Synchronous learning happens whenever students are engaged in learning activities “live” at the same time. We are all accustomed to the kind of synchronous learning that takes place in a physical classroom, and it can be tempting to simply repeat successful in-person activities using videoconferencing tools like BlueJeans and Zoom. Although videoconferencing is the closest we can get to providing an in-person experience at the moment, the best equivalents for your course activities may look quite different than they did in the physical classroom.
Here are some best practices to consider when planning your synchronous class sessions:
Pre-record lectures, demonstrations, and presentations for students to watch before attending the synchronous class session. While live lecturing and demonstration can be very engaging, it would take a full television production team in every class to make the experience of watching a live-streamed lecture equally engaging. Consider, too, that synchronous time is a precious resource in online and hybrid courses. The best use of your synchronous time will rarely be lectures, demonstrations, or presentation of material; student feedback makes it clear that this is not often an engaging or memorable option. Instead, we recommend recording those materials so that students can view them ahead of time. Save your synchronous face-to-face time for activities that involve frequent, active participation from both students and instructors such as Q&A, one-on-one feedback, small group discussions, or other collaborative work.
Create a detailed agenda and share it with your students. An agenda, with time allotments, will help you and your students prepare mentally and stay on track, even without the typical in-person cues of moving around or changing tools (e.g. switching from note-taking to whiteboard writing). Include how much time you plan to allow for collaborative work, independent writing, or class discussions.
Make transitions explicit. In an online setting, you lack the physical transition of moving into groups or coming back together. Be sure to provide clean, well-defined transitions between learning activities or discussion topics so students have a few moments to process before jumping into the next task. Taking a short break can be a great transition between activities (see below).
Take breaks during synchronous class sessions provide students with the opportunity to get up, stretch, or use the restroom. Taking breaks will help reduce cognitive load, ground the physical senses, and give students the space they need for processing and recharging before they return to trying to engage via the tiny window of a computer screen. A good rule of thumb is providing a 5-minute break for every 30 minutes of learning activities.
Provide active learning opportunities. Due to the limited face-to-face interaction in online and hybrid courses, it is also vital to provide students with more active learning opportunities than simply watching videos and answering questions about them. Consider what they can do, in an online or partially online environment, to actively practice the skills you will be assessing them on. For the best learning return, try to make these activities a time for direct student-to-student interaction (see below). This will foster the learning community of your course, which can easily suffer without the simple physicality of other breathing, moving people in the same room. Examples of good activities include peer-taught class segments, mini-case studies, simulations, role plays, weekly collaborative journal entries, small group discussion in breakout rooms, or paired analysis of a lab or demonstration video.
Make opportunities for students to interact with each other. An important way to combat isolation and encourage a sense of community in your class is to encourage students to interact directly with each other, without much instructor moderation. Providing multiple ways, throughout the term, for students to connect with each other, especially in small groups, is the best way to promote and sustain community. Some methods to encourage student-to-student interaction online might include a social (rather than class-related) discussion forum, a class Q&A where students are encouraged to help each other and answer questions, peer-review activities, or breakout rooms in Zoom for team work or small group discussions.
Be more flexible on attendance requirements. Meeting online can be difficult, at times, especially if you don’t always have a quiet space with minimal distractions or interruptions. It can also be challenging if your internet connection is questionable. Even those with a generally reliable internet connection will often experience connectivity issues from time to time. Plan ways for students who can’t make a synchronous session to still get some of the same learning experience, perhaps from a research or analysis assignment that’s shared with the class as part of peer-instruction.
If you’d like to discuss the best approaches for your particular courses, please feel free to reach out to the LSALearningTeachingConsultants@umich.edu! The LSA Teaching Remotely website also has many recommendations and resources to help you decide how to best replicate the learning experience you want for your students in an online or hybrid form.