Asynchronous strategies — provide opportunities for students to complete course work or participate in a discussion at different times — offer real advantages in the online learning environment. One key benefit is that student learning and thinking become more visible. Instructors and teaching assistants can make use of additional time to develop intentional and thoughtful feedback. These strategies also provide flexibility when activities do not work as planned.
The hallmark of asynchronous learning activities is that students do not participate at the same time. While some activities like watching recorded mini-lectures and taking online quizzes are stand-alone, effective asynchronous activities create a series of dialogues between instructors, students, and students. This resource provides strategies for asynchronous course design and examples of concrete actions and assignments. If you encounter challenges or need assistance adapting ideas to your context, please email email@example.com to request a consultation.
Reflect on your essential learning outcomes
Before exploring these strategies, it will be useful to identify the essential learning objectives or outcomes you want students to achieve by the end of the term. With a small number of these in mind, you will be able to make critical decisions and explain your rationale to your students. Consider one or more of these questions to identify those essential outcomes:
- What kinds of knowledge, skills, abilities, or attitudes are vital for your students to learn in this course?
- In three years, what would you like your students to know still or be able to do?
- What do you want your students to be able to learn on their own after this course ends?
With your essential learning outcomes in mind, you can help students understand why you ask them to complete specific tasks. To keep students engaged with learning activities, explain each activity’s purpose and how it connects to essential learning outcomes or significant assignments. For example, take the case of an assignment where students propose questions inspired by reading to a discussion forum. The instructions for this assignment could explain that the purpose is to help students practice thinking like scholars in the discipline and develop an innovative research question situated in the literature for a future research proposal assignment.
To help build this habit, remember that whenever you are telling students “what” to do, you will also want to acknowledge “why” the assignment may be helpful.
Choose asynchronous strategies intentionally
Studies show that students who engage in deep learning note that they avoid rote memorization and instead learn new knowledge and skills by processing their lectures, readings, and other experiences (Bain, 2012; Marton & Säljö, 1976). Students who do this organize information, identify the essential elements and search for holes in their understanding. They also attempt to use new knowledge for higher-order thinking by asking How, What if, and Why questions. Finally, they test their knowledge with practice tests, peer feedback, and questions for their instructors.
We can create more profound and more durable learning if we intentionally develop learning activities to follow the learning cycle proposed by David Kolb (1985; Zull, 2002). This cycle starts with (1) concrete experience (e.g., a lecture or reading), moves to (2) reflective observation, and then (3) abstract conceptualization, followed by (4) active experimentation, which can initiate a new cycle based on the experience of receiving feedback.
As you consider the kinds of experiences students will have in your courses – participating in a lecture, reading a journal article, viewing a video, etc.- select asynchronous activities that deepen their learning. While it is not necessary to include every step, the more stages of the cycle an instructor covers, the more enduring the education will be. The following sections discuss strategies that engage one or more of the processes in the learning cycle.
Without co-presence cues in the classroom, it is more important than ever to direct students’ attention before reading, watching, or listening to something. These real experiences are the foundation of an active learning cycle. It is useful to explain the purpose of the experience or give specific guidance on what students should be paying particular attention to while doing the activity.
Students report more significant engagement with readings when given specific sections or pages to focus on and a purpose for the reading. Tips about how experts in your discipline read an article, a primary source, etc., are also useful (e.g., Sam Wineburg’s Thinking Like a Historian article) (Middendorf & Shopkow, 2017). Specific strategies include:
- Anticipation Guides: Before viewing a lecture or starting a reading, ask students to take a minute or two to generate an anticipation guide (Major et al., 2016). Based on the previous content, the main topics, and keywords, each student creates a list of questions they expect to answer at the end. Students can complete this as a mini-assignment in Canvas, where students generate 3-5 questions before viewing a lecture and submit the answers to their questions after seeing it. A video introduction can provide an overview and explain how the activity will help students practice thinking like experts.
- Guided Notes with a Twist: Basic guided notes are outlines or lecture slides with missing words or content that students complete during a lecture (Major et al., 2016). A modified version focuses on students’ higher-order thinking efforts (see Revised Blooms Taxonomy page). The shared document includes the lecture agenda, key definitions, and spaces for note-taking, plus targeted questions that ask students to apply, compare and contrast, elaborate, or make connections (Golas, 2018). These questions provide great moments to pause a lecture when students’ cognitive load may react to different cognitive processes that reinforce their understanding (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). For pre-recorded lectures, students can pause the video to answer the question in their notes, or the questions can serve as a discussion forum activity between recorded mini-lectures. Students are mainly engaged with these notes when they are the same questions asked on quizzes, significant assignments, or exams.
