Asynchronous vs Synchronous: An informal comparison based on two contrasting sections of Intensive Elementary French

This past Summer, I taught two sections of the same French course during the same six-week session at a large, public R1 university. The main difference between these two sections was the mode of distribution: one was delivered asynchronously, while the other section met synchronously over Zoom for 80 minutes twice per week. I wanted to record some of my observations, in an attempt to explore some of the different student outcomes. Note that this is an informal comparison, and no personally-identifiable data are being shared.

I’ve broken down this post into several sections:

  • Course description and distribution model
  • Modifications for online distribution
  • Student population
  • Unexpected roadblock
  • Interaction and engagement
  • Grades
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions

Course description and distribution model

This Intensive Elementary French course is a condensed version of the first-year French sequence: Elementary I and Elementary II. It’s listed as six credit-hours, and under the face-to-face format meets for 12 hours per week for the six-week Summer session. We use Horizons 7th Edition (Manley et al., 2019), along with the publisher’s online portal, which includes hundreds of auto-graded activities to accompany the textbook.

Since this course was taught online, I used the institution’s LMS, Blackboard. I broke the course down into 12 modules: one for each of the 11 chapters of the textbook, and one for a final presentation on a francophone country. Each of these modules accounts for an equal portion of the final course grade–each module was worth 100 points. Graded items in the modules include:

  • Activities from the online portal (20pts),
  • Auto-graded quizzes from the online portal (20 pts),
  • A discussion assignment mediated through either Blackboard’s forums or VoiceThread (20pts),
  • A wrap-up assignment (either written or spoken) which synthesizes forms and themes from the module (20pts),
  • A partner chat activity (partners change every week) (10pts), and
  • A brief reflection paper where students are encouraged to critically examine their language-learning journey (10pts).

For the synchronous course, mandatory attendance in our biweekly, 80-minute sessions accounted for 20 points, which replaced the auto-graded quizzes. Students were still encouraged to use the quizzes to assess their own progress.

For some modules, students had a choice for the wrap-up assignment: an individual assignment, a group assignment, or a live chat over Zoom with me. Partners for the partner chats were assigned weekly, but students had the option to form their own groups for the group assignments. Students were given Blackboard tools to reach out to their classmates by email and to use the forums to facilitate collaboration.

The final project module was broken down into smaller pieces:

  • Choose a country (5pts),
  • Find 3 reputable sources (15pts),
  • First draft (20pts),
  • Review 2 peers’ first drafts (20pts),
  • Final draft with peer feedback incorporated (25pts)
  • Reflection paper (15pts)

The course followed a schedule of two modules per week, with each module taking an approximate 7-10 hours of work (including estimates for ungraded activities).

Modifications for online distribution

In order to best serve remote students, I made the following modifications:

  • I provided pre-recorded, virtual tours of our online course platforms
  • I provided a pre-recorded self-introduction video
  • I offered student hours (office hours) by appointment in order to be flexible for students in other time zones
  • I constantly reminded students to take advantage of office hours
  • I posted announcements at least once per week, usually twice, sometimes in video format
  • I included a step-by-step checklist, along with time estimates for each activity, for each module
  • Modules followed a consistent format and schedule

Both sections incorporated a flipped approach, whereby students were directed to resources to learn content on their own, while class time is spent on guided practice. I did not (pre-)record lectures for content explanations. For the synchronous course, our 80-minute Zoom sessions mostly comprised of paired and group speaking activities. Some class time was dedicated to clarifying grammar which gave students a hard time, but typically 90% was spent playing musical chairs in breakout rooms with guided speaking activities.

For both sections, I maintained a policy of accepting late work for partial credit. This was to incentivize students to work on every module, as each module relies on the vocabulary and grammatical structures of previous modules. This built-in flexibility especially helps students who have inconsistent schedules due to external obligations.

