Leading Synchronous Discussions: Challenges and Recommendations

Leading Synchronous Discussions: Challenges and Recommendations

This post was co-authored with HASTAC Scholar Shari Wejsa

You may have been there this year…countless times…attempting to engage with your students during a Zoom session while getting cryptic silences and blank stares in return. The diagnosis? Zoom fatigue. As instructors, what can we do to connect with our students in an online environment while effectively meeting the course objectives? 

This issue sparked lively and fruitful discussions during our first session of EFOT (Emory Foundations for Online Teaching) this summer. In collaboration with graduate student participants, the instructional team compiled and expanded a list of suggestions for both synchronous and asynchronous discussions. This post focuses on synchronous discussions. You can find our blog post about asynchronous discussions here. There certainly are a variety of possible solutions for the challenges presented below. However, we hope that our suggestions can be a useful starting point for you as you navigate synchronous sessions as an instructor.

Synchronous Discussion Challenges and Suggestions

  1. What if I am lecturing too quickly and students zone out?

Consider pausing occasionally. Ask questions to check for understanding. You can also ask students to provide a summary of the content that you addressed and to reflect on it. This strategy is highly effective! When preparing your lecture, create questions beforehand to ask at key points in the lecture. You can also determine when it is best to pause and use informal assessments. These can include, “Give me a thumb’s up if you want me to review anything that we just discussed,” or “On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the least confident and 5 being the most confident, show me how confident you feel about what we just learned by holding up a number on your fingers”). Zoom’s participant reactions have a “slow down” option. You can also monitor the chat feature, especially for comments from students who prefer not to ask for clarification in front of their peers.

  1. How do I encourage participation & discussion in a synchronous session?

Break-out rooms can help stimulate discussion in larger classes if your platform provides this option (Zoom does.).  You can encourage students in small classes to leave their microphones on. This strategy may foster a more organic discussion that resembles what you might find in the in-person classroom setting.  Students can hear and provide comments such as “Uh-huh,” “Yeah, I agree,” or “Hmm” to you as the instructor and to their colleagues during a discussion. By encouraging students to use the chat function, you can also help create a forum to contribute to the discussion. 

  1.  How do I deal with connectivity issues?

Recording lectures that students can access on their own time can help mitigate this issue. You can also record lectures in advance, and use the material addressed in the lecture to guide discussions during synchronous instruction. For students who are unable to access the synchronous session due to connectivity issues, you can offer an alternative assignment, such as a reflection of the recorded lecture. Having a backup plan for any synchronous session is always a good idea. You can also remind students that they have the option to join by phone.  

  1.  How do I (and my students) deal with Zoom/audiovisual fatigue?

Make sure that you are balancing your asynchronous and synchronous content. Take breaks during synchronous meetings or meet for shorter periods of time, if needed. Set clear boundaries and communicate them to your students (and colleagues). For example, you may decide not to check email after 5 PM or on the weekends. Be creative with your synchronous lessons. Develop activities that require students to get out of their chairs (or off the couch), if they are able to. These activities are great for bodily-kinesthetic learners. All of these strategies can also help combat that Zoom fatigue. 

  1. How can I include humor or moments of levity in a synchronous session?

We encourage you to use appropriate humor in your synchronous sessions, especially if humor is a crucial part of your teaching persona. Just make sure to demonstrate proper Netiquette and to be sensitive to your students. To do this, you can include memes and cartoons in your lecture slides or other materials that you share in synchronous sessions. 

Another great way to integrate humor and keep students engaged is to incorporate formative assessment tools like Kahoot! and Poll Everywhere. (See this blog post for more information). Students tend to really like these activities. When creating questions with multiple-choice options, you can include a possible answer that is clearly wrong but makes students laugh. 

  1.  What do I do if students feel like they can’t interact well during synchronous discussion sessions, whether due to access, cultural differences, or confidence?

This is why balance is so critical. Creating multiple spaces for students to communicate in large and small groups and ‘Think-Pair-Shares’ in synchronous sessions can help. Remind students that they can contribute to the synchronous chat. This can encourage students who hesitate to speak during synchronous sessions to participate. It’s also important to set clear expectations about what “participation” looks like in your course. You may decide that less vocal students can receive participation points for synchronous sessions by submitting reflections about what they found compelling about the session. You can offer participation points for their contributions to the synchronous chat. Alternatively, you may decide to subtract participation points from those students who dominate the discussion without allowing their colleagues to participate.  

Ultimately, it will take some trial and error and patience from students and with yourself to determine what keeps students engaged while meeting course objectives. But great possibilities exist to be creative while maximizing students’ learning through synchronous sessions.

If you have any suggestions that you would like to contribute, please feel free to comment!

*Bailey Betik (PhD Student in English) and Elizabeth Sajewski (PhD Student in Environmental Health Science) are also members of the EFOT instructional team and digital specialist interns at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.