Synchronous Sessions: A Valuable Inclusion in Online Learning

by David Noffs

Student studying while on a Zoom call on their laptop
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

Introducing A Policy Change

While synchronous sessions have long been a part of online instruction at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies, their potential impact on student engagement and community building has been underestimated. Now, administrators and lead faculty have developed a revised policy on holding sync sessions.

Significantly, new information regarding assignments, material, and concepts integral to the course can now be shared during these live sessions. Previously, this was not the case, which may have contributed to a sense that sync sessions were purely optional social events. As the pandemic progressed, many of us faculty felt that sync sessions played a major role in providing much-needed human interaction in real-time with our students.

Sync sessions remain optional. However, faculty are now strongly encouraged to make sync sessions more productive and attractive to students.

Strategies to Make Synchronous Sessions more Engaging

Specifically, the department advises that faculty should continue to 

  • Remind students of an upcoming sync session and the anticipated activity to encourage attendance.
  • Record the sync session in its entirety.
  • Post the sync session to the course site within 24 hours of its occurrence.
  • Announce to students that the recording is available for viewing (with a link to the recording).

Thoughtful planning about how you will structure your time together with your students will ensure a more engaging and productive experience. Some suggestions: 

  • Ensure interactivity and engagement of your students (do not use the entire sync session for lecturing).
  • When inviting guest speakers, ask students to prepare questions ahead of time when possible.
  • Structure a synchronous discussion for both small and large groups with engaging prompts.
  • Provide guidance and answer questions about an upcoming major assignment or project.
    Student on conference call
    Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash
  • After a major assignment or project, provide group feedback, review key takeaways, and answer questions about how to prepare for the next assignment.

Workshops Provide Opportunities to Brainstorm Ideas

During two recent workshops on effective sync sessions, Director of Graduate Programs Doug Bakker and I heard from many faculty who were trying new and innovative ways to engage students, including many who had seen increases in attendance as a result.

For example, one suggestion for faculty who invite guest speakers is to open their sync sessions to a wider student body than just their own class. Recently, during two sync sessions where we invited high-profile guest speakers, Reggie Jackson and I shared announcements with the Information, Design, and Strategy (IDS) Student Leadership Council, who promoted the events to the entire IDS student body. The turnout was phenomenal; guest speakers, faculty members, and, most importantly, the students benefited from the event.

Lastly, for those interested in making their sessions more engaging with third-party technology, here are some tools you can try out. Quizziz, Nearpod, Wordwall, Kahoot for Higher Ed, Slido, Mentimeter, Padlet, Mural, and Miro.