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Asynchronous and/or Synchronous Instruction

October 29, 2020

One of the key decisions that instructors need to make when preparing to teach remote or online is how the instructional sessions will be formatted. You might hear this choice framed as synchronous vs. asynchronous, or real-time vs. record-and-review. The most effective courses combine use of both methods, which allows you to take advantage of the affordances that each modality provides. 


Definition: Occupying the same virtual space as the students, but at different times

Practically speaking, asynchronous instruction typically involves providing information for the students, then asking the students to do something with that information. It can be very effective for concepts or topics that the students might want to think deeply about, or re-watch/re-read, or even do their own investigation before interacting with others. It is the most flexible format. However, students need to be sure they have the necessary time management skills to ensure nothing gets missed.

Samples of Asynchronous Instructional Activities 
Each class will have different types of asynchronous activities that help students attain the learning objectives for a given week. Below are some thought-provoking ideas. Consider using these concepts to craft learning activities appropriate to your field / class. 

Watch & Respond

Students watch a ~10 minute pre-recorded video and then respond to a series of questions. The questions can be in the form of a quiz (only the instructor and students will see the students’ response) or a discussion (all students and instructors will see all responses).

Social Annotation of Reading Material

Provide a research paper or other written piece of work that students read and comment on. This can be done using a tool like Perusall. 

Find Related Image / Link

Provide a prompt related to topics in a given week, and ask the students to find an image, video, or webpage that relates. Ask the students to share their findings on a discussion board, and clearly articulate how the item relates to the topic.

Research & Report

Pose a question that requires students to undertake some research (e.g. find data and interpret, identify a research article, etc) and share with the rest of the class. Consider including a requirement that students must post new findings (e.g. if someone else posted your article before you got to the discussion board, you have to find another article). 

Group Project

Formulate groups early in the term, and ask the groups to work with each week’s material, and submit a deliverable. Some examples might include a video demonstration of important skills, infographic showing how specific concepts relate to each other, written explanation of important terminology, a presentation showcasing research products, response to a case study, etc. 


Definition: Occupying the same virtual space as the students, at the same time  

In this modality, you have an opportunity to see and hear students in real-time. This provides affordances for conversation, working through problems together, and active learning types of activities. A Zoom synchronous session is very different from a classroom lecture. The dynamics of presentation, non-verbal feedback, presentation, and the very real challenge of Zoom-fatigue should be incorporated into plans for an instructional session. 

Samples of Synchronous Instructional Activities 

Socratic Method/ Discuss Materials

Instructor poses a question or provides a thought-provoking prompt and asks the students to respond. The response could come in the form of chat, audio, or video.

Interviews with Experts

The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to connect with colleagues across the globe. Many of the experts are also sequestered at home and might be willing to join your synchronous session as an expert speaker. Consider letting the students know who will be joining you, so they can do some prep work beforehand. You might also consider asking them to pre-submit questions, so you can manage the Q&A portion of the interview. 

Demonstration of Tool or Resource

There might be specific websites or software tools that you frequently use a part of research and work in your discipline. You could share your screen in Zoom and walk the students through common processes. Be sure to “think out loud”, so students can benefit from your thought process. You might even pause at specific times, and ask the students what they would do if they were working through the process. 

Active Learning

The synchronous sessions could be broken up into a combination of instructor presentation and students working through specific tasks. This type of combination within a single synchronous session is the virtual version of active learning. So, for example, perhaps you provide some basic terminology and theory, then present a problem. Ask the students to work on their own for a few minutes, then bring them back together to share their findings. There are a wide variety of resources of active learning techniques that are applied to the virtual environment: 

Break-Out Exercises

Zoom provides the capability to separate the entire group of participants into smaller groups for the purposes of peer learning and learning activities. There are three types of groups that you can create: 

  • Randomized
  • Pre-Assigned
  • Self-Select

Once in the breakout rooms, you can have the students working on a specific task. 

Tip: Consider creating a Google doc or slide, that contains activity instructions and space for each breakout room to document their discussion and/or findings. Send the link to this publicly editable Google doc or slide before initiating breakout rooms and ask the students to collaboratively edit the document in real time. This provides the instructor with a mechanism to monitor activity in all breakout rooms at once, without having to dip into individual breakout rooms. 


While the entire class is sharing the same virtual space, you can moderate a debate between students. Consider allowing the students to sign up for a position well in advance using Groups in Canvas, then have the groups prepare an argument to present in class. The level of debate formality is up to you.


An Important Distinction  

When students come to a physical classroom, we can control the environment. We can ensure wireless accessibility, we can control who comes into the space and who does not, we can minimize distractions and provide a safe space for learning. When students connect to a synchronous session, we have little-to-no control over these same factors. This means some of our students will need to leave cameras off, or perhaps even log-off or not attend at certain times. These constraints must be recognized and accounted for in the course design. 


Providing Reasonable Alternatives

There are a variety of legitimate reasons a student might not be able to join the synchronous session and participate in real-time. This could include incompatible time zones, environmental conditions (e.g. family, roommates, lack of “private” space), technical limitations, and illness. To help facilitate quality learning and student success, UC San Diego strongly supports instructors providing reasonable asynchronous alternatives to synchronous sessions when needed. 
The goal is to craft an equitable instructional experience for those students who cannot participate in real-time, so they have access to similar opportunities for learning. The key for instructors is NOT to create a new learning activity – but to repackage the synchronous activity for an asynchronous modality. 
Here are the basic steps involved in this process: 
  • Identify the goal or purpose of the activity
  • Connect that basic interaction with one or more tools in Canvas
    • Assignment: Given a prompt, submit a deliverable (e.g. written, multimedia). 
    • Quiz: Given a set of questions, submit responses to the entire set of questions.
    • Discussion: Engage in conversation around a specific prompt or topic. 
    • Group: Collaborate with a small set of other students in the course
  • Create the activity in Canvas and invite students who were not in attendance to participate virtually

 Sample Synchronous Activities Transitioned into Asynchronous Activities

Socratic Method/ Discuss Materials

Take the questions that were prepared for the synchronous session and turn them into a Discussion in Canvas. Have the students watch the recording of the class and engage in the discussion.  

Interviews with Experts

Have the students watch the video of the interview, then write a reflection. What did they learn? What did the interview inspire them to learn more about? 

Demonstration of Tool or Resource

Ask the students to watch and work along with the video. Provide a Canvas assignment in which they can submit their own output of the demonstration. 

Active Learning

The transition to an asynchronous activity will vary greatly with active learning activities. If you would like help strategizing about how to transition active learning to a task for students to complete on their own, please let us know! 

Break-Out Exercises

Organize the students into groups, and have them work through the activities that you assigned to the breakout rooms. Have the students submit the output of the activity on Canvas.  


Utilize a Canvas discussion to host the debate. Let the students know that you expect them to post an original argument (e.g. response) and respond to two other arguments. 

Alternatively, you could have the students submit an argumentative paper in defense of one of the positions.