Improving Engagement in Synchronous Online Learning

This blog explores the importance of engagement and focuses on some instructional concepts and approaches that can be utilized within a Zoom environment to expand engagement.

By Andrew Bobal, EdD

Today’s instruction in a COVID world is drastically different than it was just twelve months ago. Courses and programs that were never taught online have been thrust into the online world without choice; this is true for instructors as well. One the biggest hurdles with online synchronous instruction is fostering engagement in such a setting (Prince, 2020). How can a faculty member who would normally be teaching students a higher order thinking skill in a face to face setting now be expected to complete the same instruction in an online setting? Especially in large groups! We know that we all can’t talk at the same time on Zoom. Unfortunately, there is no magic answer, no one size fits all, and undoubtedly no room for making excuses. So, when push comes to shove, educators and technology leaders will need to adjust. I had an undergrad professor who endlessly said, “modify and adjust” (Dr. Ralph Feather, Bloomsburg University, Thank you sir!). Little did I know how much that simple phrase would be used throughout my professional career. The need to modify and adjust the delivery of teachings is vital. These days synchronous instruction is occurring on a variety of tools, such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and others. Although the features aren’t the same on all these tools, the engagement concepts and instructional approaches are universal. This particular blog will explore the importance of engagement and focus on some instructional concepts and approaches that can be utilized within a Zoom environment to expand engagement.

The Importance of Engagement

We cannot undervalue the importance of engagement in instruction. The encouraging links between engagement and academic achievement are evident within the findings of a meta-analysis completed by Lei (2018). Additionally, engagement has been shown to yield the all-important intrinsic motivation (Saeed, 2012). This motivation is integral to learner satisfaction with their education and individuality. An unmotivated and unengaged student is a problem for educators across all fields. This can especially be true in our online COVID world of academia. Beyond using Zoom there are a number of strategies that can used to foster student inquiry. The beginning of a synchronous session is integral to setting the stage. Beginning with an ice breaker and a summary of last week’s instruction gets everybody’s brain going. The initial components of a lesson are essential for fostering discussion and clarification of ideas with learners. Fisher and Frey (2010) encourage instructors to check for understanding through questions. This purposeful use of questioning can support engagement and “provoke insight commentary.” Questioning throughout instruction allows for a stable stream of new knowledge and opportunities to address misconceptions. This approach defines expectations within your synchronous environment; it is an active environment.

Zoom Tools and Strategies

Breakout Rooms. Breakout Rooms are a great way to get users into small groups. Think of it as sending different groups to different parts of the room in a face to face setting. With this feature you can automatically have the system make groups for you, or you can create them yourself. If you have a large group, save yourself the instruction time and allow Zoom to automatically assign groups, or preload groups in the meeting settings. I also encourage you to rotate users to different groups and to pop in on groups to listen to their cooperative conversations. This is you circling the room. Use the message feature to broadcast your announcements to all. Finally, don’t let it stop there, encourage students to share their conversations with the entire group when you come back together. Hold the learners accountable for their own learning, not just through submitted assignments or tests. Jafer (2016) discussed how personal accountably, engagement, and empowerment create and define meaningful experience for students. You should notice themes of accountably and active environments throughout this discussion.

Chat. We all know that only one person can talk at a time, the chat can be a great place for side conversations. Encourage users to post their ideas and questions in the chat. It may be helpful to have a moderator for the chat to provide some summary for common questions that arise. Be sure as an instructor you make the mental note to check the chat frequently if there isn’t a moderator available. If you don’t address the items in the chat, learners will stop using it! I also recommend to use the chat as a parking lot for question answering. This works especially well in large groups. As instructors we are constantly asking our students questions and expecting quality responses. We all know how important asking questions is; it’s one of Marzano’s effective instructional strategies (Marzano, 2001). This nurtures engagement within the instruction. But, instead of having the same people or just an individual answer the questions out loud, ask for anybody who was born in June to post their answer in the chat. Or alternatively, anybody who’s favorite color is blue could answer. You get the point. Try to keep it unique and somewhat fun.

Reactions. Similar to reading the room in a physical classroom of students or possessing withitness (Kounin,1970) as an instructor, reactions in Zoom can provide the non-verbal feedback and environmental awareness that instructors are looking for. This feedback can provide the instructor a snapshot of instructional understanding. Emojis like clapping, thumbs up, and go faster/slower provide students the opportunity to participate within the instruction in real-time. Additionally, the thumbs up feature is a great indicator of understanding, “does everybody recognize that? Is it ok if we move on?” You as the instructor can scan the environment and look for the thumbs on users’ videos. If a particular student didn’t participate, you can call on them individually.

Zoom reaction buttons

Again, accountability produces engagement. Looks at what’s available and ask yourself, “what could you see your learners using reactions for?”

Now what? Reflect.

Just like any practice that prescribes to improvement, reflection is imperative. Gore (1987) discussed how reflective teaching is not a new concept and can be traced back to teacher educators Zeichner (1981), Cruichshank (1985) and Dewey (1904, 1933). In today’s technology driven world, reflect on what your synchronous online sessions look like as an educator. Following reflection comes the all-important modify and adjust. Ideally you have learned some strategies or approaches that have worked over the last year of COVID instruction and perhaps a couple from this blog post as well. Zoom provides the opportunity for you to build on those strategies, and the ability to use its integrated tools to aid in engagement. As is the case with all learning, no one size fits all, but that shouldn’t stop us from challenging ourselves to find the next best thing to improve our instruction.


Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2010). Guided instruction: How to develop confident and successful learners. ASCD.

Gore, J. M. (1987). Reflecting on reflective teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 38(2), 33-39.

Jafar, A. (2016). Student engagement, accountability, and empowerment: A case study of collaborative course design. Teaching Sociology, 44(3), 221-232.

Kounin, J. S. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms.

Lei, H., Cui, Y., & Zhou, W. (2018). Relationships between student engagement and academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 46(3), 517-528.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Ascd.

Prince, M., Felder, R., & Brent, R. (2020). Active Student Engagement in Online STEM Classes: Approaches and Recommendations. Advances in Engineering Education, 8.

Saeed, S., & Zyngier, D. (2012). How motivation influences student engagement: A qualitative case study. Journal of Education and Learning, 1(2), 252-267.

Andrew Bobal is an educator with 10+ years’ experience in K12 and Higher Education. With a background as a STEM classroom teacher and technology leader, he is currently an Instructional Technologist and adjunct professor at Widener University School of Nursing. 

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