Student population

As mentioned above, I taught these courses at a large, public R1 university. Note that, in this institution, all students are required to complete an elementary language sequence, regardless of major–and some majors require students complete a language through the intermediate level. That said, many of my students across both sections were non-matriculated students from other schools. Several students were professionals already working in Education.

The asynchronous class started with 22 students enrolled, and ended with 20. The synchronous section started with 13 students enrolled, and ended with 10. Two students switched from the synchronous to the asynchronous section, otherwise the enrollment changes were due to dropping or withdrawing from the course. One student neglected to do either, and did not even once sign into Blackboard during the duration of the course.

An undergraduate teaching assistant was available for the synchronous course, who attended our Zoom sessions, provided feedback on certain student assignments, and offered review sessions by appointment.

Unexpected roadblock

Approximately halfway into the six-week course, the textbook publisher’s online platform started experiencing a glitch, whereby students would stuck in a “submitting” loop when completing some assignments. I provided step-by-step instructs for my students on how to reach out with documentation of the glitch to the platform’s tech support. Several students cc’d me on the support ticket as requested, but I do not know if any others submitted a ticket.

According to my contact at the publisher, the glitch only impacted a handful of students, whose work was auto-graded as either 0 or submitted late. After about a week or so, tech support fixed the glitch and corrected the grades. Students in both the synchronous and asynchronous section were affected. My contact apologized profusely, and assured me that the glitch would not happen again.

Unfortunately, this glitch also coincided with unintended system-wide downtime on the platform, leaving my students unable to access not only the activities, but also the (heavily DRM-controlled) ebook. After the fact, tech support informed me that the outage lasted for under an hour, but students were sending me documentation of the outage throughout a 7 hour period (leading up a module deadline, no less!).

In order to combat the outage, I announced I would be dropping the lowest Activities grade, and extend the due date for the entire module. I figured this would alleviate student concerns about having to allocate time for the previous module during the new module to only be playing catch-up and receiving partial credit. I also knew that many of my students had pressing life concerns outside of my class, and might not have the time to go through and document whether the glitch had impacted their submissions. This way, my students would not be penalized for a server outage or a glitch outside their control, nor would they be penalized for the inability to document the glitch.

These two events happening simultaneously may have had an impact on my students’ morale and willingness to trust the auto-grading of the online platform.

Interaction and engagement

Throughout the semester, I received email correspondence from nearly every (attending) student at least once. Each section had students who reached out more frequently than others. The majority of my email interactions with students had to do with administration of the course (requests for assignment clarification, requests for extensions, etc.). A few students reached out with content-based questions, and these were most frequently from the synchronous course.

The major difference in engagement between the two sections comes down to assignment submission. The students in the synchronous course submitted most of the graded assignments, with a handful of individual exceptions. In contrast, students in the asynchronous course were much more likely to skip assignments, and even entire modules. Given that several of the graded assignments required interaction with peers (e.g. partner chat, group conversations, discussion posts), it’s possible that students in the asynchronous course were less willing to reach out to one another, and opted instead to take the 0 for the assignment.

Grades

As a result of the decreased engagement, several students in the asynchronous students failed the course, while all of the synchronous students passed with a B- or higher. Students who consistently completed assignments–even partially–according to the course schedule outperformed students who intermittently skipped assignments. Note that none of the data in this section include the one student who enrolled in the asynchronous course but never interacted with the course.

GradeNumber of synchronous studentsNumber of asynchronous students
A32
A-23
B+11
B10
B-31
C+01
C00
C-00
D+01
D02
F08
Final grades by section

The distribution of grades in the synchronous section ranges from A to B-, with an average and median grade of B+. In contrast, the asynchronous grades range from A to F, with an average grade of F and a median grade of D.

