Balancing Synchronous & Asynchronous

Synchronous instruction has grown in popularity during the recent emergency transition to remote teaching to help maintain instructional continuity while reducing social isolation.

  • Instructors and students meet online at a scheduled time from different locations using video conferencing technologies such as Zoom. 
  • Real time meetings can bring students together to discuss content, explore problems, pose questions, and work in groups. This provides a social-learning environment and immediate feedback.
  • Synchronous class sessions rely on high-speed Internet, reliable technology, and a quiet distraction-free workspace which may not be available to all students. 
  • They are generally shorter than typical in-person classes due to students’ attention span, though they remain valuable in conjunction with asynchronous activities.
  • Scheduled synchronous sessions are commonly used for virtual office hours and meetings with small groups of students.

Asynchronous instruction occurs at more flexible times, easily fitting into students’ busy schedules. Prior to our recent emergency shift to online instruction, most online courses were designed to rely heavily on asynchronous learning activities.

  • Asynchronous instructional approaches generally meet the flexibility needs and preferences of students who gravitate toward online courses. 
  • Instructors may design a sequence of learning modules including learning materials, pre-recorded lectures, and activities like discussions, group work, assignments, etc. which students can engage with in their own time within a set time frame, typically one week for a module. 
  • Designing a course with a sequence of pre-planned activities is usually a front-loaded process. 
  • Asynchronous course planning relies on the use of a variety of instructional technologies which can motivate and engage students in the learning process to interact with the content, their peers and the instructor.

Pros and Cons for Synchronous and Asynchronous

Synchronous Asynchronous
Pros Students receive immediate feedback from the instructors and peers which helps to create an online learning community. Students are provided with a higher level of flexibility which makes the learning experiences more accessible to students with varying learning preferences and circumstances.
Cons Some students may have technical challenges if they do not have access to the necessary technology, like a laptop, webcam, or high-speed internet connection. Remaining engaged in longer online conferences can be taxing. Students lack immediate feedback from the instructors. In addition, students may feel less satisfied without real-time interactions with their peers and instructors.
Balancing Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning

How can you balance teaching online with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities? Students appreciate flexibility of doing asynchronous course work on their own time. Asynchronous course work is also more accommodating for students who have limited access to technology or a quiet working space. However, students appreciate the opportunity to meet in real-time, and doing so can build community and allow students to get immediate feedback from peers and instructors.

Ways to mix asynchronous and synchronous learning:

  • Weekly asynchronous modules with virtual office hours or virtual working sessions
  • Weekly asynchronous modules with synchronous sessions 3 times throughout the course (beginning, middle, and end)
  • Weekly asynchronous modules with one weekly synchronous class session.
  • Weekly asynchronous modules with synchronous group work (each week or periodically throughout the semester)
Synchronous Teaching and Learning Activities

Examples of Synchronous Learning Activities:

  • Live Interactive Lectures – Share video and/or presentation materials with students.
  • Live Demonstrations and Problem Solving – Live screen sharing and/or whiteboard for showing/walking through worked examples, problems, or visual explanations.
  • Live Discussions – Lead discussions using video, voice and chat (best in smaller classes under 25) or with Breakout Rooms.
  • Review Sessions – Answer questions and review content.
  • Student Presentations – If presentation as a group, please designate someone to share their PowerPoint before the start of the presentation. This will help to reduce delays.
  • Group Work and Project-Based Learning – Incorporate breakout groups and other discussion tools.
  • Guest Speakers – Prepare discussion topics, encourage students to prepare questions and/or actively engage in the sessions.
  • Virtual Office Hours and Consultations – Invite students to log in at regular times or sign up for a slot.
  • Scheduled Assessments – Timed quizzes, tests, exams or other assignments taken at the same time by all students.

