Making the Most of Synchronous Lectures

Synchronous lectures are likely to seem awkward for the first while, but by following the suggestions below you’ll be making the most of your time together and building a community of learners. 

Synchronous lectures mean that you and students are “together” using an online platform or tool in real time.  When you choose to teach in real time, you are deciding that a schedule will be set, you will teach at that time, and students will attend at that time. Students will need to ensure that their schedules are free and they have the necessary hardware (e.g., computer, mic, webcam) and a fast enough internet connection. The supported tool for synchronous lectures at USask is Webex.

Our suggestion, generally, is that the use of synchronous sessions are limited and are saved for topics and activities that must be done synchronously to be effective. If you identify topics like that in your course and decide that synchronous sessions will be flexible enough for you and your students and want to make the most of them, please consider the following suggestions.

Essential Strategies

  • Set norms for how students should interact with you and others in the virtual environment. For example, typically everyone should keep their microphone turned off unless speaking
  • Record the sessions to ensure that if a student cannot attend, that they are still able to review the class
  • Pause regularly and ask for questions. Direct students as to whether or not they should use the chat or the microphone to ask their questions. Be sure to give enough wait-time for students to think and respond!
  • Focus the synchronous lecture on topics and ideas that the students can’t easily learn another way (e.g., through reading the textbook)

Best Practices

  • If possible, have a second instructor, such as a TA, monitor the chat window. This person can either answer the questions in the chat as you go, or they can summarize and respond to the questions using the microphone during breaks in the flow of the lecture. It can be very hard for one instructor to keep up with a lecture and the questions, especially as the group size increases
    • If you can’t get a second instructor, consider having a different student take on this role each class
  • Do a quick social check-in off the start of class. Rather than wait in silence, take the moments while everyone is entering the session to chat with the students 
  • If the class is small in size, ask students to keep their cameras on. This will create greater sense of community
  • In the days or hours leading up to the synchronous lecture, do some polling to assess prior knowledge. This could be administered as a quiz or survey. Adapt your lecture content and delivery based on the results
  • Polling can also be used during the lecture after a point of expected difficulty. This could be done quite easily using the raise hand feature, the chat box, or even the built-in polling tool in Webex. Web-based polling tools can also work by sharing your screen.
    • Whatever method you choose, get students to pick a side and then ensure that you take the time after the poll closes to describe why the various answers are right and wrong
  • After class, create asynchronous discussions in Blackboard or Canvas to allow students to further engage with one another and the lecture topics
  • Consider using breakout rooms to split students into smaller groups for portions of the lecture. In these smaller groups they can engage in discussions around the topics you just covered.
    • Note: you will need to use Webex Training Center, rather than standard Webex Meetings to use breakout rooms

Simple Strategies to Elevate your Asynchronous Delivery

By now you are probably familiar with the concept of asynchronous remote learning. If not, asynchronous learning means you and students are not limited by timing.  You are deciding that students can engage with the material on their schedule, at times, and places when they may have better bandwidth and other kinds of capacity. 

As you can imagine, asynchronous learning can be of varying quality; therefore, here are some tips and ideas to keep in mind to help make the most of your asynchronous design. One important way to make the most of your asynchronous learning is to finalize the learning materials (e.g., creation of lecture videos, suggested readings, discussion topics) during the term, which allows you to respond to students’ areas of interests or difficulties, and their feedback/suggestions, as you go. 

Post and organize your learning materials within a learning management system (either Blackboard or Canvas)

  • Organize your posted content into short chunks, ideally within learning modules. This holds true for both videos and readings
  • If using videos, make each separate idea its own video
  • When using text, use white space and headings to make text easier to process
  • Name course content and files in a consistent way 
  • Place content in a suggested order with a suggested timeline
  • Use analytics features inside of Blackboard or Canvas to help you know what students are viewing and reading. Check in with students that seem to be falling behind

Include student comprehension checks with feedback

  • Students can easily overestimate how much they are learning while viewing and reading
  • Prior to having students view or read content, ask them to complete an ungraded quiz or a set of self-check questions. This will help prepare them for the new learning
  • If creating videos, pose questions to students throughout your presentation and ask them to pause the video
    • An example of this would be to ask students to make a prediction. It helps focus their learning as the video continues
    • If you are used to using polling, such as Top Hat, this is a simple way to reuse the questions you have already created as part of your teaching
  • Similarly, after students have viewed or read a chunk of content, ask them to complete a quiz (ideally automated with built-in feedback). This should still be ungraded as the students are still learning. You could even give multiple attempts to allow them to continue practicing
  • As the instructor, review the students’ results on the quiz and follow-up with necessary resources or a synchronous session

