Best Practices for Synchronous Sessions

by Kristina Wilson


You’ve built engagement into every corner of your online course. You’ve got ways for students to interact with you, the instructor, through video and audio, assignment feedback, and discussion posts. Students interact with each other in large group discussions and small group projects.

Don’t stop there! Even with a robust engagement strategy in place, some students in online programs may still feel disconnected from their instructors. One way to combat this is through the use of synchronous sessions.

I know what you’re thinking. How will working students have the time to join a sync session every week? It is important to respect the time commitments of adult students, but it is also critical to reach all of the students in your class, including those who thrive on face-to-face interaction. Read on to learn how you can accomplish both.

Cultivate Active Learning

It can be tempting to turn a classroom lecture into a webinar or live video conference lecture in your course. Go with what you know, right? Actually, there is lots of evidence that active learning trumps lecturing when it comes to student performance. That means long slideshows or screening videos during synchronous sessions are going the way of the dinosaur.

So what can you do as an alternative to lecture? Here are a few ideas:

Field question from students. Why not hold an introductory Q&A session near the beginning of the quarter so that you can field student questions about the syllabus and course structure?

Screenshare to demonstrate tasks or navigate documents. There are some tasks that are easier to show than to tell. Share your screen to give students a peek behind the curtain.

Ask guest speakers to join your class. One reason many adult students pursue a degree is to network with their instructors and peers. You can make the most of this ambition by inviting guest speakers to join your class for a synchronous session. You may consider inviting other professionals in your field or alumni of the program.

Plan an activity. Make sure that your students have a reason to show up. A sync session with a nebulous purpose will likely be underattended. Instructional Technologist William Guth suggests structuring the time spent in the sync session with an agenda, and then announcing it in advance. If you promote it for at least a week prior to the session, “those who can’t make it will have an incentive to review the recording,” he says.

Keep in mind that open hours typically don’t work well. Instructional Technologists in our office have observed that faculty who hold open office hours via synchronous session (e.g. all Monday evenings from 6-9pm CST) often get a low student response. There is often a Q&A discussion for high level questions, and personal questions are more likely to be directed to the faculty member by e-mail.

Ask students to prepare in advance. Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham-Smith suggests assigning preparation activities in her blog post, “Maximizing Your Synchronous Sessions Part 2.” That may include pre-reading or an activity like a QQTP, where students prepare a question, quotation, and talking point for the session.

Invite interaction and active participation. Beyond information delivery, encourage a conversation. Invite students to respond to you using the chat and audio features. While not all students are comfortable sharing webcam video, make sure that students have the opportunity to “sound off” throughout the session by giving informal polls for opinion (“What do you think? Are we on the same page?”) and understanding (“Am I going too fast? Does this make sense?”).

Flip It Around

To make sync sessions even more engaging, you can ask students to guide the conversation as part of your assessment plan for the course.

Have students take the lead. Learning Designer Elizabeth Lemke suggests using sync sessions to “deliver group and individual presentations,” and Lindsey Mercer recommends “[having] your students create something that they will demonstrate or present” in her 2017 article for the University of South Florida, “Conducting a Successful Live (Synchronous) Session with Ease.” If cultivating presentation skills and long-distance collaboration–a critical 21st-century workplace competency–are prioritized in your course- and module-level objectives, presenting synchronously can ensure that students have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in an authentic way.

Hold sessions at the request of students. Use your syllabus policies to invite students to request sessions on specific topics (“pinch points” that they are having difficulty with) or at hot-button moments, before a big exam or the week before final projects are due. This ad hoc technique is less time-consuming than holding a regular session each week, and since they are more targeted to student interests they are likely to be better attended.

Anticipate the needs of students with disabilities. Students with disabilities, including those who are blind or low vision, or who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, may find it difficult to participate in synchronous sessions. If your course will involve optional or required synchronous sessions, and especially if students will be presenting, follow these steps to ensure that you meet their needs from day 1.

  • Give students a choice about how they would like to present. If students have the opportunity to give a live presentation (to an individual, small group, or the full class) OR record a video OR record a podcast, it is likely that they will select a method that works for them. Then they won’t even need to request an accommodation.
  • Call out synchronous sessions in the syllabus. Then students with disabilities will understand what it required of them and be able to request accommodations early on.
  • Connect students with accessibility resources. Ensure that your syllabus includes (at least) the AccessibleNU recommended syllabus statement to encourage their accommodation requests.

Think About Logistics

When you are planning to hold a synchronous session, it’s not enough to know what you will do in the session. You must also be comfortable using videoconferencing software, which will almost certainly include troubleshooting with students. Consider these logistics before you begin.

Practice, practice, practice. Get to know the ins-and-outs of the software. How do you share (and mute) audio and video for yourself? For others? How will you monitor the chat whilst also sharing your screen? Call in from your phone and from your computer, switching back and forth. This fluency will be appreciated if the call drops for some reason.

If you need a refresher on Blue Jeans, take a Northwestern Information Technology workshop.

Give students the opportunity to practice. Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham-Smith suggests allowing students to test the technology prior to the first session. “If you are using Blue Jeans for synchronous sessions, students can have a test meeting with a Blue Jeans representative. During the test meeting, the representative will assist the student with any necessary troubleshooting to ensure their audio and video are functioning prior to the meeting,” she writes in her blog post, “Maximizing Your Synchronous Sessions: Part 1.”

Stick around. Join the call early to field access questions and stay on the call late to answer any follow-up questions.

Compose your environment. Think about how you will appear on screen. Ensure that the lighting is clear, not dark or over-bright. Dress as you want to be perceived: serious, laid-back, quirky. The same goes for your background. Will you set yourself up in front of a bookshelf? At the kitchen table?

Limit distractions. If possible, silence your phone and go to a room where you can close the door. Be sure to consider white noise, too. Is there an air conditioner, fan, washing machine, or dishwasher that will make it difficult to hear you?

Provide guidance in-meeting. You can’t expect students to know how to use the software the first time they join, so be prepared to provide a quick tutorial on how to mute audio and video, type in the chat box, and join by phone. Likewise, be familiar with the Blue Jeans privacy and accessibility policies (or at least know where they are!) in case you need to field student questions.

Have a contingency plan. If the connection fails, what will you do? Ray Ostman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests “[having] a plan-of-action prepared if [you] run into issues.” Is there another way you can reach your students, even if it’s to say, “I’ll be back in a moment”? Check out the Northwestern IT Blue Jeans page for information about when to contact Northwestern’s support and when to contact Blue Jeans’ support.

Plan to record your sessions. At the School of Professional Studies, it is our policy that synchronous sessions must be optional in order to accommodate the needs of busy adult students. However, current students that can’t attend should still be afforded the opportunity to review the session. Be sure to record and post your session to your class after it is over.


Don’t reuse recordings from previous classes. It is important not to use recordings of past students in classes with future students, as this could be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). A saved video conference of students participating in your class may constitute an education record.

Want to learn more?

Get in touch with a trusty Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist to discuss incorporating a strategy for sync sessions in your class!