Teaching Strategies

Student Engagement

 Engaging Students in Synchronous Sessions

Synchronous remote class sessions provide an excellent opportunity to reach our students in real-time even when they are at a distance. However, the web conferencing tools used to facilitate such conversations, such as Zoom or Google Meet, are admittedly imperfect in their ability to replicate the in-person experience. It’s important to be flexible and give yourself permission to embrace this imperfection and use it as a catalyst to try new approaches for engaging with your students remotely. 

Ideally, in the physical classroom, your students engaged in rich discussion, asked insightful questions, debated with each other, and worked collaboratively. The adjustment to the new virtual classroom might cause some students to be hesitant to speak up at first, however, there are steps you can take to make your synchronous sessions more engaging and foster greater student participation: 

  1. Collect student questions and insights on the topic before the session: Ask your students to submit questions about the topic a day or two before your synchronous session. You can use these questions to call on them during the class session and ask them to elaborate or restate their question for the class. This will encourage students to speak up in a structured and manageable way and will send the signal that your session isn’t just a one-way lecture.
  2. Set expectations in advance: Email your students or post an announcement in Canvas outlining the topic for the upcoming synchronous session, and prompt them with key questions for them to consider and any actions they should take to prepare for the class in advance. This will provide students adequate time to both prepare and a plan for how to engage during the session. 
  3. Appoint a student chat moderator: Ask a different student each class to serve as the chat monitor, and encourage your students to ask questions and post comments there while you’re presenting. Pause occasionally and ask the chat moderator to share some of the common questions and significant comments. This will allow you to present freely without having to monitor the chat box, and will encourage your students to participate actively
  4. Make sure your synchronous sessions offer new insights and complement course materials: It can sometimes be difficult enough to hold student attention in a classroom setting where distractions are at a minimum, so maintaining student attention remotely when the distractions of home and the internet are plentiful can be even more of a challenge. Therefore, it’s increasingly necessary to make sure that the content you share during your synchronous sessions add something new and novel to complement the readings and other materials of your course. It is also helpful to plan for a structured discussion or activity each time you meet so that students are encouraged to take an active role in synchronous sessions.
  5. Keep it interactive: Utilize BC’s Google suite of tools (docs and forms) to share out in breakout sessions to keep students focused on the task at hand. Create these documents in advance and make sure the sharing options are appropriate. This material takes a few moments to create and guides student work to where you want it to go. Here is an example of Google Doc with questions for group work and here is an example of a Google Form ‘Exit Ticket’ to guide student reflection at the end of a session or to process complex material individually. This material works particularly well when used in conjunction with breakout rooms in Zoom.

Asynchronous Online Discussion

Asynchronous online discussion can provide a helpful mechanism for continuing the discussion after a synchronous session has ended, and can help to make your zoom sessions more efficient. The discussion board provides an opportunity for students to interact with and learn from each other over an extended period of time, in text or using voice and video. It is also one of the ways that the course instructor can demonstrate his or her presence in the online classroom, guide student thinking, make connections to real-world experiences, and foster a sense of community in the virtual classroom. 

Unlike in the classroom environment where students can opt to speak up or not, discussion on a discussion board can be made into a requirement. Typically, all students are required to participate in the discussion by responding to the instructor’s discussion prompt and by replying to and interacting with their classmates. Therefore, there are no “wallflowers” in the online discussion forum, but this creates a wonderful opportunity to equally involve all students in the rich and informative class discussion. 

Although discussion in a traditional classroom environment generally takes the form of a more spontaneous exchange where students may respond to questions asked by the instructor or ask their own clarifying questions in the midst of a lecture, online discussions must be carefully planned in advance and crafted in manner that ensures the exchange of ideas will be open, detailed, and analytical in nature. 

With the goal of providing opportunities for inspirational and meaningful learning through discussion in mind, the following list contains key principles to consider when drafting online discussion prompts:

  • Tie discussions to the course materials and learning resources. This provides students the opportunity to further synthesize, understand, and apply the learning materials. 
  • Use discussions as an opportunity for students to practice for assignments & assessments. Allow them to use the discussion to practice some of the skills that will be needed on higher stakes assessments, so they can benefit from the peer feedback.
  • Challenge students through discussion. Ask them to take a position, explore hypothetical situations, or explore a challenging topic in order to encourage more critical thinking.
  • Ask multi-faceted or multi-point questions. This encourages students to more deeply explore a topic rather than answer only a single question with a brief response. Challenge them to answer 3 or 4 related questions as part of their discussion response.

Accessibility Concerns

As with all other aspects of remote courses, we must keep accessibility in mind when engaging remote learners. For this reason, it is strongly recommended that faculty primarily utilize communication and engagement tools supported by Boston College, such as those included in Canvas and other learning technologies supported by CTE, CDIL, and ITS. 

Additionally, we must consider accommodations for students with documented disabilities when engaging students. If you currently have students who require live captioning or have concerns about how best to meet documented accomodations in a remote setting, please contact the BC Disability Services office.

Recommended Resources on Engaging Remote Learners

Synchronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students [Faculty Focus – Norman, 2017]

Enhancing the Online Class: Effective Use of Synchronous Online Interaction [Acosta-Tello, 2015]

How to Deepen Online Dialog [Faculty Focus – Zambrano, 2018]

Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question and Answer Format [Faculty Focus – Kelly, 2014]

Discussion Prompts – Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository [University of Southern Florida]

Key Questions for Designing Online Discussions [Brown University]

If you would like additional support in engaging your remote learners, please contact centerforteaching@bc.edu