Practical tips and/or guidelines
Open Access

Synchronous learning for synchronous teaching: lessons learned from creating an online seminar to help physician educators develop best practices for synchronous online instruction

Anastasia Mortimore[1], Mara Hoffert[1], Maria S Kokas[1], Ellen L Air[1], Nicholas Yeldo[1], Odaliz Abreu Lanfranco[1], Karla Passalacqua[2]

Institution: 1. Henry Ford Hospital, 2. Henry Ford Health System
Corresponding Author: Dr Karla Passalacqua ([email protected])
Categories: Educational Strategies, Teachers/Trainers (including Faculty Development), Teaching and Learning, Technology
Published Date: 05/04/2021


During the COVID-19 emergency in March 2020, most medical education activities were severely interrupted in teaching hospitals globally. At our institution, a large, urban teaching hospital in the United States, many physicians used video-conferencing tools to maintain educational activities with residents and fellows during the crisis. Therefore, graduate medical education instructional designers created a “pop-up” support seminar to outline and model best practices in conducting synchronous learning for physician educators. A total of 64 physicians attended two sessions of the seminar titled “Instructional Design: Best Practices in Synchronous Learning.” While the seminar was designed to provide physicians with sound pedagogical tools, it was also designed to be delivered in a synchronous format to model best practices for this teaching modality. This Practical Tips article aims to be a working template for medical educators who would like to create a support course for physician educators in how to implement a high impact synchronous learning event. We share design challenges for creating online synchronous events, outline the specifics of our course, and highlight key behaviors and activities that facilitators can take to improve their online teaching.


Keywords: synchronous teaching; asynchronous learning; video-conferencing platforms; interactive learning


Henry Ford Hospital (HFH), a large urban teaching hospital in Detroit, Michigan, was a major “hotspot” during the COVID-19 surge in March-April 2020 (Chapman, Bosman and Eligan, 2020; Nichols, 2020). While medical training is a major activity at HFH, with over 50 residency and fellowship programs, formal teaching activities were severely interrupted in mid-March when the hospital received an overwhelming surge of COVID-19 patients. Because of mandated physical distancing and the need to redeploy residents and fellows to patient care, the hospital declared a Stage 3 pandemic emergency status in late March per Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) policy. However, physician educators sought to continue some semblance of formal medical training by using remote delivery methods. Ultimately, this situation turned out to be a lesson in adaptation and was an opportunity to expand teaching skills. One way that physicians maintained teaching activities during this time was with video-conferencing tools.


Using a video-conferencing platform for live, real-time, online teaching is considered “synchronous” teaching, which is different from the online delivery of pre-recorded, formalized lectures referred to as “asynchronous” teaching. Asynchronous teaching is a mainstay of most online educational programs, and the effectiveness of teaching through pre-recorded, asynchronous methods versus live lecture has been studied extensively (Spickard et al., 2002; Browne et al., 2004; Solomon et al., 2004; Davis et al., 2007; Cardall, Krupat and Ulrich, 2008; Brockfeld, Müller and de Laffolie, 2018). While asynchronous teaching is a format that relies on sound, technology-centered instructional design and student motivation/independence (Choe et al., 2019; De Leeuw, Logger , et al., 2019), synchronous teaching is often more informally viewed as a “meeting tool” that differs from in-person teaching mainly in regard to the computer interface. Indeed, the use of synchronous methods for clinical practice and teaching clinical skills has been studied more extensively as “telemedicine” (Roine, Ohinmaa and Hailey, 2001; Bertsch et al., 2007; Jain et al., 2010; Verhoeven et al., 2010; Haney et al., 2012; Brusamento et al., 2019). But it is difficult to compare different e-learning methods head-to-head since there is such a wide range of tools and approaches to using them (Cook et al., 2008) and because technology is constantly being updated and improved.


