Module 3: Facilitating for connection

3.5 Synchronous (live) sessions

Key principles: Structuring live sessions

Synchronous sessions are an increasingly popular part of online teaching. While asynchronous courses remain the best choice for many course offerings, synchronous sessions present certain advantages that can make them a good choice depending on your subject matter, course size, and learners’ needs. See the Challenges and Affordances of Synchronous and Asynchronous Sessions section in Module 1 to assess whether synchronous teaching online is right for you and your course. If you are going to be using synchronous sessions, then read on!

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the most important step you can take to humanize your live sessions when teaching online is to focus on creating as much structure as possible for every session that you teach. While structure is important in classroom teaching as well, it is even more crucial when going synchronous online given the lingering transactional distance of communicating via conferencing, and the markedly different physical and mental experience of attending a virtual class session compared to an in-person one. For instance, to break learners into groups for a synchronous discussion online requires specific planning and tool set up that would not be necessary for a similar activity in the classroom.

clipboard with 2 dots that connect
“plan” icon by Komkrit Noenpoempisut, from the Noun Project. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.

Before diving into any synchronous teaching session online, plan out every activity (including any lecturing) that will take place during the session and roughly how long it will take. Then consider the following:

  • Assess whether your plan is feasible in the time permitted and identify any set up requirements you will need to attend to (such as creating breakout rooms or enabling polls, etc.). Always ensure to “pad” the components with extra time to ensure you do not over-schedule the session. This allows for space for natural discussions/activities to evolve and end in an more authentic way. Plan a “nice to have” element in case you unexpectedly finish all the scheduled items early (or just end the session early!).
  • Share your plan with the learners as far in advance as possible so that they can come prepared for the session.
  • Explain to the learners what preparation will be required before the session begins and why it will be important. For instance, is it essential to complete a certain reading before the live session? If so, why and how will the reading be used in the session?
  • Reduce the amount of synchronous activity when you can to create shorter sessions. Are there portions of your teaching plan that could be conducted asynchronously instead (see “Key principles: Making the most of synchronous sessions” below).

With a clear plan available to all participants, you and your learners can help maximize live time to create better and more effective social and learning interactions.

Going deeper

This article discusses the importance of structure in online live sessions in more detail and provides some further tips.

Key principles: Holding attention in live sessions

By now we are all familiar with the phrase “Zoom fatigue.” Though by no means unique to Zoom specifically, the phrase captures the especially tiring nature of attending meetings and live sessions through online conferencing software.

an image of a women head down on her desk
Credit: Piacquadio, A. (2020, February 19). Woman leaning on table [Stock image]. Pexels.

Holding your learners’ attention during synchronous sessions begins by recognizing the unique challenges they are facing when attending class online. While research into the problem is in its early stages, it has been suggested that factors like these may all contribute to the tiring experience of video conferencing (Bailenson, 2021):

  • cognitive overload
  • looking into other people’s eyes from too close a perceived distance
  • having one’s own image constantly displayed
  • being less able to move in space when sitting in front of a webcam

The good news is that there are things you can do to help learners keep their attention and focus during live sessions by recognizing some of these key causes of conferencing fatigue and distraction.

  • Make cameras optional when they are not truly required for learning. For instance, you might ask learners to turn on their cameras near the beginning of a session to greet one another, and then allow them to turn their cameras back off for the rest of the session or until they are needed again. This can help reduce the cognitive overload on all learners and allows learners to move more freely in space without needing to frame their face in their camera.
  • Shorten and space your live sessions. Do you need to have the same amount of live time with your online learners as you do with those in the classroom? Or can you adjust some of your teaching plan to reduce the amount of live time to help learners stay focused?
  • Focus on active learning for your live sessions. More passive forms of learning (like listening to a lecture) can be harder to focus on online. See the Going Deeper section below for some suggestions about active learning strategies you can use during live sessions, including various group and breakout room activities.

Going deeper

For a deeper dive into the problem of “Zoom fatigue” see this article from Stanford University.

For some more tips on holding attention during live sessions, see this article which focuses on online trainings, but has many applications in post-secondary education.

Key principles: Making the most of synchronous sessions

To help facilitate some of the above approaches to online live sessions, you may want to consider reducing or eliminating the amount of lecture materials presented during live sessions and using shorter and more targeted live sessions to create social presence and learner-learner interaction, thereby using synchronous time primarily to help humanize your course while keeping asynchronous strategies for content delivery.

Making the most of synchronous time this way starts by first simply moving all lecture materials and other didactic or passive learning resources into video or text with visuals format (e.g., lecture notes, slides with notes, or text with images on module pages in your LMS). Posting these materials to your LMS ahead of time allows learners to access these materials whenever it works best for them. This frees up your live sessions for other kinds of interaction and allows learners to easily review lecture materials at their convenience.

