Pro tips for synchronous teaching

March 10, 2021

A Hub expert explains how to embrace Zoom teaching as a medium unto itself.

 A college student smiles at his laptop while engaging in a synchronous class session.
A college student smiles at his laptop while engaging in a synchronous class session.

It will likely take many years for universities to unpack everything we’ve learned from the year-plus we’ll spend in a pandemic-altered instructional environment. One of the themes that will no doubt get a lot of attention is how we can get the most out of online learning. Pre-pandemic, asynchronous courses were by far the dominant format. But now a year in, students, faculty and instructional designers have been increasingly drawn to activities where people can be together virtually in real-time. At face value, that makes synchronous learning more like a face-to-face class. But as Hub Instructional Designer Sarah Silverman recently explained, getting the most out of Zoom class time often means embracing what’s different about the format. Our conversation with her has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.

So Sarah, in the early days of the pandemic response, most classes went asynchronous, which again, meant real-time virtual class sessions weren’t generally part of the mix. Now there seems to be a lot of interest in making class time more synchronous. What’s shifted?

I think in the emergency remote Winter 2020 semester, there was a feeling that with all the hardships people were facing, it was not going to be realistic to have everyone convene at particular times for class sessions. At that time, it was also not guaranteed that people would have access to the technology they needed to do that. Now, though, I think what students are starting to feel is the connection with their instructors and their fellow students is supported by synchronous learning. This doesn’t mean that you need to be on Zoom three times a week for an hour to listen to a lecture. But I have heard a lot of people say they like the immediacy of being able to ask and answer questions in real-time, or hear what their instructor and fellow students think about a topic. Also, I think that while asynchronous does provide you this maximum level of flexibility, what we’re learning is that it may also require more cognitive bandwidth. First and foremost, students have to arrange and manage their own schedules. I mean, I’m a student in an asynchronous course right now, and I find many of these things challenging myself.

So on the synchronous side of things, how do you get it “right”? Because we’ve all sat through some pretty unengaging Zoom sessions.

I think the major challenge is a lot of instructors tend to think about a synchronous class session in ways that it’s going to mimic a classroom. Number one, they think they’ll be able to see all the students’ faces and therefore get facial feedback. But even if students were to keep their cameras on, which we’ve learned is mostly not their preference, it’s still not really the same as being face-to-face. Because of this, a lot of the work I’ve done with faculty involves thinking about what’s good about synchronous that doesn’t necessarily involve having the camera on. Number one, the chat feature is very useful for students, because you can ask a question and get immediate feedback. Second, it sidesteps one of the big drawbacks of the technology: It’s very difficult to know when it’s OK to speak and when someone is supposed to respond, so people end up talking over each other. In Zoom, you can also offer feedback via the Raising Hand function, or using emoji or the polling feature. These features also illustrate one of the overall thoughts I have about synchronous teaching, namely, that it’s alright to have more than one thing going on at the same time. It’s OK, for example, if the conversation in the chat is a little tangential to the lecture. These devices were not designed for us to be passive in front of the screen, and I think when we are passive, that’s one reason you see things like Zoom fatigue.

One other thing I’ll mention is that I’m very interested in issues that impact neuro-diverse students. One of the things I found is that a lot of students enjoy being with other people, but not necessarily speaking in class. So I’m a really big fan of synchronous learning activities that are actually quiet. Maybe you ask students to do an independent reflection, or write a paragraph that they then pass along to a partner for their comments. I think of it kind of like the experience of people meeting at a coffee shop to study. We’re not necessarily meeting up to talk, except maybe during breaks. But it’s helpful to be in the presence of people who are doing the same thing that you are. 

That’s super interesting. Can we go back to the camera thing, though, because I feel like this is a really nuanced topic. Can you explain why we can’t just require everybody to have their cameras on?

Well, there are really a variety of issues. First, there is a very basic concern that current students at UM-Dearborn did not sign-up to learn exclusively remotely, and their home situations may not be set up for that. Many students are not even living in the same situation they were pre-pandemic, and people’s families and kids and whatever else is going on in their homes are not predictable at the moment. We believe that many of our students don’t even have a private space in which they can “go” to their synchronous classes. 

There’s also the general privacy issue, and what counts as a private versus a public space. We’re asking people to attend public classes from their private spaces, which presents a number of challenges. Some solutions are fairly straightforward; for example, I can use a virtual background if I don’t want to show my space. But there may be other personal, cultural, age or experience-related reasons why someone might not feel comfortable presenting themselves on camera in the same way they want to appear to, say, their family in their home. In addition, there is research that indicates that for some people, looking at yourself on camera or being aware that you’re being watched can trigger a trauma response.

So I don’t think it makes sense to require cameras to be on. But if instructors find it really challenging to not see people’s faces, one thing I’ve suggested is that they just communicate with their students that they personally find it really helpful. And then they can explain that they have a lot of options for how they can do this. They can use the virtual background. They can turn their camera on and off, depending on what the activity is. Or they could simply put a picture up. For a lot of instructors, a photo or a cartoon avatar is still a lot better than teaching to a bunch of black boxes. Personally, I’m sympathetic to faculty on this issue. I find it very difficult to have conversations that are deep and transformative if you don’t know who’s there. So I think it’s good to find ways to develop presence and identity in the online environment, even if that doesn't mean having cameras on.

So I know you’re really tuned into some of the interesting things people are doing in this synchronous format. Can you share some simple techniques that people could try?

There was a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen from USC, and he was explaining how instead of having large class discussions, each day he asks a panel of students to be the discussants. So there is a day on which you and three other students will have your cameras on, and the instructor will ask you questions and you’ll share your thoughts, but you won’t be in the “fish bowl” every day. I don’t know if that’s great for every student, but I like that this instructor is thinking creatively about how to use the medium in a way that brings students' voices in. Along these same lines, I do really like student presentations. I think it’s a good use of Zoom to let students take the reins of the space. 

I also think the potential is huge for bringing in special guests. In academia, it’s a longstanding tradition to fly in an expert and get them a hotel room and they talk for an hour and then we take them out to lunch. That’s all been thrown out the window now. But what’s amazing is that you could actually have a prominent researcher from another city or country stop by your Zoom class for 15 minutes. Often all you have to do is ask and people are happy to do it. 

And do you think any of these techniques we’re discovering through necessity will stick around even when we have an opportunity to go back to more traditional instruction?

Based on my conversations with faculty, there are very few people who say they won’t have any digital component to their classes going forward. The number one thing I’m hearing is that whether it’s online or in-person, they’re never going to use their synchronous time just to lecture and click through slides. They have really seen the benefit of, say, recording a 10-minute video on a topic, and then using their class time for other things. There’s just a much greater appreciation for our time together and what we can do with it.

I also think students have reorganized their priorities. In the beginning, a lot of students said they didn’t like learning online. And I think alongside that feeling, they’re now feeling that they don't want to just go back to sitting in a lecture hall either. There’s some other type of connection or collaboration that they want to get — and may start expecting — when they show up for class.


Interview by Lou Blouin. If you’re a member of the media and would like to interview Instructional Designer Sarah Silverman about this topic, please drop us a line at [email protected].