Module #Synchronous
average
Synchronous
median
Asynchronous
average
Asynchronous
median
192.197.573.392.5
282.291.069.583.0
390.097.070.387.0
476.179.055.265.3
590.090.361.072.5
676.778.052.257.0
777.576.555.464.0
888.690.045.549.0
979.179.542.041.3
1082.592.548.544.3
1170.475.059.473.0
1299.010064.494.8
Average and median module grades by section

Asynchronous students completed less work, less accurately. Only one student in the synchronous class scored less than 50% on more than one module, while struggling asynchronous students were more likely to perform poorly on multiple modules. Whenever synchronous students performed poorly on a given module, it did not form a pattern, but was rather anomalous compared to the rest of their submitted modules.

Module #Number of synchronous students
who received <50% on module
Number of asynchronous students
who received <50% on module
112
214
314
416
505
607
716
8011
9011
1019
1106
1206
Number of students who completed less than half of each module, by section

Seven (of 19) asynchronous students skipped at least one entire module. No synchronous students skipped any module. Students who skipped modules skipped between 1-6 modules, the average being 3.7 and the median being 5.0. These students skipped mostly modules from the second half of the course. Students who skipped entire modules typically displayed a pattern of low engagement, scoring below 50 (some below 30) on the modules they did start.

If we examine only the asynchronous students who did not skip a single full module (but may have skipped certain assignments), the final grades are much better:

GradeNumber of
synchronous students
Number of
asynchronous students
Number of asynchronous students
who did not skip any full module
A322
A-232
B+111
B101
B-311
C+011
C000
C-000
D+011
D021
F082
Final grades

Excluding the seven students who skipped entire modules, the asynchronous class average jumps from F to C+, and the median jumps from D to B-.

Additionally, I caught several students in the asynchronous class using translation software to complete assignments. When forwarded to the institution’s academic integrity office, they admitted to having cheated. In contrast, I found no evidence of any student in the synchronous course using translation software. Students who admitted to cheating and consequently failed the course stopped completing coursework, but did not comprise the entire group of students who skipped modules.

Up until around halfway through the course, I was consistently providing feedback to students within a couple of days of the close of each module. Perhaps exacerbated by the textbook publisher’s platform glitch, this is when I started receiving an increasing number of late submissions for assignments, and my grading schedule lagged accordingly.

Discussion

I may have dropped the ball when it came to interacting with students in my asynchronous course. For remote instruction, it’s extremely important to maintain a presence and build a sense of community in order to increase engagement–that’s why I post video announcements and contribute to VoiceThread discussions using video. None of my students, even in the synchronous section, opted to record video for discussion assignments. However, most synchronous students did have their cameras on during our biweekly Zoom sessions. It’s likely that these Zoom sessions contributed to a greater sense of classroom community, and cemented my role as instructor and guide for the synchronous class. The lack of synchronous interaction for the asynchronous class may have resulted in a barrier (despite my constant reminders to reach out to me for any questions), whereby students felt less comfortable accessing me as a resource, and less comfortable reaching out to classmates.

It’s possible that some of my students enrolled in an asynchronous Summer course thinking that it would be a quick and easy way to earn a year’s worth of language credit, unaware of the demanding workload and unwilling to heed my cautions and timelines. Some students reached out to me with time management concerns, and I provided strategies for them. But, most of the students who failed rarely contacted me–those who did contacted me long after they stopped completing work, and usually provided no explanation. I even had a couple of students attempt to submit late work after the semester ended and grades were posted. I’m hesitant to jump to the conclusion that my students all bit off more than they could chew, as some of the students who disengaged from the course did email me with explanations as to their lack of engagement. For sufficiently extenuating circumstances (in advance and well prior to the posting of grades), I provided extensions at no late penalty.

Rather than assume the worst of my students, I’d also like to entertain the likelihood that students signing up for asynchronous courses are doing so out of necessity. Most of my students were working or taking care of sick family throughout their enrollment in my courses. Since many working students have to deal with the inconsistent scheduling rampant in the retail and service industries, the time which they can allocate to completing coursework will vary week-to-week. For students in this position, it’s much easier to enroll in an asynchronous course, so they don’t have to worry about Zooming into a class, and therefore can put extra shifts on their availability. Those extra shifts can mean making rent in the high cost-of-living area near the university, or helping out family members financially impacted by the ongoing pandemic.