Opportunities for active and social learning

  • As with above, quizzes can be used to promote active learning as they progress through the chunks of content
  • Structure these active learning opportunities from easy to hard to build confidence and mastery. If using Canvas, you can explore using Mastery Paths
  • Use discussion boards as a way for students to be able to engage with the content in a social manner. Here are a variety of ways to structure discussions
    • If using discussions, share with students examples of good discussion posts to help them meet your expectations
    • If grading discussions, grade based on the quality of the posts

Keeping these tips in mind when designing your asynchronous lectures, will help ensure that your students are better engaged in your learning. The comprehension checks and active learning will also help you see how students are doing and where they need extra assistance. These areas of difficulty are ideal places to intersperse synchronous sessions (e.g., Webex)!

Leveraging Peer Feedback in an Online Environment

When students take courses in-person, they often find at least one friend in the course with which they discuss the course, the assignments, give feedback to one another, and so on. With the shift to remote delivery, students might have more trouble finding someone to connect with on their own.

This post explores how you can introduce peer feedback into your course to ensure that your students have a chance to share their work and receive feedback from peers. In the best cases, they might even form friendships, but another benefit of using peer feedback is that the quality of student work usually increases, which can make your marking much more enjoyable.

There are a few different approaches that could be taken to implement peer feedback, but the most common method is to use the discussion board. Below are the steps of what you’ll want to think through if you’re planning to use the discussion board for this:

  1. The first thing is to decide on what assignment(s) you want to include peer feedback.
  2. The second step is to determine a reasonable timeline for the peer feedback. This can be tricky in spring and summer courses, as assignment due dates usually come fast and furious! For example, if you want the assignment submitted to you on Friday, students should be sharing their drafts for peer feedback no later than Wednesday (but Monday or Tuesday would be best). There needs to be time for peers to provide the feedback and for the student to implement the feedback before submitting.
  3. The third step is to decide on which students will provide feedback to one another. It is overwhelming to ask students to review the work of all of their classmates. Instead, you will want to assign pairs or small groups. You can implement this in your course by either formally using the Groups tool in your LMS (e.g., Blackboard) or you can create forums for each pair or group. There are pros and cons to both approaches
    1. If you use the formal Groups tool, only students in each group will see the assignments, discussion, and feedback. This limits the ability to see a really wide variety of their peers’ work
    2. If you create different forums for your “groups” on the course discussion board, all students will still be able to see each other’s assignments, but should be instructed to only provide feedback to their group. Since everyone can see the feedback, students may be more guarded in their feedback
  4. The fourth step is to decide the format and instructions for the peer feedback
    1. Do you have a rubric created for the assignment? If yes, it would be great to ask the students to use the rubric when providing feedback
    2. Do you have a list of assessment criteria or expectations? In this case, formulate questions or areas of focus for the peers to consider when providing peer feedback
    3. Do you want the students to provide their own areas of focus for what they specifically want feedback on? You could instruct students to post their assignment along with questions for their peers to consider
  5. The last step is to implement this planning within your LMS! Please contact the GMCTL or Distance Education Unit (DEU) for support.

Panopto for Student Presentations

We’re receiving a lot of questions around how to use Panopto for student presentations. To do this, there are a few different approaches that could be taken. The first thing to consider is whether or not the video/audio presentation of information is necessary. If not, please consider the other options here. Learning how to use Panopto without any in-person support may be difficult for some of your students.

Another thing to recognize is that Panopto could work well for individual presentations, but will be difficult if students are expected to present as part of a group. In those cases, WebEx would likely be a better option.

You also need to decide if the other students in the classes are expected to view the presentations. If they are, what structure can you put in place to make this meaningful?

Option A: Student Submits Presentation to the Instructor Only

Step 1: Provisioning Your Blackboard Course in Panopto

The first step in using Panopto is to provision your course within Blackboard. This creates a location for videos to be saved. Access your course within PAWS Course Tools or log in to your Blackboard course at  View video here

Step 2: Creating a Link Directly to Your Panopto Folder in Blackboard

Add a link directly to your Panopto folder for students to access and submit. View video here

Step 3: Enabling the Student Assignment Submission Folder

In order for students to be able to submit videos, the instructor needs to set up a submission folder. This gives students permission to submit in this location. View video here

Step 4: FOR STUDENTS How to Record and Submit a Video Assignment (Using Panopto Video Assignment Folder)

  • This video shows students how to record a video using Panopto on a Windows PC.
  • This video show students how to submit a video using a mobile device (e.g., iPhone). If students are using an Android phone, the process is a bit different as they must record the video first, and then submit it using the Panopto app.

