SIP 12.2 Setting Equitable Expectations for Synchronous Class Sessions

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student working on laptop.As we go into our first full semester with synchronous (online and live) and asynchronous (online but not live) instruction, many of us are struggling to figure out our expectations and equitable assessment methods for students who attend synchronous (online and live) classes with us. We are also struggling to figure out our own comfort levels with these spaces. There are a lot of things to think about when considering live instruction, and as with most things, we do not know what we do not know. Lack of knowing our students’ concerns, abilities and/or access to learn in a virtual synchronous environment may keep us from meeting their needs.

Take a SIP of this: equity and synchronous instruction

People (e.g., Casey, 2020Domestic Inferiors) have expressed misgivings about having to share their video in synchronous calls given that everyone can see what is behind you. Markers of socioeconomic status are often inadvertently displayed on these calls, and implicit biases about socioeconomic status affect faculty/student interactions and grading. Students can be distracted by looking at one another’s backgrounds and worry about you looking at theirs. You might have these same concerns about having students see into your living arrangement as well.

On the other hand, synchronous instruction helps students who are feeling socially isolated and provides a sense of community when so many other forms of community are difficult to obtain now. It can be great for some students with disabilities and terrible for others, just like for everyone else. This difficulty in meeting all students’ needs has always been present for instructors and is exacerbated in this era of online instruction.

Make sure students know about loaner laptops and free Wi-Fi. Here is information about how to help students access this resource:

Also, make sure students know how to get online for a synchronous class and how to use Canvas (

This tension brings up several questions for the fall semester. Must students have video on for a synchronous class? Must students have their names listed on the call? How will you know people are listening if their video is off?

A question to ask yourself: Is synchronous the best/most effective way to teach what I am trying to convey? It is important to choose synchronous intentionally. If it is not needed, then teach a different way and use the synchronous time when it is effective.

To answer these questions in an equitable manner, it is helpful to privately poll students (through a Word document they send back to you or through a quick survey in Qualtrics, for example) about their level of access even if they chose synchronous classes.

  • Do you have internet service you can access easily?
  • Do you have to share the device?
  • Do you have a webcam that works?
  • Are you using your phone or a different device?
  • Do you have a relatively quiet place to interact while in class?
  • Can you change the background if you want?
  • Is there anything else I need to know about you and your ability to connect synchronously in this class?
  • What other suggestions do you have about how to make this class work for you this semester?

Once you have found answers to these questions, you can send out a list of norms for your synchronous class – or develop that list with the class in the first meeting. Remember that online teaching is just like in person in that you need to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. One size does not fit all.

Some norms to think about are:

  1. Does everyone need video on? The whole time?
  2. Should everyone use a virtual background?
  3. What do people say or do when they enter the room?
  4. What do people say or do when they leave the room?
  5. When do people need audio muted?
  6. How do people ask questions?
  7. What are the expectations in breakout rooms?
  8. How should the chat function be used?
  9. If students have to call in because of low bandwidth, etc., do answers to the above questions change?

If you ask students to have their names listed, use this as an opportunity to choose what they would like to be called, ask students to include their pronouns and list how to pronounce their names. It is best to ask these things of everyone because you never know how someone might say their name.

If you ask for virtual backgrounds, make sure everyone’s computer can provide one, and use this as an opportunity to ask people to make a background for how they are feeling. It acts as an icebreaker and a fun way to use virtual backgrounds.

If you are lecturing or in conversations and allow videos to be off, you can check for student understanding so you have more confidence that even with videos off, people are still attending to the time together. There is a polling app in Canvas. Here is how to do it with accessibility in mind.

Surveys can be found only in Classic Quiz Types.

Make sure you identify the question type in instructions for every question. The question types are not identified by screen readers. Add “Matching:” at the beginning of the instructions to communicate the expectations. Matching, Ordering or Fill in the Blank (New & Classic): Advise students to read through all the choices before attempting to make changes/selections.

You can use the chat function to have everyone share their answers to questions. You can also have a “live” Google doc or form on which students provide answers and work synchronously.

In the end, synchronous concerns are like everything else – know your students and keep balance.

Still Thirsty? Take a SIP of this:

Casey, N. (2020). College made them feel equal. The virus exposed how unequal their lives are. New York Times,

Why We’re Exhausted by Zoom. Blum (2020),

How to Curate Your Zoom Background and Why You Should,

Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely,

8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching,

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