Lastly, time management is hard, especially for the current crop of traditional students who were raised in an era of helicopter- or lawnmower-parents, and whose schedules have been mostly managed for them by adults since they were born. The implicit accountability of the face-to-face classroom might be what some students need to keep to a schedule.

The clear distinction in grade outcomes between students who kept to the course schedule and students who elected not to submit work (or to submit what little work they did late) underscores the importance of holding oneself accountable when taking an online, asynchronous class. In other news: water is wet.

Conclusions

My main take-aways from this comparison are thus:

  1. We need to make sure that students fully understand the demands of a Summer course, especially one which condenses a 30-week sequence into 6 weeks; and
  2. I need to make more of an effort to reach out to my asynchronous students.

In every correspondence, I encouraged my students to reach out with any questions, comments, or concerns. In my syllabus, I suggested that they arrange a meeting with me during student hours just to establish an open line of communication. Maybe they didn’t read the syllabus, maybe they didn’t want to feel foolish asking a question by email, or maybe they didn’t want to impose on my time by trying to schedule a Zoom meeting. Whatever the reason, I never once saw the face of a student in my asynchronous class, and they only saw mine in pre-recorded videos. 100% of the communication between me and my asynchronous students happened, well, asynchronously. For some students, it clearly didn’t impact them, but others, I suspect, could really benefit from an accountability check-in.

I typically prefer to meet with students for weekly 1:1 conversational practice, but this is not really practicable when I have 30 students across two sections for a class that only lasts 6 weeks, and only one TA who’s only responsible for the smaller class section. Even if I met with five students a week, for a total of one chat, there’s no real way for me to conduct (what would typically be) 15-minute conversations in an equitable way–students whose conversation session would take place during the first week would only be expected to display a very limited range of content mastery compared to students who would meet with me during the sixth week.

For the six-week asynchronous course, scheduling one required accountability check-in (in English–rather than a graded French conversation practice session) might improve student engagement. A short (5-15 minute), informal chat about their reasons for taking French and any questions they have so far could go a long way for building rapport. Students in the asynchronous course would then be expected to meet with me synchronously, but this would be a relatively small imposition, as they would only have to meet with me once.

Another avenue for accountability would be the learning reflection assignments. These are my way of increasing metacognitive awareness in my students, to get them to think critically about their language learning and study habits. They also give me some insight into what strategies my students are using to tackle the challenges of learning a new language. The prompts reflect the linguistic and cultural content of the course, but I think students might also benefit from some introspection into their time management skills. Adding questions targeting their time management strategies would enable me to provide actionable feedback for struggling students. However, many of the asynchronous students skipped the reflection assignments, and I can’t check whether my students have actually read my feedback on them. There’s also no practical advice I could give to help my students who are forced to work odd hours at two retail/service jobs to cobble together enough to pay rent in their roomshare. Neither meal-prepping nor morning meditation can add enough hours to their days.

I try to be mindful of the skills my students might be lacking which are otherwise assumed of them. I recorded video tours of Blackboard for students who don’t know their way around a computer, who have never used an LMS, or whose professors don’t use all the functionality I take advantage of. I expanded my syllabus to be more friendly to first-generation students. When I taught in a low-SES high school, I had to teach my students how to take notes on their own (fill-in-the-blank note packets were all the rage).

Although most of my students this past Summer had taken online courses before, I had no clue how many of them were familiar with asynchronous delivery. I also don’t know how many of them would have been prepared for a six-week Summer version of a 3-credit course. My syllabus for this Summer included several warnings about the pacing and the workload for the course, and about the importance of time management, but some students still fell through the cracks. All I can do going forward is try to monitor their time management strategies and offer assistance where I can.