A 2017 survey of post-graduate medical training program directors revealed that whereas 72% of the 214 responding institutions had used asynchronous methods, only about 40% reported using synchronous methods (Wittich et al., 2017). But with the social/physical distancing measures mandated during the COVID-19 emergency, use of online video-conferencing tools such as Zoom, WebEx, Skype, and others has expanded out of necessity (Greenhalgh, Koh and Car, 2020). HFH has a dedicated team of professional instructional designers who provide support for all graduate medical education (GME) activities. Early in the COVID-19 emergency response, the GME team recognized that physicians were implementing impromptu synchronous teaching and that support for optimizing this teaching modality might be needed. Therefore, the GME team created an online, synchronous teaching module titled, “Instructional Design: Best Practices in Synchronous Learning.” The goals of creating this course were four-fold. First, since physicians are generally not extensively trained in teaching methodologies, the course was designed to outline practical pedagogical tools for online teaching. Second, instructional designers wanted to ensure that physicians would be able to maintain educational integrity by using sound educational principles (eg, provide an adequate learning environment, deliver high quality educational content, promote student engagement) despite being unfamiliar with online media platforms. Third, the course was created to discover what faculty experiences with synchronous teaching had been, including what problems they had encountered, what they perceived had gone well, and what they still needed. Lastly, the GME team wanted to model an example of good synchronous methods by performing an effective synchronous event. Importantly, the course was not designed to be a tutorial on specific technologies.


For the 2020-2021 academic year at HFH, in-person teaching has been limited and all teaching activities for groups of any appreciable size are being transitioned to online formats. Nationwide, GME activities have similarly been affected, causing great concern to educators and trainees alike (Gill, Whitehead and Wondimagegn, 2020; Li, Xv and Yan, 2020; Newman and Lattouf, 2020), highlighting a significant need to expand training in using online approaches. The aim of this Practical Tips article is to provide a working template for medical educators who want to create their own synchronous learning support course. Additionally, we hope to share the lessons learned from this pilot program, particularly to highlight the commonly perceived barriers to effective synchronous delivery.

PART 1: Instructional designer observations – Key challenges faced during online synchronous event facilitation

Our institution is somewhat unique in that a team of instructional designers who are trained in adult educational theory and practice work alongside medical professionals to develop effective educational programs. The online “pop-up” support seminar described here was one effort by instructional designers to assist physicians who were struggling with pivoting their teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is a brief list of key issues that instructional designers believe will be key for moving forward with online instruction, which is an educational feature that will be prevalent even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past. (Table 3)


Key delivery strategies for online instruction


Skilled facilitation is vital for conducting a successful synchronous learning event. The main challenge is that learners are at a distance, in variable environments, and they face many more distractions than they would within an in-person classroom environment. Therefore, the facilitator has an increased burden for maintaining participant engagement. For our course, we laid out ground rules as a working agreement at the beginning of the event and clearly stated the expectations and outcomes that were expected. Check-in activities, such as signing in via a chat feature, can help increase participant engagement. Our check-in activity also served as an attendance record for continuing medical education credits.


Online events are often impersonal, and suggested guidelines for conducting online meetings have been recently proposed (Rubinger et al., 2020). To keep an “in-person” feel, engaging participants by randomly asking open-ended questions to specific participants (by name) can keep people on their toes. Since most video-conferencing tools allow viewing multiple people on-screen, requiring that people engage the camera option is helpful. Some participants may need to engage classes via telephone, making camera use impossible. And many people are hesitant to use their cameras. However, explaining that participation via full video improves the personal atmosphere of an online event often supports participant compliance.


Importantly, implementing interactive learning methods such as polls, quizzes, small-group breakout discussions, case studies, and others can help create a more intimate, lively atmosphere. Lastly, since the facilitator is also viewing a screen, looking at the device camera instead of the screen can promote a sense of real eye contact with the audience.


Evaluations through the online medium


For synchronous courses designed for teaching medical trainees, learning outcome evaluation is a crucial aspect similar to in-person education. However, best practices for evaluation of e-learning methods requires further investigation (De Leeuw et al., 2018; De Leeuw, Westerman, et al., 2019).


Skills in using ever-changing technology formats – a major barrier


Because video-conferencing and other tools are constantly being created and updated, educational support for learning how to wield specific technologies is paramount. Technological support has been identified as a critical element in the ability of technology adopters to be successful. (De Leeuw, Logger, et al., 2019). Therefore, institutions should wisely invest in technology support staff for physician educators to save time and effort and to reduce frustration. During discussions, the participants in our course consistently voiced their need for help with learning how to use various conferencing software, which was not the focus of our event.


Regarding skill in platform usage, we highly recommend that presenters test their technologies before going live with their programs. Creating an action plan for what to do when unexpected technology issues arise (eg, platform outages, participant technology failure, audio problems) is also highly recommended.


