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Features for Online Synchronous Discussions


If you are meeting synchronously with your class, you may be wondering how to handle discussion. There are some built in-features of Zoom that may help. Although these notes focus on Zoom, many of these features are also available on other platforms, though their naming conventions may be different. At some points in this document, we refer to “participants” (Zoom language), which is equivalent to “students” in this context. This document contains information on the following features:

 
WAITING ROOM

You can choose whether or not you want to manually allow participants to enter a Zoom session. It may be easiest to forego that manual process for class meetings.  On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings and look for the toggle for “waiting room”; turn that off if you do not want to have to admit participants manually. 

Note: If you are using Zoom for office hours, the waiting room feature may be useful, allowing students to queue for attention as they normally would in the hallway without interrupting your conversation with another student.

AUDIO

Consider automatically muting students as they enter the Zoom session to reduce unwanted/unintended noise. On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings and look for the toggle to “mute participants upon entry.” 

HAND RAISING

If you set up your Zoom session so that students need to raise a hand to speak, you will need to call on each person to have them participate, which will then allow their microphones to be on. If you do not choose this option, anyone can speak at any time.

Hint: If you do not see the participants list, look at the bottom of your window. You should see a “manage participants” option, which will add a window to your screen that lists everyone in the session.

ADDITIONAL FEEDBACK

You can give students a broad set of emojis to use as a quick source of feedback during discussion.  On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings and turn on “nonverbal feedback.” Now, on the bottom of the participants panel, you—and the students—will see a row of icons: 

  • Yes
  • No
  • Go slower
  • Go faster
  • Thumbs up
  • Thumbs down
  • Coffee cup (to indicate needing a break)
  • Clock (to indicate away from computer)

Hint: If you do not see the participants list, look at the bottom of your window. You should see a “manage participants” option, which will add a window to your screen that lists everyone in the session.

Students can click on an icon to indicate a reaction; the icon will then appear next to their name. You can also see a number above each icon to show how many students have clicked on that icon. 

These icons could be useful for:

  • Polling the class casually (“How many of you got that same solution?” “Are we ok to move on to the next topic?” “Any questions about this?”)
  • Alerting everyone if an adjustment needs to be made (“If at any point during the discussion you get lost or need repetition, go ahead and click the ‘go slower’ button and we will adjust.”)
SCREEN SHARING

If students are leading discussion or need to share something on their computers with the class, you must enable the screen sharing settings. On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings → Screen sharing → “Allow host and participants to share their screen or content during meetings.” Select this option by turning the toggle blue. You then have two related settings: “Who can share?” and “Who can start sharing when someone else is sharing?” Each setting has the option of “host only” or “all participants.” Selecting “all participants” gives students the most access.

ANNOTATION

You can allow anyone in the meeting to annotate a shared screen. On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings → “Annotation” to turn on this function. Students can then type notes or “draw” on top of anything that has been shared. 

BREAKOUT ROOMS

You can use breakout rooms to have smaller clusters of students discuss a topic. On the Zoom website, go to your profile → settings → Breakout room and toggle that setting to on. You can also check the box to “assign participants to breakout rooms when scheduling” if you have pre-planned groups. 

During class, you can start breakout rooms by going to the black bar at the bottom and choosing “breakout rooms.” You then indicate how many rooms you want to allow and have the option to split the students up automatically or to assign students manually. You may want to use breakout rooms to allow smaller groups of students to tackle a discussion point or activity; be sure to give groups a specific time that you want them to return. You can also choose to designate a discussion leader within each group who is responsible for keeping the group on track/taking notes/etc.; you could rotate the leaders in different class sessions. 

Note: If you are recording to the cloud, the breakout rooms will not be recorded.

CHATTING

Zoom has a chat function that allows users to type messages. Students can use this as a supplement to the conversation or as a way to note an issue or concern. If a student is unable to connect to the Zoom session via audio, the chat also gives them an opportunity to participate in real time. 

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Other issues you might consider to improve your synchronous discussion:

  • Be aware of the give and take that may seem easier in the classroom than online where tech can get in the way. For example, if multiple people start speaking at the same time (and are all unmuted), it can be hard to determine whose microphone you are hearing. Similarly, if users have their Zoom window set to show the speaker as the largest image (“active speaker,” which is the default mode), the screen may flicker back and forth between speakers based on sounds picked up by a microphone, even if they are not intentional contributions. The Zoom site has details about changing the view that may help you figure out options for how you see students and how they see each other.
  • Student schedules may not be the same as they are on campus. Students are in different time zones, have different constraints on their resources, and may have other obligations (e.g., a student who used to work on campus now must pick up hours at a job near home, and those hours may not work with class schedules). Asynchronous teaching or offering multiple synchronous sessions (or recording those sessions) may help to alleviate some of these inequities.
  • Another way to help alleviate concerns about synchronous classes is to replace some of those sessions with small group synchronous activities/discussions. Students could sign up for a group based on time or coursework and then determine with their group members a time that works for everyone. You can have them provide evidence of those discussions in some form, like reporting back to the larger class by a set time (either via Zoom or in a discussion board), providing a written summary (to you or the entire class), etc.
  • You could have someone(s) play scribe to record what is being discussed in synchronous sessions. That person can focus on keeping track of what is said (and be excused from verbal participation in that class period). They can then share their record with the class.
  • Remember that you can record a Zoom session to make it accessible after the fact for anyone who may have missed something. Be aware of the limitations of this option, however; breakout rooms are not part of the main recording, and recordings may be slow to upload.

Contact Information


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