Option B: Student Submits Video Presentation to be Viewed by Both Instructor and other Students

Complete all four steps from Option A. The instructor also needs to turn on viewing privileges on the assignment submission folder. View video here

Option C: Student Submits Video Presentation to be Viewed and Discussed by Both Instructor and other Students

Complete all four steps from Option A.

  • Next create a discussion forum on Blackboard for students to post and share their presentation videos
  • Students will then need to create a Thread or Post in a Discussion Forum to post share their presentation video. The specific instructions around the posting should be provided by the instructor (e.g., only the video, video and explanation, video and questions for viewers, etc.). View video here
  • The rest of the class can now view the presentation video and comment on it, ask questions, and so on

Hopefully that helps you in deciding what to do next. For further support, please visit the Support Page.

Panopto or Narrated PowerPoint

While discussing the use of Panopto for instructional videos, I often receive the question about why one would use Panopto instead of a narrated PowerPoint file or video.

I want to preface my response by saying that if an instructor is already comfortable with using “Record Slide Show” in PowerPoint and distributing the files or videos, then I would encourage them to continue to use it. But if someone is new to recording slideshows, then I would suggest that Panopto is definitely worth considering.

  • One of the benefits of using Panopto is that it creates streaming video files. This means they can easily be viewed on any web-enabled device
  • Panopto will automatically transcribe the audio track, which makes the text on the slides and the words said by the instructor searchable. The transcription isn’t perfect, but it can be a nice side benefit. This transcription can also be used for closed-captioning
  • Panopto will record anything on your screen, so you can include things outside of your PowerPoint slides (such as a webpage, animation, ink layer, etc.)
  • When students are viewing Panopto videos, they can easily see how long the videos are (which allows for budgeting of time needed to view it), change the speed at which they view it, and easily pause and restart at any point.
    • narrated PowerPoint files don’t provide an overall runtime, can only be played at normal speed, and can be difficult to pause, depending on the device
  • Student access to your Panopto videos within your course can be automatically set up within Blackboard:
  • There is a built in Discussion tool within Panopto that you could ask students to use to ask questions
  • PowerPoint files with audio tracks can become really large. This may lead to issues uploading or downloading them

One advantage of using PowerPoint, that I know of, is that when creating the video, you can easily do retakes of individual slides. This would be more difficult in Panopto, but editing after recording is quite simple. That being said, you would need to make sure to do you retake as part of the original recording.

One last thing to note is that if videos are already created in PowerPoint, they can be exported as a video and uploaded into Panopto which will still allow you to take advantage of most of the benefits.

Hopefully this helps you make up your mind. Again, I encourage you to use the tool you are most comfortable with. And if it turns out that neither of these are right for you, then please explore more alternatives. Sometimes a PDF and a discussion board will do the trick!

Coffee and Icebergs: Analogies, Metaphors, and Stories in Teaching Tough Concepts


coffee steam 2Nancy Turner, GMCTE Director, recently came across an intriguing resource on an Australian listserve called the Chemistry Pedagogical Content Knowledge Project. This site had been developed through a large qualitative research project and this specific resource is for Chemistry. She shared it with me, and after exploring it, I was inspired by its contents. It also made me wonder if there were similar resources for other disciplines.

This resource is described on the site in this way:

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) encompasses carefully selected analogies, examples, explanations and demonstrations used by a teacher to make a topic comprehensible to students. (ChemPCK)

In other words, it contains specific lesson and teaching ideas that are organized by Chemistry Topic and also by Strategy Type. The goal of each lesson idea is to help students easily make connections between the specific Chemistry content and materials/experiences that they are familiar with from their everyday lives.

For example, one of the Strategy Types that you can choose is “Analogies and Metaphors”. If you select this strategy, there are 14 different suggested analogies and metaphors to use when teaching variety of topics.

Here is an example for teaching Thermodynamics:

Which has a higher internal energy – a ‘nearly boiling’ hot cup of coffee or an iceberg? This is the ‘q vs T paradox’. The mass of the iceberg is greater so it has a higher internal energy despite being colder. Ask students to explain what happens when you place the cup of coffee onto the surface of the iceberg – why doesn’t heat flow from the iceberg to the coffee to make it boil? The discussion of why heat dissipates from hot to cold is useful in reinforcing the role of entropy. (ChemPCK)

Here is another (simpler) example for Electronic Structure:

Use an analogy for filling orbitals, such as climbing up a ladder or building a house from the bottom up. (ChemPCK).