With lectures off the docket, next think about what aspects of live online interaction you can make best use of in your particular course. For instance, live sessions can be a great way to

  • get to know learners and help them get to know each other,
  • build rapport with your learners and create social presence within your course,
  • answer learner questions and clear up confusion quickly,
  • conduct certain types of discussions, and
  • facilitate certain types of group work using breakout rooms.

Think carefully about your goals for a given live session and design it to maximize them. In addition, if you are going to deliver lecture materials and facilitate assessments asynchronously, you may be able to make your live sessions optional, offering even more flexibility for your learners while still allowing those who prefer to have some live time in their courses the chance to learn in a way that works well for them.

Going deeper

For more on using your live time efficiently by “flipping” your online classroom, see these articles from Faculty Focus and tip sheet from UC Berkley.

Strategies in action: Live sessions

Tips and example plans for synchronous sessions

Check out these resources from Boston College and University of Washington which contain more tips on synchronous sessions, and example plans for a synchronous course session.

Community building and check-in

Instead of diving into synchronous sessions right away, take the first 5-minutes to check-in with your learners. Some wellness checks could include the following:

  1. Creating a slide with 4–9 different numbered images (e.g. animals, foods, places you wish you could visit, TV show or movie posters, etc.) and ask learners to type the number matching their mood in the chat.
  2. Guiding learners through a mindfulness exercise, such as asking learners to pick a non-technology object in the space that they are in and take a minute to simply look at that object and its characteristics. After the exercise ends, get learners to share an element of the object that they focused on the most. (e.g. its roundness, softness, the colour, etc.).
  3. Guiding learners through a mindful breathing activity of a minute or two, taking in deep breaths through their nose and out through their mouth. Encourage learners to focus only on their breathing. After complete, perhaps put up a few numbered images as of ‘moods’ to get a sense where learners are at (see item 1 of this list).
  4. Having students provide “weather reports” comparing the weather outside where learners are to the “weather” inside and how they are doing overall.

The below video explains some of these concepts in further detail.

Showcase 2021: Individual student check-ins (video length ~ 12 min)

Transcript for Showcase 2021: Individual student check-ins available on YouTube.

These types of activities will help everyone understand how everyone is feeling and will help you understand the engagement level with more empathy. For example, if many of your learners are in the middle of midterms and they select a “tired” or “stressed” related image, you can tailor your tone and expectations for engagement for the session with that in mind. As an added benefit, learners joining late will not miss any critical information in the first few minutes of the session (sometimes people lose track of time or the technology/internet does not want to cooperate and we can recognize that).

Strategies to reduce cognitive load: The 20-minute rule

To help learners focus, pause every 20 minutes or so to check-in with understanding or start on a different topic to retain attention and ensure learners don’t get lost. This would be a good time, for learners to contribute to collaborative learning (e.g., Padlet, Mentimeter, built-in polls in conferencing software, Google doc) to check-in in terms of their ideas, predictions, gained knowledge so everyone knows what people are thinking. After 40 minutes, consider a short wellness break where learners are guided through mindful breathing, have a minute to stretch their legs, or engage in some chair yoga (yes, it is a thing!). If learners are working in break-out groups, after 20 minutes it may be a good idea to bring everyone together and start sharing what they have discussed/created or have a short 5-10 minute session where more information is given to them before going back to break-out groups. This will help learners remain engaged and not leave their desks during these extended times.

Synchronous session engagement strategies

This video from Queen’s University highlights several more techniques for engaging learners during live sessions including learner-led discussions and participation groups.

Showcase 2021: There and back again (Video length ~ 15 min)

Transcript for Showcase 2021: There and back again available on YouTube.

Reflect and apply: Plan a live session

For this activity, use the below interactive to create a specific plan for your next synchronous session (you can skip this activity if you are teaching only asynchronously).

  • Begin by briefly summarizing the purpose of the live session you are planning. What are you hoping the session will add to yours and your learners’ experience in the course?
  • What learning outcomes will the session help you address?
  • Will the session help to create teaching and/or social presence in the course?

How to complete this activity and save your work:

Use the fields to create an outline of exactly what you would like to do in the session. Be as specific as possible, and designate how much time you expect to take on each portion of your session. You can save the resulting document for your planning purposes. You may also wish to share the document with your learners so that they can make the most of your session together. Your answers will be saved as you move forward to the next question (note: your answers will not be saved if you navigate away from this page). Your responses are private and cannot be seen by anyone else.

When you complete the below activity and wish to download your responses or if you prefer to work in a Word document offline, please follow the steps below:

  1. Navigate through all tabs or jump ahead by selecting the “Export” tab in the left-hand navigation.
  2. Hit the “Export document” button.
  3. Hit the “Export” button in the top right navigation.

To delete your answers simply refresh the page or move to the next page in this course.

References and credits

Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the cause of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1).


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