Best Practices in Using Synchronous Strategies

    • Follow a consistent schedule. Keep to originally scheduled class times, but you may want to schedule shorter live sessions online than in-person class times.
    • Send out reminders ahead of time. Let students know that you are going to host a synchronous session. Post an announcement with instructions on how students will connect (URL, dial-in, passcodes). Share any session materials in advance.
    • Clearly outline the purpose of the synchronous session. Set up the expectations for your students. For example, set up a session to explain the complex concepts/problem-solving processes that may be hard to explain in an asynchronous session.
    • Do a quick social check-in at the beginning of class. Conduct a quick poll or ask students to unmute and share how they are doing.
    • Use visual tools. You can prepare a visual presentation to list the components you want to highlight. Share a presentation through a screen share.
    • Encourage student participation through the use of polls, feedback in chat, or a Q & A portion. You may also ask students to come with one burning question about the topics to be discussed. Use non-verbal feedback (raise hand, thumbs up, etc.)
    • Incorporate checkpoints/pauses for questions in chat, or audio/video comments. Pose a question and give participants a moment to write.
    • Encourage learner-to-learner interaction: Group activities could be used to promote learner-to-learner interaction. You can use group discussions, group presentations, and group sharing activities in your synchronous sessions. You may incorporate external tools such as Google docs, padlet, and more to encourage active participation in the session.
    • Use an exit ticket strategy to conclude the session by asking students to post one key take away or question they have as a result of the session. This could be done using a poll or the chat tools.

Technical Tips for Synchronous Sessions

  • Ask students to test their connection to the technology you plan to use in advance. For example, ask students to test their computer using this link:
  • Use headsets for noise and interference control. This can make a big difference in audio quality.
  • Practice using the technology prior to the session. Get familiar with how to resize windows, use chat, share your screen, manage the “raise hand” feature, manage polls, breakout groups, share files, and mute/unmute participants.
  • Mute all users to eliminate noise and allow participants to unmute themselves to speak.
  • Share your screen to show your presentation and/or other materials (see Share Screen and Screen Sharing a PowerPoint Presentation).
  • Use breakout rooms for smaller group conversations. Break out rooms (see Getting Started with Breakout Rooms and Managing Video Breakout Rooms).
  • Step by step guide from Carnegie Mellon University:
  • Set up polls for increased student participation (See Polling for Meetings).
  • Record live sessions for students unable to attend or for playback.

Additional resources:

Asynchronous Teaching and Learning Activities

Examples of Asynchronous Learning Activities

  • Pre-recorded video lectures/presentations – Use screen capturing technology to record and share a video that students can watch on their own time.
  • Discussion Forums – Have students respond to your lecture, reflect on the week’s materials, share relevant articles, and explore course topics in depth. Encourage interaction by explicitly prompting students to respond to their peers.
  • Google Docs or Slides Collaboration – Have students collaborate on the same document. They can create one product in collaboration or contribute their own piece to a larger whole.
  • Perusall – a social annotation tool – Have students collaboratively engage with text by asking questions or making comments on a course reading
  • Twitter – Encourage students to aggregate relevant resources or articles in Twitter using a course hashtag.
  • Padlet – a digital bulletin board – Provide students an opportunity to collaboratively brainstorm, share, and organize thoughts, ideas, and resources around a topic.

Best Practices in Using Asynchronous Strategies

  • Use the Module tool in Canvas to construct weekly modules that guide students through a sequence of learning activities.
  • Incorporate the following instructional elements into each module: Orientation, Content, Interactions, Assessments (this is the basis of the OCIA model).
  • Have your modules use a consistent structure each week (e.g. the OCIA model).
  • Provide explicit instructions and due dates for course activities.
  • Guide students through the sequence of activities by creating due dates throughout the week and requiring students to read content before engaging in a discussion.
  • Use the announcement tool to send 2-3 brief announcements each week: at the beginning of a module introduce the weekly focus, in the middle of the module send updates or observations on student activity, at the end of the module send a wrap-up message.
  • Use the announcement tool to give whole class feedback on weekly discussions. Draw on a couple of common themes, highlight productive tensions, or acknowledge insightful contributions.