Meeting Synchronously: Leveraging the Value of Real-Time Communication in Online Courses

Synchronous class meetings allow for real-time student discussion, problem-solving, clarifications, and emphasizing and summarizing key points. This is a time when students have direct access to the instructor and their peers for help and the exchange of ideas, and can promote a sense of connection to the course. Students at Penn highly value this synchronous time, so it is a crucial part of your course, and an important way for you to interact with students.

Keep in mind: Though valuable, synchronous time can also be tiring when frequent or for long periods of time (Zoom fatigue), so consider how you will focus your and your students' energy during synchronous sessions. Varying activities and giving students the chance to talk with one another in small groups can help. Additionally some students may not be able to attend, due to technology, time zone differences, or other disruptions. Recording synchronous classes may be helpful to share content, but may not enable students to participate in discussions or group work.

See asynchronous elements for ideas on how to tackle some of your goals asynchronously, so that not everything needs to be done in real time and so that you can provide students who cannot attend other ways to engage.


Creating a sense of community can improve student engagement with synchronous class sessions. For ideas on fostering community in your online space, please look here.

Tools to meet synchronously with your class online:

There are two main options available across campus.

Currently, everyone at Penn has access to BlueJeans, and Zoom. If you are already familiar with BlueJeans or Zoom and your current platform meets your needs, you can stay with the platform with which you are most comfortable.

Many of the items below are influenced by school/department-wide settings. If you would like to use a particular feature, log in through your school to confirm your settings are appropriately set. Zoom | BlueJeans


For more information on best practices for Zoom video storage, please look here.

Looking to troubleshoot Zoom pre-assigned breakout rooms? Please look here.


Basic Functionalities

Both Zoom and BlueJeans offer:

  • Synchronous meetings with audio and video options for all participants.
  • Canvas integration. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Host control over participant abilities (such as screen sharing and chat). Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Screen sharing for showing slides, images, and documents. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Whiteboarding and annotation for live drawings and text during meetings. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Live chat during meetings, including the ability to share links. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Breakout rooms for breaking classes into smaller groups for group or pair work. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Recording. Zoom | BlueJeans
  • Security settings. Zoom | BlueJeans

Zoom versus BlueJeans

  • Some users find Zoom controls and settings more intuitive and easy to use.
  • Most users prefer Zoom’s capabilities for breakout rooms which make possible small group work in classes. However, recent BlueJeans updates added some helpful features that better allow the host to communicate with participants while they are in breakout rooms.
  • Users at Penn report fewer issues with lag on Zoom.
  • Zoom includes more collaborative whiteboarding and annotation features, allowing participants in the whole class or groups to collaboratively annotate on the same screen.
  • BlueJeans has seen fewer security concerns and may be more appropriate for courses that include particularly sensitive information, such as information protected under HIPAA. However, Zoom has made substantial security updates and, with certain settings, may be suitable for sensitive data.

For a more in depth look at the functionalities of BlueJeans and Zoom and how to enable and use features, explore Zoom and Bluejeans for Synchronous Course Meetings.


How can I manage discussion and see what students understand during class?

There are multiple ways for you to interact with your students during a live session. Consider which of the options below are the best fit for you, your class, and your students, and be sure to tell students which methods you would like them to use. Plan to remind students of your preferences periodically; students will in multiple classes that may use these tools in different ways.

Options for Student Comments and Questions

  • Ask students to use the "Raise Hand" feature on Zoom to see who in your participant list has a question or would like to speak. Meeting online makes it challenging to see who is trying to get the instructor's attention, especially in larger classes. The instructor can see all of the students who select "Raise Hand" at a glance in the participant list; all names with a raised hand float to the top of the participant list, in chronological order by who selected the button first. The symbol remains until the student or instructor manually removes it.
  • Ask students to use the chat feature (Zoom). Students can enter their questions into the chat as they come up.
    • Keeping track of the chat can be challenging if you are also presenting or answering other questions. If possible, ask a TA or a student to watch the chat for you, and alert you to questions.
  • Decide if you would like students to simply un-mute and chime in as they would in a face-to-face class. This can make the discussion feel less formal, but also makes it more challenging for some students to break into the conversation.
Options for checking student understanding.
  • Ask students to enter responses and ideas in the chat, which you can then summarize or choose from to expand upon.
  • Participant reactions: Participants in zoom can select a short-lived "applause" or "thumbs up" reaction; you will be able to see those reactions overlayed on the students video and in the participant list. The symbols only remain for a short time, so these are best used for quick check-ins
  • Poll Everywhere can be used entirely online, and allows students to answer questions and prompts in real time. Question styles range from multiple choice to text responses.
  • Assign tasks, such as problem solving, reflection, or group discussion (below).
    • Provide checkpoints: as the class progresses, students can add their thoughts to a shared document, such as a Google Document at specified points in the course. You or the TAs can check the progress of a group periodically, even when not present in their breakout room.