On one hand, students often struggle with understanding obscure scientific terms and concepts. On the other hand, instructors often struggle with clearly conveying these concepts to students. A resource like this can help on both of these fronts (Although, it is important that you and the students can recognize the limitations of the metaphors).

Do you have a favourite metaphor or analogy that you use in teaching? Do you know of similar resources for other disciplines? Would you like to contribute to a similar resource? Please, comment below or send us an email!

Photo courtesy of waferboard under a CC-By license.

Single-Point Rubrics: Exceeding Expectations


As an Instructional Designer, I often speak on the value of assessment rubrics. There are many reasons why creating a rubric for each assignment, providing students with the rubric, and using the rubric while grading can be advantageous. Many of these reasons are highlighted in the video below, including:

  • You write the same comments on several assignments
  • You decide how to assess after the assignments are handed in
  • You realize after grading a few papers that your students didn’t understand the assignment expectations (Stevens & Levi, 2005)

Knowing about these reasons for rubrics, I sat down last fall to create few rubrics for the assignments in an undergraduate class I was about to teach. I started with the “Good” or “Excellent” column, as this is where I recommend starting. That was pretty easy as it simply explains the criteria for the assignment.

The next thing I needed to do was to fill in the lower columns (e.g., minimal pass, satisfactory) and ran into difficulties. I found myself guessing at what it is that students may or may not do to deviate from the criteria. This was especially difficult since I like to be as descriptive and objective as possible with the criteria I put in the cells, trying to avoid vague terms, such as “acceptable” and “good”. Filling in these cells was really challenging and would have potentially put me in a bind when grading if my guesses turned out to be wrong. I have been in that situation before and it is not a good feeling to look at your rubric descriptors and to look at a student’s assignment and realize that you have trapped yourself into either giving too high or too low of a grade based on those start-of-term guesses. These guesses are even more difficult if it is a new-to-you course or a new assignment. Due to these challenges, I ended up with more of a checklist and comment box than a fully filled-in rubric.

This past summer, a blog post by Jennifer Gonzalez came across my email that explained the concept of a “Single-Point Rubric”. I think the Single-Point Rubric is the answer to my struggles. It is essentially the “Good” or “Excellent” column that explains the criteria for the assignment and a column on each side surrounds it. These columns are labelled “Concerns: Areas that Need Work” and “Advanced: Evidence of Exceeding Standards”. This serves many of the same purposes as a rubric full of filled-in cells plus it provides a great and clear means of providing positive and negative feedback on each of the criterion.

Single Point RubricI still see advantages to having a fully filled-in rubric, but for new-to-you assignments and courses, where you really are guessing at student performance, I think the “Single-Point Rubric” is a great first step in providing clear criteria. I would highly recommend reading Jennifer’s post and seeing if it will meet your needs, as well.

Feedback to Improve Teaching


This fall I taught my first for-credit university course. I have plenty of previous teaching experience in the K-12 system and non-credit workshops/courses offered through the GMCTE, but this was the first-time teaching paying university students. I was feeling some apprehension and added pressure.

Teaching controversial issuesWith this pressure in mind (and wanting to provide the best learning experience possible) I put together a formative assessment plan for the course. This plan would allow students to provide me with feedback on my teaching and use of learning activities. Here is a list of some of the items in that plan:

  1. Pre-Course Survey: I began with a pre-course survey the last week of August. I accessed my course list through Blackboard Learn and sent the students a link to a survey. I used this survey to learn more about my students and learn what relevant skills they were bringing into the course with them. I was able to use this information to inform my lesson and activity planning.
  1. Stop-Start-Continue: Three weeks into the term, I asked students to provide anonymous feedback on what things I should start doing, what I should stop doing, and what I should continue doing in my teaching. The majority of the feedback was positive, but even that was very helpful in letting me know that I was on track.
  1. Muddiest Point: After the fourth week, I created an anonymous online survey and asked my students to identify what concepts and ideas in our recent classes were still unclear to them. This helped me supplement and enrich the materials I had provided them in order to attempt to get all of us up to the same level of understanding. I also planned a brief class discussion to address these concerns.
  1. Clickers: Also in our fourth week, I lead an activity where students were applying their learning of a certain concept to answer clicker questions in class. I did this using a free online system called Kahoot!, in which the students were able to respond using computers or mobile devices. The vast majority of students answered the questions correctly indicating to me that we had achieved that learning objective and students were ready to apply this to a summative assignment.
  1. Post-term Survey: As the term wrapped up, I began thinking about what changes I would make to this course the next time I teach it (which is in January). Apart from the college-issued survey, I created my own anonymous online survey that solicited feedback on the course in general and specific feedback on the assignments that the students completed throughout the term. I emailed this survey to my students and they have offered insightful comments that I am using in planning the next iteration. I also encouraged them to meet with me to provide oral feedback if they so wish.

