impressed upon many instructors that effective delivery of synchronous online courses is much more than “live lecturing” via webcam. Across disciplines, faculty have creatively developed strategies and sought out evidence-based best practices to make the “live online” format work for students. Now it appears that this “new” course modality is here to stay. Here are few tips to help you create an effective synchronous online course experience:
Set expectations for your course.
What does an effectively designed synchronous online course “look” like? Students legitimately may not know, especially if their previous experiences consisted of little more than Zoom lecture. Therein lies a unique opportunity for faculty to raise the bar and set the tone for the semester. Consider reserving some time during your First Day of Class Orientation to walkthrough a preview of a “typical” class session:
- Will each class consist solely of lecture? (There are reasons why this approach is not recommended, which are outlined below).
- When will students have the opportunity to “raise their hands” to ask questions?
- Is collaborative learning a major part of your in-class experience?
Starting off the semester with a core set of expectations for how students will learn will prime them for their semester-long course experience.
Create a sense of classroom community.
The virtual classroom is where you will help foster a sense of connection and community amongst your students. Some simple strategies to enhance that sense of community include:
- Encouraging students to turn on their cameras during class and/or upload photos of themselves (because no one wants to talk to a black box!)
- Uploading your own professional virtual background and encouraging students to do the same. Professor and students come together to learn, rather than be distracted by the background.
- Incorporating accessibility into your virtual classroom space, such that all students can equitably participate.
- Inviting small groups of students to visit during Virtual Office Hours. Assist students in building connection and community through a little bit of mixing and mingling.
Model how students can engage in class.
One of instructors’ top questions is how to foster student engagement in a virtual classroom setting. Fortunately, Zoom has many built-in tools to help promote in-class engagement, including polling, chat, breakout rooms, annotation tools, and whiteboarding. Rather than assuming that our students – many of them Gen Z “digital natives” – already know how to utilize these features, a live walkthrough can go a long way into modeling the behaviors you’d like to carryover throughout the semester.
“Live tweeting” is a concept that many of your students are likely familiar with – engaging in a “chat” during a livestream of a show. Students can apply a similar concept while taking part in lecture, utilizing the chat function in Zoom, generating their own examples, sharing “a-ha” moments, or real-world applications of course material. Acknowledge those comments – or even better, pose the exemplary questions posted in the chat back to the entire class to answer – to encourage further engagement.
Make use of effective pre-planning for each class session.
It may be helpful to think of your class sessions as a “timeline” of events and activities. Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence utilizes a method of structuring synchronous online sessions into 3 time blocks:
- Session Timeline
The Pre-session primes students for the content covered in the synchronous class session. Canvas announcements can be scheduled to post before class, prompting students to consider specific ideas, topics, theories, or questions to consider. From a student perspective, knowing what to expect gently nudges students in the right direction for how to prepare to participate in class.
The Session Timeline is a plan for how you will use allotted class time. Although it may be tempting to try to cover everything in a long lecture, consider that less may be more. Here are a few self-reflective questions to ask:
- What do you most want students to learn?
- Are there key topics or concepts that students struggle with most – that they can benefit from being “in session” with their professor to facilitate greater understanding?
- Where do students’ instructional materials leave off in connecting the material back to real world applications and their future careers? How can you help bridge the gap?
Answers to these self-reflective questions may provide direction in creating mini-lectures and meaningful small group activities for students to work on in class.
Post-Session takes stock of key points, takeaways, and connections with readings, videos, or other assignments. These can be covered in a range of different ways – verbally at the end of each class session, using the chat or Whiteboard functions, or a short end-of-class survey.
Harness the power of the mini-lecture.
Many students find it a harder task to focus and concentrate on long Zoom lectures compared to the traditional face-to-face lecture (Hersh, 2020). With mini-lectures, instructors can focus on a few core concepts, and reserve the remaining class time to reinforce those concepts. How long should lectures be? Some suggest keeping lectures to 15-20 minutes, while other research posits that student attention span is highly dependent on the richness of the content, and instructor’s level of passion for the subject matter, which may motivate and inspire students (Bradbury, 2016). In light of students’ preference for shorter lectures in synchronous online courses, consider streamlining lectures in favor of peppering in more active learning activities to maximize learning.
Incorporate a variety of active learning activities.
What are some specific ideas that instructors can pull out of their tool kit to design meaningful activities that work well virtually? Angelo and Cross (1993) published a foundational text on classroom assessment techniques for college teachers, featuring over 50 different tried-and-true activities for which instructors can design lessons around.
How can Zoom features work as a medium to facilitate active student learning? Here are a few more ideas:
- The Whiteboard acts as a collaborative space where students can brainstorm or work through problems, writing or typing directly onto the screen in real-time.
- The polling feature can also be used creatively – as a way of checking for comprehension, choosing topics to present on, or spawning discussion in a “what would you do” scenario.
- Students can collaborate together in small groups using breakout rooms, whether it be for planning for a group project, working through a case study or scenario, or brainstorming solutions to a problem to later report out findings with the rest of the class.
- Instructors can also let students play presenter by asking them to screen share and “teach” a theory, concept, or process to the rest of the class.
These active learning activities challenge students to more deeply analyze, synthesize, and apply core concepts – under the guidance of a highly-skilled instructor – which in turn, may promote more nuanced understanding, growth in learning, and incorporation of more sophisticated thought processes.
Ask questions. Start the conversation.
If you are looking for specific ways of implementing any of the aforementioned ideas, how to translate your face-to-face assignments to the virtual classroom, or design meaningful active learning exercises, please reach out to one of CIRT’s Instructional Designers for a consultation. We are more than happy to support your goal of achieving effective synchronous online teaching in your courses.
Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Second Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers
Barchas, J. (2020). How To Curate Your Zoom Background, And Why You Should. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-curate-your-zoom-backdrop-and-why-you-should
Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence (n.d.). Planning An Online Synchronous Session. http://cteresources.bc.edu/documentation/synchronous-teaching-considerations/planning-an-online-synchronous-session/
Bradbury, N.A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advanced Physiology Education, 40, 509-513.
Hersh, S. (2020). Yes, your Zoom teaching can be first rate. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/07/08/faculty-member-and-former-ad-executive-offers-six-steps-improving-teaching-zoom