Discussion forums offer valuable space to encourage students to extend their thinking about major ideas, apply critical thinking practices to new contexts, or use emerging skills to address new problems or situations. Clear instructions for initial posts and subsequent replies provide an essential structure for online discussions. Specific guidance for responses that asks students to extend, use, or synthesize peer posts can promote more engaged and sophisticated conversations. Suggested practices for asynchronous classroom discussions include:
- The Discussion Tool in Canvas provides a straightforward means to create online discussion forums. The goal is to generate a few rounds of interactions. Students can be instructed to make an initial post and then reply to a certain number of original posts by peers. It is vital to provide clear instructions with a due date for initial posts (e.g., Thursday 11:00 pm Central Standard Time) and at least 48 hours for replies.
- Students often make minimal posts if they see other students have made comments similar to their thoughts. Selecting “Users must post before seeing replies” in Canvas is a useful way to have all students contribute to the initial posts. These initial posts serve as students’ entry tickets to a discussion by demonstrating preparation. To make discussions dynamic for more students, we recommend assigning discussions to small groups (preferably 3-5 students per group).
- Discussion forums create essential opportunities for students to support one another in their learning. Taking time to develop or modify classroom discussion guidelines for the online environment is critical; see the Netiquette at ISU page. This step may involve simple guidance, like, “Continue to treat your classmates with respect and realize that important social cues can be missing in online exchanges. Please take the time to review your work before posting and ask clarifying questions when possible.”
- Maintain student motivation: Clearly outline how the discussions allow them to practice using the knowledge and skills needed for significant assignments or exams. With simple comments and questions, instructors and teaching assistants can create a teaching presence in a discussion forum. Encouraging more discussion cycles by asking students to clarify or extend their comments is a simple but productive technique.
- Use Low-stakes grading: Low-stakes grading of contributions to online discussions provides one form of accountability that signals to students that these discussions are essential to the new learning environment. *****This Brown University Sheridan Center web resource includes standard criteria for assessing student contributions, including online posts.
- Create a sense of community: Instructors and teaching assistants can contribute to students’ sense of community in the classroom by making their presence felt online.
- You may do this by sharing humanizing personal stories, interjecting in discussion forums to extend conversations, or encouraging all students to drop in for a group virtual office hour. Canvas Chat may offer a useful means to have casual Q&A with students in an asynchronous format, see the Chat Canvas guide.
- In Canvas, a dedicated Discussion topic for “Questions & Answers” that encourages students to post and answer each other’s questions can help build this sense of support.
Information on best practices, questions, and features of Canvas Discussions and the Piazza add-on tool for Canvas can be found on the Discussion Strategies page.
Rather than generating new content for students, instructors can focus on getting the most out of assigned readings. Informal writing activities that ask students to begin with reflective observation can help them engage with readings more profoundly and construct a richer understanding of the texts. Carry out these activities in individual learning journals (like a shared MS OneDrive or CyBox note) or discussion posts and threaded conversation, see Discussions Strategies page.
Developing useful prompts is critical. Prompts that ask students to reflect on their engagement and perspectives toward a text can be particularly valuable. These prompts ask students to contribute something unique and indicate that the instructor values their point of view and experience. Nicole Wallack (2009) identifies six categories of writing prompts that encourage students to engage in readings more deeply:
- Approaching first readings – describe your own experience reading the text
- Confronting ambiguity in the text – asks readers to think about contradictions, nuances
- Framing a specific inquiry into the text – take a specific lens or issue to approach the text
- Returning to the text – re-read the particular section and develop new insights
- Exploring the context of the text – consider the audience, place in scholarly conversation
- Making connections to and from the text
Asking students to engage a reading through multiple prompts can significantly deepen their understanding and help them build fluency in the language of a field. Other writing assignments that increase learning from readings can be found under “Examples of Writing-to-Learn Activities” on the “What is Writing to Learn?” web resource (WAC Clearinghouse).
Additionally, because students have diverse motivations, a vital learning activity can involve asking how learning activities, assignments, or outcomes connect with their goals and values. Research suggests that short writing activities encourage students to explain a concept of their choosing from the material and discuss its importance or help them to identify ways to make the content relevant (Harackiewicz et al., 2016).
