Syncing with Students: Valuable Qualities of Synchronous Online Teaching

Students use laptops to connect with one another

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

“One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever” – Linda Lambert

Despite alterations to our teaching during spring of 2020, the one aspect that remained intact was the ability to speak with my students. It was important both my students and I maintained a sense of personable engagement and connection through the deliberate action of live dialogue.

By now, the terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous” are everyday words in the world of teaching. Synchronous class sessions are when participants gather on a virtual learning management system in real-time, and complete lessons and activities in sync with one another. Synchronous classes can meet with the use of video, audio, and chat features. Asynchronous means that participants do not come together at a unified time, but instead, they complete tasks in a self-paced manner within a given timeframe. Both online learning structures have advantages and disadvantages. Each educational provider has had to determine what works best for their population of students and instructors. While remote education and learning management systems alter what this learning environment looks like, it should not change the value of establishing a rapport with students through direct interaction.  

Many people believe that asynchronous classrooms give students more freedom and flexibility. Asynchronous is incredibly helpful for individuals who cannot commit to a class hour due to other demands on their time. Asynchronous class settings are valuable because it encourages discipline, autonomy, and strong time-management. This structure does have tremendous benefits; however, as someone who teaches first-year students, I have some concerns. Regardless of my students’ age or lifestyle, I worry that fully asynchronous classes make students feel disconnected, isolated, confused, and unmotivated.

We know that learning occurs best when a student is engaged in the learning environment. Students need to have a high sense of personal investment, but they also need to feel like the teacher is investing in them.

The dialogue of synchronous classrooms offers many beneficial features that can increase overall connection to the course, genuine engagement, and ultimately, student retention.

1. Synchronous sessions aid student assessment and learning.

I have a rather Socratic approach to teaching. As a first-year composition instructor, I ask my students a lot of questions, ideally to engage them but mostly to discover their comprehension and thought process. The cliché saying, “There are no stupid questions,” is true because both the student and the teacher are learning through that Q&A exchange.

Understanding a student’s entry-level, especially in a skills-based course, is essential to my pedagogy. Students’ contributions during a lesson provide affirmation that the lesson is well received or guidance to step back and clarify. This information further dictates how I scaffold assignments. I also discovered that some of my quieter students felt more comfortable speaking online because, quite literally, all eyes were not on them.

When students participate in class discussions, they are actively guiding their own learning experiences. Therefore, teachers need to hear their students’ questions, ideas, and concerns as they occur during a lesson. Unfortunately, asynchronous classrooms do not have this quality. In an asynchronous setting, it is impossible to scan the classroom for a consensus of comprehension before an assignment is given because the instructor is alone in a virtual classroom/home office while creating a recorded lesson to be viewed at a later time. In this structure, the teacher will not be able to assess the classes’ needs until after assignments have been completed – resulting in missed opportunities to prevent mistakes and perhaps needing to redo lessons. 

Lastly, throughout the past two decades, many academic classrooms, especially the composition classroom, have moved away from the traditional teacher-centered format (teacher talks; student listens). We must be mindful that online learning, specifically an overreliance on asynchronous features, does not undo years of progressive, student-centered, workshop-based pedagogy. 

2. Direct dialogue leads to positive rapport.

Engaging in conversation is a natural way we create relationships. Through dialogue, we interpret nonverbal cues, such as tone and facial expressions, which contribute to a general sense of trust and perception of one another and enhance our openness to build connections. 

In an online course, individuals are strangers who need to trust, respect, and interpret one another. Dialogue provides an opportunity to humanize teachers and students. It allows individuals to display their interests, inquiries, and concerns. Students are no longer just uploaded assignments. They are faces that display confusion and voices that laugh. They are people with reactions that contribute to the foundation of learning. The synchronous classroom tells students that showing up matters – seeing their name or their face enter the virtual classroom matters.

Announcement emails, lesson documents, and direction sheets are often not enough engagement. These one-way communicators do not provide an opportunity for real-time interaction. Discussion boards aim to mitigate this, but it is common for posts to be missed or responses submitted belatedly.  

One of my favorite parts of a class session is the small chit-chat I have with students before class officially begins. This is when I check on students in various ways, ask about their other classes, and reference details about their lives that they have already shared with me. With live virtual sessions, this is still possible, and from my experience, students love it. This past spring semester, society faced a scary time. I began every class session with a general, “How are you all doing,” which often led to pivotal conversations of students sharing their experiences during the quarantine. These conversations grounded us. We were all living this unknown reality and we used this opportunity to connect and learn from one another.

3. It provides a structure that normalizes the experience.

They say, “Routine is the key to success.” In-person, our class schedules serve as a structure that holds us accountable. Students show-up in person because it is expected. They know that if they miss class, they will miss vital information. We thrive better when we follow a pattern that directs what we should accomplish at certain times.

In asynchronous classes, students are not mandated to log in for a specific class session but only for self-paced learning and assignment deadlines. Being an organized, on-time, and structured person are attributes that even some of the most mature adults struggle with. Young adults often struggle when given the freedom of college. Nevertheless, now this same student body is asked to independently employ a tremendous amount of discipline (likely not developed yet) by completely self-regulating asynchronous courses. Because there is no expectation to “show-up” to class, it is easy for students to lose track of time, forget about their work, lose interest, and not submit critical assignments.

Know your goals and find a balance. 

Disclaimer: I am not advocating for a fully synchronous structure. 

The online course is not the same as the in-person setting, nor is the COVID-19 online course the same as traditional distant learning. We are all in an unnatural situation. As newly crowned online instructors, it is important to contemplate what type of synchronous structure would benefit your style, curriculum, and students. 

Ideas for adding live components:

  • Hold half of the course hours live and the other half self-paced.
  • Schedule synchronous office hours, or what I like to call live “Pop-In sessions.” 
  • Respect students’ privacy (and potential anxieties) by not mandating webcams. You can accommodate the webcam issue by having students upload a profile photo and require the microphone for conversation.
  • Record all live sessions for anyone who misses class. Even if they are not an active member in the conversation, listening to the dialogue will be valuable and may encourage them to attend future, live sessions.
  • Most importantly, be personable and even a bit informal. Welcome them by name as you see them enter the virtual room. Ask how their other classes are going. Prompt casual but helpful chit-chat. Be friendly and laugh.

There are many ways to incorporate synchronous qualities and strike a balance with valuable asynchronous qualities. Over-reliance on heavily scored discussion threads intended to mirror live discussions is not the answer. Discussion boards tend to appear arbitrary with complicated requirements and confusing visual navigation. Structured incorrectly, this task is met with disdain, frustration, and stress. It is important to remember that not all students chose the virtual classroom. Some want to be in person. They want to know their teachers. They want to be successful. Why pass up the opportunity to hear your student’s voices? 

Yes, the classroom itself has changed. Yes, society is currently social distancing. But let’s not forget the power in human connection. 

Margot Craven, Ed.M., MFA, is a college composition professor, a published poet, and a freelance writing coach and resume writer at The Write Place. With a background in composition, reading, and adult learning theories, Margot’s pedagogy emphasizes scaffolding techniques, and student-centered strategies for writing and student development.