DRTL Best Practices

In an online classroom environment, learning activities that are conducted ‘live’ and offer meaningful interactive face-to-face interaction are commonly referred to as synchronous learning activities (Hrastinski, 2008; Harris et al., 2009; Simonson et al., 2012).  Lessons are delivered at a specific time with the expectation that students are able to participate and instructors are able to adjust their instructional pace and provide the necessary support accordingly. Studies have shown that participants in such learning interventions experience high levels of social presence and active learning due largely to the immediacy of real-time and dynamic interaction (Bower et al., 2015). 
CTE has compiled a set of best practices, contributed by SMU instructors, which aims to provide practical and useful tips for planning a DRTL-required Zoom lesson. Instructor and Student Zoom guides can be downloaded here for your reference.

Instructor Zoom Quick Guide (link)   Student Zoom Quick Guide: (link)

Planning to teach in a synchronous online environment for the first time may seem daunting to most instructors. Questions such as how students will react to your instructional strategies and how to engage them to ensure that they are learning will no doubt come to mind.
Here are recommended baseline best practices for designing and planning a Zoom session:



Baseline Best Practices

Design your lesson:
The Community of Inquiry (COI) Framework featured in E.D.G.E. Issue 1 and COI Online Course, suggests that a positive online learning experience involves three presences – social, cognitive and teaching.
In the context of using Zoom, you could plan your lesson to ensure that:

  • students have the opportunity to project their individual personalities in purposeful communication e.g. use of the Zoom chat and poll functions (social) 
  • there are learning tasks designed to involve students in exploring the lesson as active participants of the session e.g. use of quizzes, allocating time for discussions via chat function and presentations etc. (cognitive) 
  • time is allocated during the Zoom session to respond to student queries as well as to check for their level of understanding e.g. Q&A segments via chat function (teaching) 

Get support from your Teaching Assistant (TA):
Arrange to do a test session with your TA and brief her on how she can support you during the actual session. If your TA is not familiar with the use of Zoom, you can refer them to eLearn team or CTE. Having a TA physically at your side to support you, especially if you are using Zoom to teach for the first time, can come in handy as you will be focused on conducting the session and may not notice students' requests for assistance. If your TA is in the same room, it is advisable that she uses a headphone with a microphone and mutes her own microphone to avoid feedback.

TAs could support you in the following areas:

  • take attendance by tallying names of online participants with class list
  • resolve simple technical issues e.g. audio. Instruct students to communicate with your TA directly (by selecting the TA’s name instead of chatting with ‘Everybody’) via the chat function for one-to-one troubleshooting matters
  • manage students’ chat queries
  • keep track of students’ participation
  • serve as a pseudo student participant and alert you in case of technical issues e.g. audio
  • help to test if other students’ can display their screen and if their audio is working during the intermission or discussion breakout time 

Check your equipment and test in advance:
In order not to pick up unnecessary background noise during your online class, ensure that you conduct the session in a quiet area and advise students to do likewise. Students have also been similarly advised in the Student Quick Guide.
Check that your computer or laptop is connected to the internet, either via Wi-Fi or ethernet cable (preferred for PCs), and that your headset (microphone and headphones) and webcam is working. While the laptop microphone and in-built speakers typically work well, a dedicated headset with microphone (see sample picture below) will reduce any external noise, avoid feedback, and enhance clarity. 



Unlike face-to-face sessions, non-verbal cues and other class routines which are often taken for granted in class may not always be available as part of your teaching repertoire. Hence, providing students with a clear set of instructions and routines is critical in ensuring a smooth and uninterrupted online learning experience.  
Here are recommended baseline best practices for preparing your students prior to a Zoom session:

Baseline Best Practices

Provide clear instructions to your students:

Provide clear instructions on the date and time in which you expect your students to attend your Zoom session. This can be done in class, via email or through the eLearn platform.  You could also point students to the Zoom quick guide that CTE has developed (see above).
Arrive early; check audio and slides:

Prior to the session, advise students to come in early, preferably 5-10 minutes before start time. Make use of this time to test your microphone and to check if students can see the slides. Here are 3 quick steps you could follow:

  1. Say “Hello class! Can everyone hear me? If you can hear me, please click on the raise hand function.”
  2. For those who did not respond, ask your TA to drop them a private message via the chat function to get them to check if their laptop speakers or headset audio settings could have been accidentally muted.
  3. Once the audio issues (if any) are resolved, repeat the steps to check if they can see your slides.
Optional Practices

Create a welcoming atmosphere:

When students join an online session and do not hear or see anything on screen, they may get panicky and wonder if they are in the right Zoom/WebEx session. To set up a warm welcoming mood, it is recommended that there be an introduction slide with a note which says something like "Welcome! You have successfully joined the (course name) session. The session will start shortly at 9:00 am".


Presentation and Facilitation

Here are recommended baseline best practices when facilitating your Zoom session:

Baseline Best Practices

Communicate and follow a set of clear expectations:

Start by informing your students about the format of the online session, expected duration and topics that you would be covering. Announce how you would like to take their questions. It is recommended that Q&A segments be built at certain checkpoints in the session and also at the end of session. The questions can be asked through the chat function and you can respond verbally through your microphone.
A question commonly raised is whether instructors need to switch on their webcams to display their image. The Image Principle, based on 14 experimental tests, suggests that the inclusion of an image of an animated on screen character or instructor’s face did not improve learning, yielding a negligible median effect size of d = 0.20 (Benassi et al,2014; Mayer, Kow & Mayer, 2003). You can choose to use your web camera or not, based on your own preference.
Present effectively:
Consider using a deck of presentation slides as your base presentation materials for students to refer to. The recommended minimum font size is 18. Avoid streaming of videos during the WebEx sessions to avoid lag. Instead share the video link for students to view on their own prior to class.  

You can add energy to your presentation by using a variety of annotation tools. Highlight key points and information as you talk about them. Use the annotation tools like pencil, pointer tool or laser pointer to direct your students’ attention. This is in line with the Signaling principle where the attention of the students are directed to the critical aspects of the learning material. Studies have shown that such a technique helps students learn better by positively influencing information processing, namely visual selection of relevant information from a complex perceptual stimulus and its organization and integration of that information with prior knowledge and the verbal explanation provided by the instructor (Jarodzka et al, 2013).  

Consider recording your session as part of your own review process to see if there are any areas to improve upon. The recording could also be distributed as a link or a file for students who may have missed the session or wish to review the session again. 

Engage and interact with your students:

Interact with your students and keep them engaged and focused on your presentation. Consider segmenting your lecturing segments with various activities such as the use of polls or chat. Experimental tests have shown that students learn more deeply when they are allowed to process what they have learnt before having to move to the next topic, yielding a median effect size of d= 0.79 (Mayer & Chandler, 2001).    
You could introduce polls and ask specific students if they agree with poll results and invite them to defend their stand via the chat function. As part of the preparation process, you could prepare poll questions in advance and insert them into the presentation.

You could also leverage the chat function during your presentation as an informal way of getting students to ask questions or to provide feedback. This provides a backend channel for your students to share their ideas and allows you to collect valuable information from them. 

Not every question needs to be answered by you. Just like in a real class, you might have certain highly capable students wanting to jump in and contribute. Simply check if anyone would like to respond via the chat function.

Wrap up the session:

Do a final check-in on your students and allow them some time to ask questions or seek clarification via the chat function. Use a slide to show students what they are expected to prepare before coming to the next session. Thank the class and hang around for another 2-3 minutes before ending the session in case students would like to ask questions.


For more information or assistance to implement these ideas in your class, feel free to drop us a mail at cte [at] smu.edu.sg.  

Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/ index.php
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Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous & synchronous e-learning. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 31(4), pp. 51-55. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0848.pdf

Jarodzka, H., van Gog, T., Dorr, M., Scheiter, K., & Gerjets, P. (2013). Learning to see: guiding students’ attention via a model’s eye movements fosters learning. Learning and Instruction, 25, 62–70.
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Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.