Course material design considerations – not so different from in-person education


Course material design is a key aspect for in-person and online teaching methods alike, and most instructional design considerations are similar. Therefore, recommendations in this realm are like general considerations for any course design. For example, providing learners an outline of course content, learning objectives, and study materials well before the course allows participants to know what to expect. Also, slide deck design is key, and best practices for visual presentations have been covered elsewhere (Mayer, 2010; Daniel et al., 2018).


However, one major difference for a synchronous event is the facilitator’s environment: that is, the physical aspects of the room from which the presenter is conducting the course that can affect the quality of live video. Participants of a synchronous events are engaged solely through an electronic screen where they will mainly see the presentation (ie, the slide deck) and the facilitator, or both. When the facilitator is on-screen, microphone placement, background features, and lighting all contribute to the experience of the viewer, and these should be planned strategically. With the rise of video-conferencing tools, many tips and features can be found with a simple internet search, such as the “Zoom Rooms Design Guide Best Practices” (Buell, 2019).


Timing is also key, and for online meetings it is important to factor in extra time at the start of an event, since people may be late for computer-related reasons. Lastly, as with any course, providing tangible takeaways will help participants solidify and implement their learning. These can include offering CME credits (which takes additional pre-planning), a checklist of take-home messages, lists of resources, and study guides. An assessment or survey is also helpful for improving future iterations of a course.


Table 1: Design Challenges for Synchronous Online Events

Design Challenge

Possible Solutions

  • Participant Engagement – learners are separated in space and limited to the computer screen interface
  1. Lay out ground rules at beginning of event
  2. Working agreement that states expectations
  3. Check-in activities
  • Impersonal environment – not being in proximity reduces human connection
  1. Ask open ended questions
  2. Call on people by name
  3. Require that participants put their camera on
  4. Use interactive methods (polls, discussions, etc.)
  • Technical fluency with conferencing tools
  1. Seek support from experienced users
  2. Test all technology before using
  3. Ask participants to test their video and sound
  4. Create action plan for outages and technical failures
  • Presentation issues unique to online events
  1. Facilitator background should be free from distractions
  2. Microphone placement for optimal audio
  3. Lighting should allow clear visual of presenter
  4. Timing – allow extra time for participants who have technical issues
  5. Provide a tangible takeaway (study-guide, checklist, list of resources, etc.)

PART 2: Key features of the PowerPoint slide-deck design

Because our seminar was a synchronous event that aimed to model how to perform a synchronous event, a great deal of thought was put into instructional design. Table 2 and the list below highlight key features of our PowerPoint slide-deck. Note that all slides were designed to minimize text and optimize visual cues, per best practices in creating visual presentations (Mayer, 2010; Daniel et al., 2018). The presentation contained 42 slides in total, and the presentation was judiciously animated to create an adequate pace to the session.


The course was conducted two times in May 2020, with 42 physicians in attendance for the first session and 22 in the second session. Instructional designers took notes during the course and created a Learning Guide that was made available after the event for the participants. The class consisted of didactic explanations, video-recorded testimonials from medical faculty, a live discussion panel, and live question and answer time. Select slides are shown in Supplementary File 1.


Welcome Slide: The first slide shown on the screen when participants joined the meeting said “Welcome.” Key Feature - This slide was placed as a link in the Chat room at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the seminar to guarantee that attendees had access to it. Importance - To promote an open, friendly atmosphere, and to list several key directions for attendees, paraphrased below:

  • Upon arrival, introduce yourself in the chat room by sharing name and program
  • Those who need CME credit should include badge number in Chat room or email to facilitator
  • Please turn on video and mute audio
  • Note that a link for an online learning guide will be posted in the Chat room

Program start:  At the start of the program, a title slide was briefly shown to reiterate the formal title of the course: “Instructional Design: Best Practices in Synchronous Learning.” The first active slide contained embedded video of the Program Director of the Emergency Medicine residency program answering the question, “When was the moment you realized that medical education would never be the same for trainees?” The question was included as a feature of the slide. Importance – To engage participants with a peer’s experience regarding the topic and to highlight the importance of multimedia in synchronous learning. Using multimedia (eg, videos, polls, panel discussions) is a key approach for establishing participant engagement early in the event and to break up didactic sections.


