Creating Engagement in Synchronous Sessions (#NEELC14)

On November 6, the Instructional Design team attended the day-long Northeast E-Learning Consortium Conference at Villanova’s Conference Center. This year’s theme focused on student engagement. The sessions included strategies and ideas for engaging today’s diverse students across a variety of course formats (traditional face-to-face classes, synchronous online class meetings, asynchronous online experiences, teleconference classes, and even gamified learning experiences). 

This is the third post in a blog series on our key takeaways from the day’s sessions. Contact us if you would be interested in applying these ideas and strategies into your classes!

Teaching online through synchronous sessions can be much more than online versions of a PowerPoint lecture. Instead of one-way conversations, treat them as great opportunities to bring real-time interaction into your online or hybrid course. Presenters at this year’s Northeast E-Learning Consortium Conference shared effective strategies for encouraging student participation during synchronous online sessions. Rather than be passive observers likely to tune out, students that participate in synchronous sessions will be more engaged, attain deeper learning by discussing and applying concepts immediately, and feel more of a sense community with their instructors and classmates.

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Giulia Forsythe on Flickr.

At his session Promoting Meaningful Student Engagement in Synchronous Classrooms, Stefan Perun of Villanova University gave some helpful tips to help facilitators make sure the work of creating engagement in a synchronous session doesn’t fall solely on the instructor. Many of his suggestions focused on encouraging quality over quantity from student participations. He recommended that faculty resist the urge to grade students on the number of times they participate; rather grade them on contributions that are on topic and demonstrate deeper levels of thinking. One way to grade synchronous participation is to clearly articulate your expectations for quality student comments in a rubric that you share with students.

The rubric tool in Canvas makes it easy for you to list grading criteria and attach them to graded assignments. For example, you can create an assignment in Canvas for participation in a particular synchronous session. Then attach a rubric to this assignment by clicking the “Add Rubric” button on the individual assignment screen.


In the editing options for the rubric, you can check the box for “I’ll write free-form comments when assessing students” which will allow you to save the comments you give to each student for re-use. Canvas will save your rubric so that you can attach it to other assignments and re-use it for grading participation in future sessions. This strategy of saving rubric comments for future use will make your grading more efficient while still enabling you to provide meaningful feedback to students.


With all the student participation you will be encouraging, you may be tempted to try to address student comments all at once by speaking over the microphone and typing in the chat window during the synchronous session. Instead of stretching yourself too thin, focus on one tool at a time and inform students of where your attention is. For example, direct students to ask the most pertinent questions over the microphone and defer less pressing items to the chat by saying,

“Please click the hand-raise button and then ask any questions on this specific topic over your microphone. If you have other questions not pertaining to our current discussion, please type them into the chat window and I’ll read and respond to them after the session.”

In GoToTraining and GoToMeeting the chat log will automatically download as a Word file with the session recording and be placed in the Documents folder on your computer.

When using strategies like the one above where you are asking students to participate in a specific way, it is important to set the expectation of 100 percent compliance. For example, if you use the polling tool in GoToTraining and you want everyone to respond, then clearly communicate that expectation to students and don’t move on until you have 100 percent participation. If students still aren’t responding, use wait time and call out non-participating students by name. Though this strategy may seem awkward at first, it will quickly set a tone of accountability that will carry into future synchronous sessions and make it harder for students to become distracted.

In his session, Stefan Perun also offered four different questioning strategies that instructors can use in synchronous sessions depending on the instructional goal. Each strategy had positive and negative aspects, but can be very effective at garnering participation when thoughtfully applied to the right situation. For example, if you have a class who is not participating, you could give them an easy opportunity by using the Free Fire question type and asking anyone to volunteer thoughts on an open-ended question. This questioning strategy is good for encouraging participation, but might not lead to the higher orders of thinking or focus on a specific point. See the table below for other question types and their descriptions:

Question Type Description Positives Negatives
Hot Seat 1 person, 1 answer High Accountability Can be uncomfortable
Invite 1 person, many answers Elaboration of a good point Can be lengthy or exclude other students
Toss-Up Any person, 1 answer Good icebreaker or discussion starter Could lead to silence and be time consuming
Free Fire Any person, Any answer Low risk, high participation May lead to low levels of thought


Michael Castrilli of Villanova University offered more tips for creating engagement in recorded synchronous sessions in his presentation titled Engage, Captivate and Inspire: Creating a Multi-Platform eLearning Classroom. He stressed that attention to detail can make the difference between a good webinar and a great webinar. Some recommendations from Castrilli included getting a good microphone and webcam, wearing professional clothing and carefully choosing your backdrop while on camera. In addition, he advised that facilitators always test equipment and practice with a script before doing a live recording. To create engagement during the synchronous session, Castrilli favored switching between multiple modes of delivery instead of displaying only one software for the whole time. GoToTraining allows presenters to share their webcam as well as their screen, so that they can flip back and forth between applications like PowerPoint, web browsers, etc.

Do you have other suggestions or questions about creating engagement in synchronous sessions? Leave comments below or contact the Instructional Design team