running a synchronous lesson

Building student community is critical for retaining students in the class. One easy way to do that is to open the online, synchronous classroom 10 to 15 minutes early and monitor (but don’t participate) in informal student chatting in the online classroom. As Jon Gustafson puts it, this links “should” behaviors (attend class, pay attention) with “want” behaviors that are already rewarding (social interaction).[i]

Just like in a face-to-face classroom, teachers must signal the beginning of class. Teachers can this by turning on the camera, starting the recording, and welcoming all the students to the class, even the absent ones. Then do a shout out to the students who are delayed (students who do not attend the synchronous course sessions with administrative approval). Last, turn off the camera and take roll, marking it on the roster. This forces students to begin listening to the teacher’s voice and allows the teacher to track attendance.

Next, take administrative questions—assignment submission issues, upcoming absences, etc. Often, teachers can begin academic instruction by asking for questions from the homework. Students may send the teacher questions anonymously, and the teacher can review them for the entire class. When questions are answered, the teacher should begin coverage of the academic content.

Establish and maintain the same routine for the beginning and end of every synchronous class session.

This routine is carefully timed with extensive supporting notes. If possible, write a script, including questions for students to answer via the chat box or poll, jokes, definitions of key terms, outside book suggestions, and exit ticket questions. Incorporate references to other assignments, including selected quotes from the online, written discussion board. In many classes, each slide can be a mini-I Do/We Do. Often, You Do happens asynchronously, with computer-adaptive technology supporting students as needed.

Here is the class schedule for the synchronous class session of the fourth week of my middle school ancient history class:

  • 9:50 I open the class for students to chat amongst themselves
  • 10:00 I begin the recording, welcoming and taking roll
  • 10:02 I take student questions
  • 10:07 I begin new content with Written History
  • 10:10 Sumer and Egypt
  • 10:15 How do we count?
  • 10:20 transaction records
  • 10:25 How do we get from pictures of things to pictures for words to pictures for sounds?
  • 10:37 cuneiform
  • 10:42 hieratic script
  • 10:45 loan symbols
  • 10:47 new slide, review of key concepts from lecture, praise for good behavior/effort
  • 10:50 new slide, review of directions for upcoming assignment

At the end of the class, end the recording, and then take individual student questions that are not necessarily about the academic content. The recording is automatically made available to the students. Many students review the recording later, while completing problem sets.

Students strongly dislike any off-topic chatting during a class session. Therefore, teachers should permit only direct questions about the immediate content on the screen during the class. All other questions should be answered before or after class.

Don’t let students distract the synchronous class. Off-topic chatting (either text or voice) is the most disliked part of a synchronous class session, according to the last five years of my student surveys.

Conduct a lesson with these steps:

  • activate prior knowledge
  • present learning objective
  • present lessons
    • survey class
      • trace components of knowledge
      • subdivide into constituent parts
      • define terms
        • extend term definitions beyond slide
        • use heavily researched background knowledge
      • organize concepts
        • freehand or use diagram for organization
        • use scripted teacher talk to model organization
      • mnemonics
        • issue mnemonics for tricky concepts
        • check for understanding by having students create their own mnemonics
    • methods class
      • define underlying concept
        • very short definition
        • present in words and with a visual aid
      • prepare worked examples for “I Do”
        • use high-contrast color coding
        • script teacher talk
      • prepare faded examples for “We Do”
        • include non-examples
        • provide enough examples for fluency
        • script teacher talk
  • summarize content
    • flow-chart for procedures
    • graphic organizer for conceptual/declarative knowledge
  • independent practice

[i] (Gustafson, Habits for Lifelong Learning: Applying Behavioral Insights to Education, 2020)

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