Providing choices around how they will interact with material or demonstrate their learning is an engaging strategy. In adverse experiences and traumatic events, people often confront a sense of helplessness that generates additional challenges (Marquart et al., 2019).
- Empowering students to make confident decisions about assignments or activities can be particularly helpful in this context.
- Flexible deadlines or asking for student suggestions before making final assignment decisions are simple techniques that can be particularly helpful.
- Assignments, where small groups develop materials to teach peers new content or skills, are also highly effective. These can be low-tech products such as study guides created in Google docs or slides or more sophisticated culminating assignments.
***** Brown University’s Sheridan’s guide, Inclusive Approaches To Support Student Assignments in Times of Disruption, suggests other suggestions for asynchronous assessments and assignments.
While our students may be generally comfortable with apps and other digital tools, it will be essential to help support their sense of competence in this altered learning environment. Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) suggests three ways to shape the learning environment that will promote intrinsic motivation for our students: increasing their sense of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. For students, this way may sound like, “I understand what I need to do, and I have the skills and resources to succeed.” Clear instructions and links to accessible resources will go a long way.
It is also useful to create common structures across assignment instructions to orient students. For example, sections in your assignment instructions might address the purpose of the assignment, specific tasks to complete it, and the criteria for assessing student work (Winkelmes, 2016). Nods to past successes in the semester, examples of the kind of work you expect, and the use of familiar genres can also boost this sense of competence.
For additional information, see the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education website.
Feedback is one of the essential contributions instructors and teaching assistants can make to student learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Sometimes, general comments gleaned from reviewing all or most student work is the best way to provide feedback. Feedback on individual student work is more appropriate for other activities or assignments.
- Manage your workload effectively: Separate feedback and precise grading. Instructors will want to focus on feedback efforts on smaller assignments and drafts when students are still developing their understanding and skills—Reserve detailed grading for major, culminating assignments, or exams. Select a narrow focus for your feedback and clarify to students that you are not providing feedback on all aspects of the Text. This suggestion will help prevent students from being overwhelmed by the input and save you time. For example, “My feedback on this assignment will focus primarily on your use of evidence to support your thesis. I will not provide detailed feedback on grammar or mechanics, but I may note areas where the language is unclear.”
- Formative feedback: When you take time to provide feedback, it is worth creating an activity or assignment that asks students to review and reflect on your feedback to identify priorities for their attention and improvement on future assignments. For example, students can write learning journal entries or individual assignments, review their strengths and areas for improvement, and plan for their next assignment or draft.
- Peer feedback: offers another strategy to provide timely feedback. Besides, students gain insights from reviewing other students’ work to improve their ability to assess their performance. Specific guidance on how to give feedback not only improves the quality of the feedback but also promotes a supportive learning community. For more examples of how to structure peer review activities, see this Eli Review’s Designing Effective Review: Helping students give helpful feedback webpage.
- Options for Taking Attendance and Engaging Students During Remote Instruction (PDF) (University of California-San Diego)
- Bain, K. (2012). What the best college students do. Belknap Press.
- Designing effective reviews: Helping students give helpful feedback. (n.d.). Eli Review. Retrieved March 23, 2020, from http://elireview.com/content/td/reviews/
- Golas, J. C. (2018, April 6). Using guided notes to support student learning [Lightning Talk]. University of Rhode Island Teaching and Learning Showcase, Kingston, RI.
- Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Closing achievement gaps with a utility-value intervention: Disentangling race and social class. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 111(5), 745–765. http://dx.doi.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/pspp0000075
- Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus Publishing.
- Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1): 81-112.
- Kolb, D. A. (1985). Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall.
- Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. Routledge.
- Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning I — Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46(1), 4–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8279.1976.tb02980.x
- Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2017). Overcoming student learning bottlenecks: Decode the Critical Thinking of your discipline. Stylus Publishing.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.
- Wallack, N. B. (2009). Focused freewriting: How to do things with writing prompts. In T. Vilardi & M. Chang (Eds.), Writing-based teaching: Essential practices and enduring questions (pp. 25–52). SUNY Press.
- Winkelmes, M.A. (2016). The unwritten rules: Decode your assignments and decipher what’s expected of you. TILT Higher Ed. https://tilthighered.com/assets/pdffiles/Template.pdf
- Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Stylus Publishing.