Bolstering Student Participation in Synchronous Distance Learning


Teaching in digital platforms has a whole new and different feel to it. It has no doubt been a challenge to pump up my enthusiasm as I stare at my laptop screen instead of student faces. It can feel like the students (or blacked-out boxes) cannot quite see or hear from such a distance, and I often find myself seemingly pulling teeth to get a conversation going verbally or in the chat box, despite my longer wait times.

This got me thinking – there has to be ways to bolster student participation in these synchronous virtual classrooms. I began researching different techniques and am sharing three approaches that I have found to be successful: 1) planned interruptions; 2) breakout rooms; 3) asynchronous responses.

Planned Interruptions

Prior to teaching a synchronous session, you want to think of places you will interrupt teaching to have students engage with the content. Taking the idea of interrupted reading from Shades of Meaning and applying it to online teaching, we want students to be “learning awake”, or actively thinking and engaging in the class. Once you’ve determined places you will pause your teaching for student participation, you’ll want to set students up for that participation prior to the interruption. For example, if you are going to be teaching students how to revise a narrative to include showing, rather than telling language, you will want to invite students to notice the kinds of changes you made to your own writing before you teach them how to do this kind of revision. Then, once you’ve demonstrated your revision work, you can pause your teaching and set students up to share their thoughts with one another verbally and/or in the chat options of your digital platform. Setting students up for thinking prior to the teaching itself allows students to prepare for that interaction, thus increasing the overall participation.

Breakout Rooms

Another way you can increase student interaction and participation in your digital classroom is through the use of breakout rooms. Zoom is one video chat app that I have been using that allows for this configuration. Just like in the face-to-face classroom, some students will struggle to participate in the whole class setting; therefore, small group collaboration and discussions can give students opportunities to participate in a more interactive way that can feel more connected and safe. Small groups typically work best with four students whenever possible and these groups should remain the same for the duration of a unit so that students can get to know one another and grow comfortable communicating with these peers. Just like in the previous section, think about where in your session you want to pause for student interaction and set students up to do the thinking prior to the interruption. Then, when you come to that interruption, send students to their breakout rooms by groups and pop into these rooms to listen and coach into discussions.

Check out this a quick tutorial on how to create and manage Zoom Breakout Rooms:

Asynchronous Responses

Another approach that has been successful in increasing student participation and interaction with content in digital classrooms is through asynchronous response opportunities. After a session of teaching, you can link students off to practice new strategies and think around content individually, and then ask them to share their learning with others asynchronously. Some popular asynchronous platforms that allow for students’ participation include Google Classroom discussions, SeeSaw, and FlipGrid. SeeSaw and FlipGrid are two that allow students to easily upload videos of themselves, in addition to sharing text-based responses. Using an asynchronous response approach allows you as the teacher to see each students’ interaction with and progress in the content you are teaching. Additionally, you can set these platforms up to allow for other students in the class to engage with one another’s posts through the use of emoticons and comments, much like social media platforms many students are accustomed to.

To get started in setting up SeeSaw and/or FlipGrid, please see links below.



I hope you give these three approaches a try and that you find them helpful. We love to hear about other ways that you are bolstering student participation in the comments below. Keep up the great work you have been doing for our learners at home!


Shades of Meaning: Comprehension and Interpretation in Middle School by Donna Santman.

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