How Do I Balance Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning?

In the absence of sharing a physical space with our students in the classroom, faculty have explored various ways to replicate or reimagine the learning environment, including holding synchronous Zoom sessions during the time class is scheduled to meet and creating self-paced activities that students complete within a flexible time frame. How do you balance asynchronous or synchronous activities to support student learning? Below are the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous learning followed by some considerations we encourage you to reflect on to find a balance that makes sense for your course and your students.


Advantages of Synchronous Learning

Synchronous learning experiences (i.e., those that happen in real-time through some sort of video and/or chat tool) offer direct social engagement and feedback and resemble most face-to-face interactions.

Some advantages of synchronous learning activities include:

  • creates a space for social support among peers and the instructor;
  • allows students to provide context to their responses and to receive immediate responses from their peers and instructor; and
  • offers the instructor a chance to clarify misconceptions on material in real-time (Giesbers et al., 2013).

Advantages of Asynchronous Learning

Asynchronous learning experiences (i.e., those that happen in delayed time and doesn’t require concurrent participation) provide flexible opportunities for interaction and communication.

Some advantages of asynchronous learning activities include:

  • benefits temporally-diverse students by accommodating when they can access the course;
  • offers more time and space for students to reflect on their learning, practice, and refine their contributions to class activities; and
  • generates an archive of information (e.g., discussion posts, instructor recaps, recorded videos) that students can return to throughout the semester (Johnson, 2006).

Finding Balance

Research has found that students positively perceive synchronous learning because they receive immediate feedback and feel like they are part of a community (Watts, 2016). However, students also appreciate that they can incorporate asynchronous learning into their existing schedules and are able to engage with the content on a deeper level. Finding a balance between both formats would help in supporting students’ cognitive and social needs.

The considerations below aim to guide you in your course design decisions on achieving a balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Considerations

What are the essential components of your course?
Before deciding on the types of learning activities you want to include in your course, you should first examine your course content, learner needs, and your course goals. Certain synchronous or asynchronous activities work better for particular purposes. For example, creating time to connect and develop a classroom culture, providing informal feedback and guidance, and celebrating learning may lend itself better to synchronous activities, while teaching new skills or concepts, reflection, or comprehensive group projects may be better suited for asynchronous activities where students have time to reflect and refine their thinking.

The image below is one example of a course structure that incorporates synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.

Where are your students located?
When trying to find a balance, it’s helpful to consider where your students are physically located (and their time zones) and think through how and when students could access content and interact their peers.

What technology do your students have?
Having a sense of what technology students have access to could also inform your decisions around asynchronous or synchronous activities. For example, suppose you are thinking of having students work in breakout rooms during a synchronous session on a collaborative document while also drawing from the readings or external research. If a student is using a tablet, cell phone, or a small computer monitor, it may be difficult to access multiple documents and platforms at once.

Do your students have ideas or opinions?
Surveying your students in first week, if not earlier, on access needs and concerns about synchronous and/or asynchronous activities could help inform your decisions. Click here to see a sample student survey developed by UMass faculty member Lynn Phillips.

How can you build in flexibility?
Keeping students engaged throughout the semester means they have multiple opportunities to interact with the instructor, the content, and with each other. Students need to feel seen and heard if you want them to be engaged. If one of your primary ways of creating these interactions is through synchronous class meetings, think about how students who cannot attend the session “experience” those interactions. If you decide that synchronous engagement is your primary mode for collaboration and discussion, consider how you can build in asynchronous engagement opportunities that are equally appealing to your students who might experience issues with access.

What aspects of the course should contribute to a grade?
It’s always effective to connect your assessments back to your learning outcomes. Consider whether every engagement activity should count towards a student’s final grade, or if some activities could be optional (particularly the attendance of those synchronous sessions if students have trouble with access). If you decide to provide students with a choice on how they would like to engage (e.g., attending a synchronous zoom review session or posting in a discussion forum), consider how (or if) you would like to track their participation in Moodle or Blackboard.

For More Ideas on Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities

CTL Keep Teaching Pages

External Sites

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at ctl@umass.edu.

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References

Giesbers, B., Rienties, B., Tempelaar, D., & Gijselaers, W. (2013). A dynamic analysis of the interplay between asynchronous and synchronous communication in online learning: The impact of motivation. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(1), 30-50. doi:10.1111/jcal.12020

Johnson, G. M. (2006). Synchronous and asynchronous text‐based CMC in educational contexts: A review of recent research. TechTrends, 50(4), 46-53. doi:10.1007/s11528‐006‐0046‐9

Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: A review of the literature. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23-32.