Virtual spectator to participant: involve students in synchronous online learning activities

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Keeping students engaged in online courses requires special attention. Technology options are available to help create a virtual learning environment that promotes social interaction. Occasionally, involving students in synchronous online learning activities is an option to facilitate connections and a sense of community between faculty and students. Virtual videoconferencing platforms, such as ZOOM, have created unique opportunities to facilitate synchronous e-learning activities. However, faculty are often faced with the challenge of students reluctant to participate in a synchronous virtual learning environment. This article will share simple strategies for turning virtual students from viewer to participant in synchronous online learning activities.

Communicate expectations

Students have different experiences for each course they take in an online environment. We should not assume that students will know what we expect from their performance in our courses. Forbes suggests that a simple strategy for promoting student success is to clearly identify for the student what it will take to be successful in your course (Forbes 2018). This means that we must systematically communicate with students what is expected of them in order to carry out all the learning activities related to the course. Explaining the expectations will help prevent students from playing the role of spectator when they should be prepared to be a participant. For example, place a statement regarding expectations regarding participation in your program. The statement should clearly reflect how you conduct the learning activities: “To be successful in this course, you must regularly participate in asynchronous and synchronous online learning activities. Participation includes, but is not limited to answering questions asked, contributing to discussions and completing surveys.

Latheef suggests posting a video that explains the purpose and necessary equipment before the first synchronous activity also helps communicate expectations (Latheef 2020). Sharing this information with students can help reduce feelings of uncertainty or apprehension of not being prepared.

Faculty should also keep in mind that students may feel intimidated when participating in a synchronous online learning activity. Consider sending an encouraging email or posting an announcement in the learning management system that emphasizes the importance of synchronous learning activity. The statement must be welcoming: “I can’t wait to see virtually everyone this week! We will cover a lot of interesting content that you independently explored over the past week. I am delighted to discuss these important topics with you. Then review your expectations with the students regarding participation in the activity before starting the virtual session. It can be done verbally and visually. For example, display a PowerPoint slide that describes the activities: “Today you have the opportunity to assess your understanding of the course content. All students must answer the survey questions.

Offer a variety of activities

Variety is important to keep students engaged in a course. Abney and Conatser remind us of the importance of offering a variety of activities that engage students and encourage collaborative learning (Abney and Conatser 2020). While having a routine class structure helps set the pace, using a variety of learning activities helps keep students engaged. Synchronous online learning activities can range from a quick recording of student perceptions to a deeper dive into assessing students’ understanding and application of course content. The transition of students from spectator to participant requires special attention to activities that create cohesion in the learning environment. Again, paying attention, activities should start with low stakes and increase in complexity once students get used to sharing their opinions and ideas. For example, asking students to use the reaction emoji tool available in ZOOM to indicate that they agree with a statement would not be considered intimidating like sharing opinions verbally.

Another useful tool available in ZOOM is the poll feature. Surveys can be configured to be low stakes by recording student responses anonymously. Once students feel comfortable participating, the survey results can be used to facilitate peer dialogue. For example, after survey responses have been collected and visually shared, have students summarize, compare, or verbally contrast the responses collected.

Peer-to-peer dialogue can also be encouraged by presenting open-ended questions. For example, you might want to assess whether students can make connections in the course material. You could ask the question “Who can identify for me how the content of last week applies to the learning activity today?” »Consider calling students thoughtfully if the waiting time and silence become uncomfortable. Abney and Conatser suggest that we prepare students to expect to be called out for a more inclusive discussion (Abney and Conatser 2020). Once the conversation has started, continue the dialogue by inviting students to build on what has already been shared. To further encourage participation, encourage students to use the chat feature as a secondary channel to post questions they think of during the discussion. You can then answer questions once the peer-to-peer dialogue is complete.

Recognize those who participate

Recognition of participation is important to encourage the continued engagement of all students and prevent students from becoming a spectator again. Wong encourages us to think about how we can end the course on a positive note to keep students coming back (Wong 2020). Providing positive feedback to students is one method of ending the course on a positive note. For example, using the “Active Speaker View” in ZOOM allows you to identify which student is contributing to a discussion. You can then immediately acknowledge your participation by making statements such as “Excellent response”, “Nice job reminding us how this relates over the past week” or “That’s a good suggestion, tell me more. “. Positive feedback can also be provided in a personal email. For example, in survey reports generated by ZOOM, you can identify who participated if you collect responses with student names. You can also identify students by recording chat comments. You can then send personal emails to thank the students who participated in the synchronous learning activity.

Students who complete a synchronous online activity can easily slip into a spectator role. Creating activities that support social interaction using technological options is one method to encourage active participation.


Meigan Robb, PhD, RN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Nursing and Allied Health Professions at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA. She is an experienced nurse educator, author, presenter and regularly helps prepare teachers to teach online and hyflex modalities.

The references:

Abney, Jill. and Conatser, Trey. “How to make your virtual discussion engaging, efficient and fair in eight steps”, Focus on the faculty, October 2, 2020. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/how-to-make-your-virtual-discussions-engaging-effective-and-equitable-in-eight-steps/

Forbes, Sarah A. “Simple Strategies to Promote Student Academic Success”, Focus on the faculty, January 19, 2018. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/simple-strategies-promoting-student-academic-success/

Latheef, Zahir I. “Synchronous Strategies for the ‘New Normal’, Faculty focus, July 13, 2020. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-delivery-and-instruction/synchronous-strategies-for-the-new-normal/

Wong, Crystal O. “A Four-Step Plan: The First Day of ZOOM Class”, Focus on the faculty, August 5, 2020. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/a-four-step-plan-the-first-day-of-class-on-zoom/


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