Synchronous online learning strategies

Teaching with Zoom

The synchronous online classroom requires the use of a conferencing platform during the virtual component of the course. We recommend familiarizing yourself with the Zoom platform so that you are fully aware of all its capabilities before meeting with students. Please also take the time to review our best practices for teaching with Zoom webpage.

Engaging students: Whiteboard, screen annotation, polling, chat, and breakout sessions

No one wants to sit through 60 minutes of straight lecture, and such a class session design doesn't leverage the fact that you have all your students present. You can use the features of Zoom to guide different types of interactive activities to promote student engagement and break up a long class session. These activities offer variety and provide multiple means of engagement, action, and expression, which are Universal Design for Learning principles. Here are a few great engagement features of Zoom:

  • Polling
    • Set up polls in advance and launch them at specific times during your class session. You can create slides throughout your lecture PowerPoint to remind you to ask your poll questions that you have created beforehand. This is done the same way that you would use clicker questions to introduce or conclude a section of an in-person lecture.
  • Chat as backchannel
    • Backchanneling refers to having a conversation in the Zoom chat while something else is happening in the main session. For example, students may ask questions about content as it is being lectured about, or answer questions posed by the instructor in the lecture. Using the chat tool as a backchannel can engage students by allowing them to interact with the live activity, rather than just listening.
      • Important note: Backchannel activities can be overwhelming for some students and can be an accessibility concern. Therefore, it is recommended you offer this type of interaction as an option for students who thrive on this level of stimulation, but do not require it from all students. This tool can also be overwhelming for you to monitor while you are trying to teach. Consider appointing a student or TA to monitor the chat if you use this feature, so you can focus on teaching.
  • Breakout rooms
    • Use Zoom's breakout rooms to have students do group work. Keep in mind, however, that not all features that are present in the main Zoom session will be present in each breakout room. Nonetheless, as the main host, you can still hop from one breakout room to the next, broadcast messages to different breakout rooms, and end the breakout sessions when it is time to reconvene in the main Zoom session.
  • Whiteboard
    • You can use the Zoom whiteboard or ask students to contribute to a whiteboard as a means of engaging them differently throughout your Zoom session.
      • Important note: This activity is inaccessible to people who use screen readers. If you use this feature, be prepared to read aloud all the contributions so that everyone can see and /or hear them.
  • Screen annotation
    • Zoom has basic annotation tools (text box, free form draw/pen, shapes, and highlighter) that you can use to guide students around a visual display (such as a website) or explain a concept. Access these from the Share Desktop function.
      • Important note: screen annotations are not accessible for screen reader users. If you use this feature, be sure to use accessible presentation best practices: say exactly what you're doing while you're doing it, e.g., "I'm drawing a big red circle around the login button on this web page.

Webcam usage

Instructors should be aware of the privacy, hardware, software, disability, and equity concerns when requiring the use of webcams or video feeds during class. Only do so when the educational value of requiring video supersedes those concerns.

Setting an agenda

Plan for a synchronous online course session just as you would plan for an in-person class. It’s also a good idea to share your agenda with students ahead of time, so they know what to expect. Please contact the Office of Digital Learning if you would like a sample agenda to use for your synchronous class meeting time.


Lectures are important to thoroughly think through when building your synchronous online course. Do not feel limited to making your Zoom meetings lecture based, as lectures can be presented asynchronously or synchronously. Asynchronous lectures can be recorded beforehand and posted in your weekly modules. For lectures that take place during your synchronous meeting time, you may want to provide the slides, outlines, or worksheets that will accompany your virtual Zoom lecture. Use your Zoom class time to get students engaged and energized about the content.

Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI)

According to the Department of Education “direct instruction” means “live, synchronous instruction where both the instructor and the student are online and in communication at the same time.” A synchronous course can satisfy RSI in easier ways than an asynchronous course would. Should you decide not to use synchronous meeting times to lecture, please consider the following to meet and satisfy regular and substantive interaction when planning your synchronous Zoom meetings:

  • Meet with students to assess and provide feedback;
  • Host virtual office hours to respond to questions about content or course or competencies;
  • Facilitate group discussions regarding content or course or competencies; or,
  • Plan other activities approved by the institution’s accrediting agency.

Asynchronous discussions

WebCampus Discussions are a great way to foster learning and promote engagement and community in classes taught in all modalities. In a synchronous online course, using the asynchronous discussion board outside of the Zoom class meeting can provide students with a place to more deeply consider and work with questions or content, either before the live session or after. Please take the time to review some Discussion Strategies when creating online discussions for your synchronous online course.


While asynchronous online courses typically use online proctoring software, such as Respondus Monitor, synchronous online courses have the additional option of proctoring exams and assessments in real time via Zoom. This means that if you are teaching a synchronous online course, you have the option to give proctored assessments by using Respondus, the University Testing Center, or proctoring via Zoom.

Collaborative workspaces

Collaborations in WebCampus

The Collaborations tool in WebCampus integrates Google Docs to allow up to 50 users to work together on the same document from within WebCampus. You can use Collaborations in WebCampus, so students work together on the same document synchronously during class time as well as asynchronously outside of class. Google Docs tools also facilitate basic commenting and editing features to further peer collaboration and peer review. Note that Google Docs can function in and outside of WebCampus but using it within can make it easier for students and instructors to keep track of collaborative assignments.

Peer Review

Peer review is a learning strategy by which students assess work by their peers and provide feedback to each other on the quality of their work. WebCampus peer review tools are integrated into Assignments and Discussions to enable student learning through peer review.

Adapted in part from the following resources: University of Minnesota’s Information Technology How To’s: Teaching With Zoom.