Engaging Learners in Online Synchronous Classes

by / Tuesday, 03 March 2020 / Published in Teaching with Technology

One concern teachers often have in terms of online teaching, particularly when it comes to delivering live, synchronous sessions, is how to keep their learners engaged. As educators at HCT and beyond move toward more blended and fully-online classes, having a few strategies in place will go a long way toward developing and delivering interesting, informative and interactive sessions online. In this blog post we are going to look at some top tips, strategies and best practices you can employ to help you create a lively online learning environment that heightens learner engagement.


Probably one of the most important things to keep in mind when getting ready for a live online session is preparation. It may sound silly but it’s crucial to remember that you cannot ‘wing’ an online class. Making sure you, your material and your learners are ready to participate online has to come before everything else.


Getting yourself ready means creating an outline of what you want to cover during the session, at what stages you want to share material and when you want learners to participate. Having an outline nearby that covers all of your plans will have a massively positive impact for both your preparation and your confidence to deliver your session. Part of prepping yourself for the session is familiarizing yourself with the platform through which you’ll be delivering your session. Here at HCT we generally use either Collaborate Ultra or Zoom, and both have tools that help you and your learners communicate. Ensure that you know how to record your session, share your screen and materials, and monitor the chat window, and be sure to let your students know how to do the same and get your attention as well by raising their hands or unmuting their mics.


Preparing your material is a matter of having everything you need in ready in a digital format so that you can share your screen with participants and have them view it on their own devices. That means having your Power Point presentations open, any videos you want to play ready in a separate tab, and any other media you want to share ready to go. Your participants should not have to wait while you go searching around for material as it wastes valuable time and, worse, increases the chance that you’ll lose your their attention.

Your learners, too, need to be ready. In addition to providing them information on how to use your delivery platform, you can also email them ahead of class with any material you’d like them to read or do before your session, or send any other information to prepare them or let them know what to expect during your online class.


Just as you should not ‘chalk and talk’ at the front of your classroom, lecturing endlessly as your learners’ eyes glaze over, you should not deliver an online session where you present endlessly and expect your students to learn. It should go without saying that if online sessions are to be engaging, students need to be engaged. They need to have activities that require their participation throughout the session and pique their interest along the way. This will not only encourage them to participate – particularly if there are participation points attached to in-class work – but it will also give them a better chance to retain the information they are given.


Remember, though, it is important to offer a variety of activities and not be a one-trick pony. Students love to play Kahoot! games, for example, but they will quickly tire of them if you use them to often. Variety is key and, fortunately, there is a world of web-based tools and other software options out there for us to use. Kahoot! games of course, but think also of online Office 365 tools such as Word or Forms, Bookwidgets, Nearpod and Padlet to name a few. Tools such as these placed strategically throughout your session will provide the variety of activities needed to keep your learners’ attention.


Though you are the instructor, this doesn’t mean your voice; it means your learners’. Giving students a voice and enabling them to contribute to class discussions can also go a long way toward improving learner engagement in the online classroom. Not all students like to take over the mic but the ones who do should be given the chance to, which may also set a good example for the ones who don’t.


Students can be asked to give feedback on an activity, present work that he or she or a group has prepared or even lead the class by teaching an item. Giving students control over a portion of the class has the added bonus of developing the 21st century skills of communication and collaboration.


The importance of collaboration cannot be overstated. Any teacher who has put learners to work in groups in their classrooms – and, really, who hasn’t? – can immediately identify with the benefits of doing so. Student’s support each other in learning, share knowledge and perspectives to improve overall importance and develop social connections they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do.

The same can be said for providing group work opportunities online. Both delivery platforms mentioned in this post, Collaborate Ultra and Zoom, provide for the creation of ‘breakout rooms’, which in essence put students into groups where they can use their cameras and mics to connect and work together.


Once learners are in a smaller more intimate environment, they can interact with each other and work more closely together. As the instructor you can broadcast information out to all of the groups at once, as well as ‘pop in and out’ of groups to lend support and/or to facilitate as needed, and groups can request support from you as needed.

In terms of just what the groups should work on together, that’s up to you and is limited, really, by your imagination. Several tools such as apps in Office 365 (Word, Power Point, Forms, etc.) and Padlet, for example, can offer ways for them to work together on just about any task you could give them in your face to face classroom.


Finally, one of the strategies and best practices I can’t recommend enough is accountability. There should be no opportunity in an online class for learners to sail in and out without being compelled to participate in some way. In many online scenarios requiring learners to turn on their cameras works very well. Even if learners are not doing anything per se, at least their presence will be required. In our HCT context, however, we can’t really force our students to turn their cameras on so there needs to be accountability some other way.

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An online class that offers lots of interactivity, as outlined when we discussed variety above, does by its very nature offer accountability as the instructor will be able to know who is participating and who isn’t. One particularly useful tool to use here is Nearpod, which not only provides for a variety of activities while presenting content, it also highlights for instructors the percentage of participation on activities and flags when specific students are not contributing. As such, a Nearpod assignment could be used for content presentations as well as attendance and, consequently, accountability.

We have only scratched the surface here of ways in which to engage learners online. While there is much more to cover on this topic, and many ways to grab and holder your students’ attention, starting with these top tips will ensure you’re well on your way to creating an exciting, effective and engaging online learning environment.

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