How do I best engage students during synchronous class sessions?

                                                                                    Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

You decided to offer synchronous class sessions to your students, but how do you make these lively, engaging, interactive, and worthwhile? Simply transferring what you do in your land-based in-person classroom to the virtual platform is not possible. Videoconferencing tools and platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Echo360 are a fairly new medium. They can transform an online class into an active learning community. To fully use the possibilities these tools offer, you need to consider the specifics of this medium and intentionally redesign the content and learning activities for it (Hersh, 2020).

Tips and Strategies

Before the Session: Preparation & Structure

Create a pathway for learning. In a face-to-face classroom, you can scan the room, notice student body language, easily answer students’ questions, and walk around to check in with students during pair or small group work. This doesn’t work in videoconferences, so it becomes critical for you to prepare and create a predictable structure for your synchronous class sessions. What do your students need to know so that they can fully participate?

  • Create a Housekeeping Slide, which you can reuse in all of your courses, that reminds students of best practices for videoconferencing, such as muting yourself, using the chat as a backchannel for questions and comments, and turning on your video if you feel comfortable doing so (or at least when speaking). For hands-on guidance using Zoom, contact IDEAS at or drop into their Zoom consultations from 9am-4pm, Monday-Friday.
  • Use presentation slides to guide your students through the session. Have slides with an image and discussion prompt to stimulate student thinking. Repeat this information in the chat and on a note-taking document. Explicit and redundant instructions help avoid confusions, keep students on track, and lower their cognitive load.
  • Use a “note catcher” mechanism for guiding discussions in breakout rooms and create templates for such collaborative note taking ahead of time (Bondie, 2020). This can be a Google document (see this sample note catcher or this alternate, spreadsheet-based version) or Google slides with one slide per breakout room, or another app. Share the link to this note catcher prior to the class session and ask students to have it open at the start of the session.

Flip your class. Synchronous class sessions are precious time, so think about what is most important to do during this time and what your students can do asynchronously. See our Keep Teaching page on how to balance synchronous and asynchronous learning to help guide your decisions. Then, explicitly build on what students do asynchronously during the synchronous class session. For example, you could use Perusall as an asynchronous tool for students to collectively annotate course texts and then draw on their annotations for questions and prompts for the live class session (see Get Started with Perusall and the library FAQ on using library materials in Perusall). 

Consider how students who can’t attend the synchronous class session will achieve the intended learning outcomes. Make sure to record any live class sessions and save the chats. Both Zoom and Echo360 generate automatic transcripts, once you have selected the appropriate settings. However, watching the recorded version of the synchronous class session cannot be the same as actually participating in it. Think of ways to engage students who were absent with the recording. For example, have them read through the note catcher and add their own thoughts, comments and/or questions. Or, ask them to write a brief reflection about their main take-aways and/or points of confusion in response to watching the recording.

Pay attention to your settings on the video conferencing platform that you use. For example, ensure that your meetings are recorded and that you have a transcript. See Add and Edit Transcripts of Cloud Recordings in Zoom and Add and Edit Transcripts in Echo360 for what to do to set up automatic transcripts. And did you know that you can also take attendance in Zoom? See How to View and Export Attendance Report in Zoom.

Show students how to change their name and background on Zoom. Student can change their name so that it reflects the first and last name they prefer. They can also add a pronoun or phonetic pronunciation. For example, “Dei (they, them)” or “Kale (Kay-lee) Smith (she, her)”. Students can also change the background if they don’t want to share their space. For hands-on guidance using Zoom, contact IDEAS at or drop into their Zoom consultations from 9am-4pm, Monday-Friday.

During the Synchronous Class Session: Facilitate and Interact

Welcome your students. Consider opening the session early and letting students know that you will be available during that time for informal chatting. Ask students to send you their favorite songs and play one of their songs as students enter the session. Students will be thrilled to hear “their” song. Or, ask students to send you a picture of their favorite animal (not pet) and display a collage of their pictures.

Show the Housekeeping Slide. Remind students about how to be and interact during the session (see above) consistently at least during the first few weeks of the semester until students know the routine.

Limit how much you talk. Consider using synchronous class sessions not for lecturing but for active student engagement. Offer a brief recap of key ideas or concepts, offer brief explanations, clarify misconceptions or points of confusion, provide a fresh perspective on the topic, share a short story connected to the topic, introduce activities, and summarize important information. 

Teach your students to actively use the chat. You can use the chat for consistent opening check-ins, icebreaker activities, closing reflection activities, and as a backchannel for students to post questions or comments. If you work with a teaching assistant, ask them to monitor the chat for you. If not, consider asking your students to volunteer for this task.

Use opening check-in and community building activities. It’s a little bit harder to cultivate social connection in the virtual environment. Beginning class with brief icebreaker activities allows students to get to know each other, which will open them to have conversations with each other. For example, you can use the chat or a poll feature in Zoom for these activities so that it doesn’t take too much time.

Consistently put students into groups.  Students benefit from direct interaction with their peers in small groups. For example, in Zoom breakout rooms students can have a small group discussion, apply concepts, analyze a case or situation, or solve a problem. A consistent structure reduces students’ cognitive load, freeing them up to engage with what matters most: the content. Here are some tips for helping structure effective small group activities:

  • Give students a task. Identify pros and cons of an issue, apply concepts from a course text and/or pre-recorded lecture, analyze a case or situation, or solve a problem.
  • Assign rotating roles. A discussion facilitator who initiates the small group work/discussion and keeps the group on track, a note taker; a time keeper, and a reporter if necessary.
  • Use a protocol. Introduce students to a discussion or small group work protocol. For example, tell them to do a circle of voices first, going around with each student sharing a thought, idea, or comment before opening up the discussion.
  • Use a note catcher. Ask your students to use the collaborative note catcher that you created for their small group discussions.
  • Check in with groups. Monitor the note catcher and check-in with those groups that are not taking notes. Maybe they are stuck, or maybe they are so engaged that they are forgetting to take notes.
  • Broadcast announcements to breakout groups. Inform students about any remaining time left for the activity and when the breakout rooms will close.

Use polling activities. They give you a quick sense of where your students are at, what misconceptions they might have, what matters to them, and more.

Use a collaborative online whiteboard. Web-based whiteboards, such as  Zoom's whiteboard feature, are another tool for you and your students to collaborate in real time.

Ask students to reflect before you close the session. Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are a great way to have students reflect on a class session while also providing the instructor with valuable feedback. Many CATs can be easily adapted for online use, such as using the chat or having students complete a brief online “survey” before leaving the session.

Summarize, highlight, connect. Wrap up the session by briefly summarizing main insights, highlighting upcoming asynchronous assignments and learning activities, and showing how these connect with the next session and how to prepare for it.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at

Return to Keep Teaching main page


Bondie, R. (2020). Practical tips for teaching online small-group discussions. ACSD Express 15(16). Retrieved from

Hersh, S. (2020, July 8). Yes, your Zoom teaching can be first rate [blog post]. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from