Objectives Slide:  Three target objectives and a note on what the course did NOT cover were outlined. Importance – To clearly state ideal outcomes of the course.

  • Objective 1:  Discuss positive examples of synchronous learning
  • Objective 2:  Identify questions/challenges with synchronous learning
  • Objective 3:  Explore best practices in synchronous learning
  • Disclaimer:  Program did not focus on specific technologies

Working Agreements Slide:  Working agreements can help get a course started smoothly by clearly explaining group expectations. This is particularly important for participants who are not used to engaging in live, online learning, and who may not be fluent in online etiquette. Importance – To create a cooperative and collaborative atmosphere between attendees.

  • Participate: (Active participant, turns off audio and comments in Chat / Collaborator, verbally participates in discussion / Passive listener, turns off video and audio)
  • Be brief and share airtime
  • Stay on task and on topic (close other browser tabs)
  • If you experience technical difficulty (attempt to call from phone, a recording of the meeting will be available later)

Agenda Slide:  This slide outlined the specific topics covered in the course. Importance – To clearly outline course content so that participants know what to expect.

  • Types of remote learning
  • Panel Discussion: Successes / Challenges
  • Tips & Tools: Best Practices in Synchronous Learning

Content Slides: Table 1 above outlines the specific content of all slides, including the main content-containing slides.


Table 2: Key Features of the PowerPoint Slide-Deck for Teaching Best Practices in Synchronous Learning

Slide type

Purpose / Content


On screen during participant entry – gives key directions (eg, mute audio, use “Chat” to sign in, etc.)

Title Slide

First advanced slide after Welcome – starts the presentation

Introductory Video

Short video of a person who has been asked a key question to set the tone. Question: “When did you realize that medical education would never be the same?”

Objectives (sub: Targets)

Three clear, achievable target objectives for the course, includes one disclaimer on what is NOT covered

Working Agreements

Clearly states expectations of participant behavior during online session (eg, active participation, attention, keep airtime brief, technical difficulties)


More detailed descriptions of study topics

Agenda Item #1 – Types of Synchronous Learning

Intro slide to Part 1 – transition slide followed by 5 animated content slides

Panel Discussion on Successes and Challenges in using Synchronous Learning

Introduction to panel speakers, pictures of speakers on screen during intro. Followed by 2 slides with specific questions for panel. Active group discussion during panel discussion.

Questions for panel discussion:

  • What do you think is going well for you in your practice of synchronous remote learning?
  • What questions or challenges have you faced in conducting synchronous remote learning?

Tips and Tools: Best Practices in Synchronous Learning

  • Introduces a section on things to do before, during, and after your synchronous learning event. Following slides outline the specific Tips and Tools for Synchronous learning that were covered

What to do before the Meeting

  • Determine Priorities
  • Assign Roles
  • Consider aesthetics (lighting, background)

What to do at the beginning of Meeting

  • Set Expectations
  • Emphasize participant audio and video and participation
  • Have note for those who have technical problems
  • Note attachments and links to the course

What to do during the meeting

  • Use frequent and varied interactions including didactic, large group discussion, and small group discussion
  • Replace text heavy slides with images, single key terms, or brief phrases. Use non-linguistic representation wherever possible 
  • Send participants detailed content (eg, learning guide, advance organizer)
  • Break-up presentation slides by limiting/highlighting individual elements (eg, “Animation” feature in PowerPoint) 
  • Encourage active participation by using a “Flipped Classroom” model or assigning participants to summarize and present material
  • Use a document cam (bought or built) for procedural information
  • Increase engagement in large group discussions by keeping participants in “gallery view,” using polls and chat room, “warm/cold calling,” and case studies/role playing
  • Use “breakout rooms” to divide students into small groups for discussion
  • Make lecture slides clear and readable
  • Show how to set up a homemade camera for showing live demonstrations
  • Facilitate large and small group discussions
  • Ask interactive questions

What to do after the meeting

  • Send a follow-up email with notes, presentation slides, links, etc.

Final video presentation

  • Medical practitioner explaining how interactive learning during her training helped her be a better practitioner (Patient Care)


Slide with all resources used for creation of the course

PART 3: Teaching by example – Key aspects of course delivery

A crucial goal for this course was to model best synchronous teaching methods. Therefore, the presenters not only prepared and practiced ahead of time, but also performed key activities and behaviors during the session. Table 3 below lists some key behaviors and activities that the event facilitator can adopt to address the key challenges outlined in Part 1.


