Part I: Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Instruction

Medford/Somerville, Mass. – Flowers bloom outside of Goddard Chapel (Anna Miller/Tufts University)

By Carie Cardamone, Associate Director CELT 

One of the key decisions you’ll make as you structure your course is deciding how the students will encounter the information. In a face-to-face course, we often think in terms of credit units or semester hour units (SHUs). Tufts follows the Carnegie Units, with each SHU translating into 1 hour of direct (classroom) instruction and 2 hours of indirect (out of class) instruction over a 15-week semester. An online course combines a variety of learning experiences that may contain both asynchronous (on your own pace) instruction and synchronous (live or real-time) instruction.

What do we mean by asynchronous and synchronous instruction? 

Asynchronous instructional activities don’t require anyone to be engaged in an activity at the same time as others, and they allow the learner to set their own pace. Asynchronous instruction examples include videos produced by the instructor or those curated from the web, course readings, quizzes, written assignments, discussion boards, and other assessments posted into your Canvas course modules.   

Synchronous instruction includes live virtual class meetings, where an instructor and students are online simultaneously engaging in a learning activity. Examples of synchronous instruction in an online course could include a virtual class discussion, presentation, or office hours hosted via a video conferencing platform like Zoom, or a real-time text-based interaction such as a live chat room.   

What are the benefits and limitations of asynchronous instruction? 

BENEFITS of asynchronous instruction

  • Asynchronous instruction is more easily accessed by students.  There are advantages to communicating updates and reminders through Canvas Announcements, which can be viewed immediately as an email or accessed from the course site for future reference. A short pre-recorded narrated slide-show or webcam video allows students to take ownership of their learning and access lecture content on their own schedule, easily pausing or rewatching points of interest. Rather than scripting and editing these lectures for a polished delivery, consider keeping it as authentic as you would in the classroom. Students’ cognitive engagement with formal professionally edited videos is lower, and they appreciate seeing their instructors as they would in a live classroom.  
  • Asynchronous instruction is longer-lasting.  A great advantage to creating these materials is that they can be used again in the future if you remember not to include specific deadlines or other references to the current semester.  
  • Asynchronous instruction can be interspersed with frequent, low-stakes assessment and feedback.  The asynchronous format allows you to integrate short, graded assessments such as auto-graded quizzes or written reflections directly in-between instructional activities. This holds students immediately accountable for the content and provides an opportunity for students to integrate what they are learning. With asynchronous instruction, you can schedule due dates during the week around times that you might be available to provide just-in-time interactions – for example, providing feedback via video or text, answering student questions, summarizing key ideas, or relating student contributions to past or future content. 

LIMITATIONS of asynchronous instruction

  • Students can have trouble keeping up with completely asynchronous courses. It is easy for a student to procrastinate or to struggle managing competing demands on their time. Successfully completing an online course can require more self-regulation and motivation than many students have developed. When using asynchronous instruction, it is important to be explicit and transparent about expectations: the learning purpose of each activity, its expected duration and deadlines, what good performance looks like, and how that performance will be graded. 

What are the benefits and limitations of synchronous instruction? 

BENEFITS of synchronous instruction

  • Synchronous instruction is helpful for creating connection and community.  Synchronous instruction can be an effective way to build community, allowing for spontaneous conversations and immediate feedback. Synchronous sessions increase student engagement and motivation through opportunities to visually see and interact with the instructor and peers.  

LIMITATIONS of synchronous instruction

  • Synchronous instruction is brittle.  It depends on all technology working properly. Students and the instructor may have constraints on their learning environments, schedules, access to technology and reliable high-speed internet. Some technologies may also raise security issues such as Zoom bombing, i.e., unwanted, disruptive intrusion by an uninvited individual (ETS’s recommendations for avoiding these uninvited attendees who may share unwanted content).  
  • Synchronous instruction can create concerns regarding equity and access.  In a synchronous session, it can be challenging to level the playing field for learners with different needs such as captioning, screen readers, or other supports. When using synchronous instruction, consider providing recordings or other alternatives for students who might logistically be unable to sign-into the session. 
  • Synchronous instruction can be fatiguing.  Too much synchronous instruction may require extended time periods in front of a computer, making it both mentally and physically taxing on the students (and instructor!). 

How might my 3 SHU course translate to asynchronous and synchronous instructional activities? 

Direct instructional activities can occur in the form of asynchronous or synchronous instruction. Generally, presenting new material, providing students with constructive feedback, and some types of collaborations between students (e.g., discussion forums that replace in-class discussion) can be considered direct instruction. Synchronous sessions and asynchronous media such as videos or animations are straightforward to measure: they are equivalent to classroom time. For other asynchronous activities, you can estimate the students’ engagement time; e.g., a discussion board post is typically estimated as taking 30 minutes of direct instruction time. Brief midweek check-ins from the instructor to clarify material, summarize a discussion post, or model effective peer feedback are a recommended way to use some direct instructional time providing feedback to students.

Indirect instructional activities can include assignments, preparatory work, project work, study time, and other activities that students would normally not engage in during class time. Examples include homework problem sets, term papers, student group meetings to work on a project, and textbook readings. 

Take a typical Arts & Science course with 3 hours of direct instruction (classroom) time. In an online course, this could translate to 30 minutes of pre-recorded videos, a discussion board requiring a post and reply, 30 minutes of structured peer interactions, and a 1 hour synchronous meeting on Zoom for a class discussion. These activities could be accompanied by a variety of asynchronous readings, activities and assessments making up the associated 6 hours of indirect instruction.  

Here’s what this might look like for a student’s experience online compared to a face-to-face traditional campus-based course: 

 Online Course Face-To-Face Traditional Course 
Friday-Monday View pre-recorded videos of lecture content and take a pre-class quiz Complete readings 
Monday Optional synchronous office hour with a review of or just-in-time clarification of concepts. Attend a 50-minute class  lecture  
Monday-Wednesday Complete a reading and participate in an online discussion boardPrepare discussion questions for class (Optional office hours) 
Wednesday Respond to peers discussion posts in discussion board. Instructor participates in discussion board or offers optional office hour.Attend a 50-minute class with discussion and group work time 
Wednesday-Friday Work in small groups on final projects (students decide mode of synchronous or asynchronous engagement). Submit reflections on progress towards final projects or relevant milestones from group work. Work on homework assignment (Optional office hours) 
Friday Synchronous class session with debrief highlights of discussion board and introduction to a complicated new concept Attend a 50-minute class with lecture and discussion Turn in homework assignment (e.g., problem set or short paper integrating the week’s materials). 

See Also

Part II: Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Instruction for different Instructional Formats