How to Make Your Synchronous Classes Better
“Zoom University” is a phrase that has been thrown around since last spring. It designates a particular approach to remote teaching, one that prefers synchronous learning – that learning that occurs at the same time, in the same place, with others – over all other formats. Most classes proceed as they would usually (you know, in years without a pandemic!). Students gather at a specific time (on Zoom) to learn from or with their professor. Synchronous learning is the closest approximation of our usual format that we have.
There are some clear benefits to synchronous teaching, which students appreciate. For example, some students appreciate the routine provided by a designated class-meeting time, which helps to structure their days. Students also recognize the value of being able to ask a question and get an answer in real time. They also enjoy (even benefit from) seeing other students, and for a moment feeling connected to someone else who is working away on a similar project or problem.
And yet there are challenges – for both students and faculty. Some students can’t attend synchronous classes as much as they’d like to; it’s also easier to get distracted. After all, the very devices that we’re asking them to use for learning are the ones they use for entertainment. And there isn’t always time for questions; some instructors zip by a difficult concept without seeing how students are doing.
And for faculty, we’ve heard that it’s difficult to explain thorny or threshold concepts while also monitoring the chat and watching the most important questions fly by; or that it’s hard to teach students while also answering their tech questions, directing them to the right resources that will help them get through the term, and explaining how to study or what other courses to take; or that it’s nerve-wracking to teach – not to faces – but to a series of black screens, when students feel that they need to turn off their cameras.
So, how can we make our synchronous classes even better than they are now?
1. Decide when synchronous learning is good for your course.
At the CTL, we’ve suggested that faculty choose synchronous learning if they:
- see it as the best way to connect with students,
- are willing to manage the synchronous classroom,
- see it as an opportunity to discuss complex ideas, and
- are able to provide an asynchronous path through the course.
That advice still holds. But we do have some feedback from faculty and students which suggests that smaller classes work better when it comes to synchronous learning. When students are in smaller classes (and what counts as small seems to vary across disciplines), it’s easier for them to share ideas with each other and with their instructors.
It’s not that larger classes are impossible in Zoom. But for faculty who are leading larger classes on Zoom, we recommend they consider how to make their classes feel smaller. How can you use breakout rooms or set up group work? How can the chat be monitored (perhaps by a TA or another student) so key questions can be brought forward? Otherwise, the prime virtues of synchronous learning – that chance to see other people and feel connected to them – are lost.
Another way to think about it: if the synchronous class could be recorded and most students would have the same experience, than do that; follow an asynchronous path. Record the lecture; post it. And then consider using a synchronous meeting time to provide students the chance to answer questions, see your thinking process in real-time, or be part of a discussion.
2. Be sure to break your synchronous learning into smaller stages or blocks.
When we’re teaching in Zoom, we don’t always see those looks of confusion or curiosity that would cause us to pause, go over the concept one more time, or give another example.
So, we have to be intentional about providing the time for students to ask questions and check their own understanding. One way to do so is to begin the lecture by asking them to think about or recall what they know about the class’s topic. Then, ask them to listen to a lecture in 10-15 minute stages or blocks, with each one followed by a period to check understanding and then a breakout room discussion. That kind of deliberate (i.e., considered and unhurried) structure will allow students the time to engage with you, the material, and each other.
3. Find ways to increase a sense of belonging and engagement.
Last week, I went to a 90-minute workshop put on by Dr. Doug Shaw, both a math professor and improv enthusiast, called, “Ok, Zoomer!” It was helpful; I recommend it. His motivation is to find ways to re-purpose the tools of Zoom so that they can be used to increase student engagement. Here are three activities that he shared that I’ll be using when I teach on Zoom:
- the chat waterfall (or, as Doug calls it, THE ENTER KEY IS LAVA),
- Zoom fishbowl, and
- and fun with polling.
Activity: chat waterfall
|Example||To introduce a discussion about urban theory, ask students to think about the best things about living in a large city. Do a chat waterfall. Ask students to keep three responses in mind as the group identifies the central arguments in excerpts from Mumford, Wirth, Jacobs, and DuBois.|
|When is this activity best used?||
when there is a question with relatively short responses
when the class is small enough (50 or so) that the chat waterfall isn’t too daunting or too fast for people to read and find something meaningful
when gathering first impressions (in the THINK ABOUT phase) or reflections
|What limitations does it have?||
with too many people, the chat waterfall will be too long to be helpful
the answers might not be trustworthy; they are usually first impressions, suggestions, or reflections
Activity: Zoom fishbowl
|Example||In a conversation about the philosophy of happiness, ask for three volunteers. Give each volunteer the same situation (e.g., eating a piece of chocolate cake). Assign each volunteer a philosopher – Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Sarah Ahmed. Have them carry out a five minute discussion about the conditions under which eating this chocolate cake would bring happiness (according to their philosopher’s ideas). The rest of the class mutes their cameras, and watches the role play.|
|When is this activity best used?||
when there are competing – but equally significant -- perspectives
when students are ready to apply their understanding
|What limitations does it have?||it depends on students having a good amount of understanding to represent the positions of the debate or role play accurately|
Activity: fun with polling
One option: identify a problem or pose a question. Students offer their response by renaming themselves in Zoom.
Another option: to check for understanding, have students indicate their level of understanding with hand gestures, two thumbs up for “I totally understand”; one thumb up for “I think I get it”; no thumbs for “I’m not sure”; one thumb down for “I don’t think I get it”; and two thumbs down for “I totally don’t get it.”
In an English literature class, ask students for one word to describe the stylistic features of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In a Chemistry class, after going a particular conclusion, have the students indicate their understanding with hand signals.
|When is this activity best used?||
Polls are best used when you’re soliciting immediate and brief answers or checking for understanding at the beginning or end of a lecture.
The thumbs up / thumbs down poll can check the degree of understanding; so it can give a sense of how strongly a class grasps a particular concept.
|What limitations does it have?||The results don’t indicate anything on their own; the results need to be spoken about, either by asking students to explain the way they’ve renamed themselves (in that way it starts a longer conversation) or by going over another example or asking students to identify the source of their difficulty|
A downloadable, Microsoft Word version of this resource is available.
Prepared by: Joel Baetz
Last Updated: 2 December, 2020