Although, I was initially apprehensive about teaching this course, I found that within the first few weeks I was quite comfortable. The students and I had developed a good rapport and I was soliciting so much feedback that nothing was really able to fall between the cracks. A well-planned formative assessment plan can really set a course up for success!

Why You Should Consider Lecture Capture


“Lecture Capture describes technologies instructors can use to record voice and data projector content and make those recordings available digitally” (ICT University of Saskatchewan). At the University of Saskatchewan, many rooms are equipped to allow instructors to easily record their live lectures and distribute these recordings to their students.

Now that I’ve defined what lecture capture is, let’s explore why you should consider using it. Research has shown numerous benefits. A study found that, after using lecture capture across a variety of disciplines, class sizes, and teaching styles, students and faculty were both in favor of using lecture recordings. Benefits for students included:

  • being able to review material that was confusing,
  • study for quizzes and exams, and
  • pay closer attention in class rather than frantically scribbling notes (May, 2008).

A recent series of interviews with instructors on our campus explores these and additional benefits of using lecture capture:

These additional benefits included:

  • support for DSS and ESL students who struggle with the speed of the lecture.
  • support for sick and injured students who cannot attend class.
  • ability to view your classes as a way to critically reflect on your teaching.
  • ability to share your videos with other instructors who teach the same course or complementary courses.
  • ability to share the videos with your teaching assistant(s) to help them prepare for grading, tutorials, or labs.

When it comes to lecture capture, there is always the concern that students will stop attending class. Research around this issue has been inconclusive (Bond & Grussendorf, 2013). The interviewed U of S instructors noticed no difference in attendance between lecture captured classed and their other classes:

With all these benefits in mind and the major concern set aside, what reasons remain to not try lecture capture? The system is in place—give it a try!

For more information on Lecture Capture at the University of Saskatchewan please visit:


Bond, Steve and Grussendorf, Sonja (2013) Staff attitudes to lecture capture. The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. Retrieved from:

May, V. V. (2008). Lecture capture pilot project results. Retrieved from:

Supporting Your Flipped Classroom with Open Resources


We’ve talked about flipped classrooms in this space before. In a nutshell, flipped classrooms involve taking the regular lecture style content out of the classroom and assigning it as homework prior to coming to class. The majority of the time, this involves having the students watch videos, often created by the instructor, to prepare for class.

Recently I came across the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) and have considered how it would couple with a flipped classroom. The Open Learning Initiative “is a grant-funded group at Carnegie Mellon University, offering innovative online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. [Their] aim is to create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education”. These online courses on the OLI site cover approximately 20 topics right now, many of which are at the first-year university level. The approach that each course takes in its delivery is quite varied:

  • The Chemistry course I explored has videos, text, multiple-choice quizzes, and a virtual lab.
  • The French language course I explored was based on listening to a series of audio excerpts and answering questions related to them.

As you can imagine, these online courses have the potential to deliver a wealth of content before students set foot inside your classroom.

Instead of just setting students free on these online courses, you as the instructor can set up your own versions of these courses and choose which materials students will see and complete. If you take this step, you will also get to see your students’ results on the assessment pieces.

“This [assessment] information helps instructors to tailor their classroom lectures and activities to the topics with which students are struggling. Use our Learning Dashboard tool to see student progress on a class-level, by student, and even by individual activity in the course” (Learning How OLI Helps Educators).

That is where the flipped classroom fits in. By freeing up your in class time from delivering this factual, lecture-style content, you can walk into your classroom with this rich information about your students in your hands prepared to engage in active learning to explore the topics that they are struggling with. You can become an adaptive and responsive teacher, which is a truly a wonderful thing!

One thing you may be thinking as you are reading this post is that you already have access to these sorts of resources and tools through your textbook publisher. That may be the case, but some benefits of using OLI is that it is free and will be available to you and your students if you change to a different textbook or if you adopt an open textbook. The resources are also being developed in conjunction with some of the best learning scientists in North America—the addition of hints and real-time feedback to students is thorough and impressive.

Feel free to explore these possibilities on your own or contact us at the GMCTE—we would love to work with you on implementing this in your course. Also, if you have used OLI or similar resources in the past, please share your experiences with us in the comments below.

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