Table 3: Key Instructor Behaviors & Activities for Online Delivery of Synchronous Events


Our implementation strategy

  • Designate a team to manage the online event.
  • An administrator can monitor chat and control mute/unmute
  • Event managers should not be participants

For our event, one person acted as the presenter/facilitator, one person was the designated manager who engaged discussion, and one person was the technical manager who managed muting/unmuting and technical activities (eg, chat room)

  • Keep inter-group chat between presenters/administrators to a minimum

As participants joined, facilitators began to communicate with each other over email or chat rather than through audio

  • Break up didactic portions with panel speakers, video, discussion, or active learning methods

A live panel of guest speakers who had been using synchronous learning engaged in discussion and answered questions from participants

  • Maintain engagement with all attendees

Facilitator called on people by name throughout the session to ask for thoughts and opinions

  • Use open-ended questioning

“Dr. XX, how would you handle an online situation where a resident is asking questions outside the scope of the course?”

  • Be congenial, have fun, and maintain a sense of humor
  • When facilitator is on screen view, smiling and hand gestures make the interaction more personal

Technical issues are sometimes humorous – participants may say things while unmuted that everybody can hear or may keep talking because they can’t hear you

  • Reduce distractions by being in a quiet, semi-private space (facilitators and participants)
  • Strongly encourage participants not to visit other websites or check their phones during the session (if possible)

Send out pre-session correspondence with course outline and specific advice/parameters for how to set up a home space

  • Encourage students to use the “Chat Room” to make comments and ask questions
  • Chat rooms engage students without interrupting the flow of the presentation
  • Use polls or breakout sessions if technology allows

Sample question: “In the Chat Room, indicate which aspect of synchronous learning you will find most difficult: Speaking into a computer camera, planning materials, engaging students, other”


Lessons Learned & Challenges

Key skills for designing and conducting online synchronous teaching are similar to in-person teaching, but the computer interface creates some key considerations that are uniquely challenging. Engaging the audience is difficult because of the need for technical skill and the impersonal nature of the video interface. Incorporating interactive methods within synchronous modules is challenging but can increase participant engagement. More training and technological support are needed for physician educators.

Take Home Messages

  • Conducting an online synchronous event has a range of challenges that are unique from in-person teaching because of physical distance and an online interface.
  • Practicing ahead of time, implementing active learning, redesigning visual presentations to include an introductory slide with directions, and making eye contact with the camera are helpful behaviors.
  • Strategies for keeping participants engaged during synchronous learning include: beginning with a working agreement, requiring participant use of the video option, including active learning, using impromptu open-ended questioning, and having the facilitator make eye contact with the camera.

Notes On Contributors

Anastasia Mortimore, EdS, is an Educational Design Consultant at Henry Ford Hospital.


Mara Hoffert, PhD, is the Director of Medical Education Instructional Design and Learning Systems & Resources at Henry Ford Hospital and has been in the educational domain for over 20 years. ORCID ID:


Maria S Kokas, PhD, was formerly the Director of Learning Systems at Henry Ford Hospital (now retired). ORCID ID:


Ellen L Air, MD, PhD, is the Director of Residency Training in the Department of Neurosurgery at Henry Ford Hospital.


Nicholas Yeldo, MD, is the Director of Residency Training in the Department of Anesthesiology at Henry Ford Hospital.


Odaliz Abreu Lanfranco, MD, is the Director of Residency Training in the Department of Infectious Disease at Henry Ford Hospital.


Karla D Passalacqua, PhD, is a microbiologist and Senior Medical Writer in Graduate Medical Education at Henry Ford Hospital. ORCID ID:


The authors thank Drs. Loay Kabbani, Christie Morgan, and Taher Vohra for their contributions to the online presentations. All educational materials included in and with this manuscript are permitted for publication by the Henry Ford Health System.


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There are no conflicts of interest.
This has been published under Creative Commons "CC BY-SA 4.0" (

Ethics Statement

This project was not research on human subjects and therefore did not require Institutional Review Board review. This study was considered a quality improvement effort which is exempt from the US Revised Common Rule.

External Funding

This article has not had any External Funding


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