How can I use student group work during an online class?

BlueJeans and Zoom both allow you to separate students into breakout rooms, so students can meet with their groups. Groups can be automatically or manually generated.  

  • Zoom Breakout rooms
    • Be sure to tell students to install the Zoom application on their device in advance; they will need it to participate in the breakout rooms.
    • Assigning groups can be done in the moment during class. Zoom allows for automatic random grouping. For smaller classes, or if you have a TA to help with larger classes, you can also manually assign groups live during the meeting.
    • If you wish to assign groups, you can pre-assign student groups to save time.
    • Students can ask for help from within their groups. Students can get an overview of how to participate in breakout rooms here.
    • Instructors and TAs (if designated as co-hosts) can move from room to room to check on groups. Note: Co-hosts must be placed ito a breakout room to start, to enable them to move between rooms.
  • BlueJeans breakout sessionsBlueJeans allows for group assignments in the moment, but does not have an option for pre-assigning groups.
  • Manage Groups and Expectations
    • Group size can be even more important online - try to group students by 3-4 at the most if possible, to help them talk to each other.
    • Be explicit about what students should work on during groups, and how you would like them to participate. What should students accomplish by the end, and how should they record their progress?
      • Consider encouraging students to use their cameras, if possible, during small group work. However, be aware that this may not be possible for everyone.
      • Consider whether students in a group would benefit from rotating roles, such as someone assigned to take notes or someone assigned to present, etc. This can help students know what is expected of them and thus feel more comfortable contributing.
      • Include checkpoints that allow you to see student ideas as they work. One example is a shared Google Document.
      • If you are on Zoom, you can send clarifications, reminders, and questions to all groups as they work using Zoom Broadcast. To find more information on how to manage breakout rooms, including broadcast messages, click here.
  • Provide Feedback on group work. Letting students know when they are on the right track, and summarizing main points, helps students see what they learned from group work. It also motivates students to stay on track and incentivizes participation.
    • Circulate through BlueJeans and Zoom groups. As the host, or co-host, you can jump in and out of individual group rooms to check on student progress and address questions.
    • You may also choose to provide feedback after the session, by asking students to submit their activities or worksheets to Canvas and providing feedback on their work through the Canvas SpeedGrader.
    • Post answer keys or written summaries to Canvas.
    • Close breakout groups at the end to bring everyone together and provide a live summary. Send student groups a time warning before closing breakout groups, so students know to finalize their discussions.

How can I Integrate my TAs in a synchronous class meeting?

The larger classes get, the more challenging managing the synchronous sessions becomes. TAs can help make things run smoothly and make sure a wide range of students are heard.

  1. Ask TAs to monitor the chat, reactions, and raised hands. Keeping track of all of the elements can be challenging for one person in a large class; asking a TA to keep track allows you to focus on the material or answering student questions. You may also want to ask for help keeping track of unanswered questions, so they can be addressed at a later time.
  2. Ask your TA to create breakout rooms : You can temporarily make a TA a host of the meeting, which allows them to create and manage breakout rooms.
  3. As a co-host, TAs can can manage participants (such as muting/unmuting and asking students to share their screens), and start/stop recordings.
  4. Ask TAs to monitor group work.
    • In Zoom, TAs can move between breakout groups, but only if they are co-hosts, and you assign them in a breakout room to start
    • In BlueJeans, you can make your TAs moderators to help manage the session and groups. You will need to copy your moderator passcode (found in your meeting details after you schedule a meeting) and send it to your TAs. Your TAs can then enter the session with that code.
    • Ensure TAs have access to the materials used for checkpoints, such as Google Docs, so they can help you monitor progress.

Setting Expectations for Synchronous Sessions

Helping students understand your expectations for the forum can make the process more productive for everyone. For instance, you might:

  • Let students know whether you expect them to have their video feeds on during class. Also let students know that you understand there are exceptions, such as cases where students have limited bandwidth, are uncomfortable displaying their workplace environments, including cases in which others are present in the room.
  • Encourage students to make sure their screen names are accurate and reflect what they want to be called. You can also ask students to share other information, such as preferred pronouns or position on an issue under discussion, in this space.
  • Explain to students how you want them to participate. How should they indicate they want to speak? What kinds of comments should they include in the chat?


Want to use a technology not described above?

Contact your instructional technology support team before using an unsupported technology in your teaching, even (or especially) if it is free. All technology used in teaching must protect personally identifiable information and education records of students. See the Policy on Confidentiality of Student Records for more information. Further, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and University policy require technology that you use to teach must accommodate students with disabilities.