Why Asynchronous Strategies?
For equity and accessibility, Brown instructors are asked to prioritize asynchronous instruction for Spring 2020. Asynchronous strategies -- which allow students to complete course work or participate in discussion at different times -- offer real advantages in the remote environment. One key advantage 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 could be conceived as stand-alone activities, effective asynchronous activities create a series of dialogues between instructors and students as well as among students. This resource provides strategies for asynchronous course design and examples of concrete activities and assignments. If you encounter challenges or need assistance adapting ideas to your context, please email [email protected] to request a consultation.
Reflect on Your Essential Learning Outcomes
Before you explore these strategies, it will be useful to identify the most 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 essential for your students to learn in this course?
- In three years, what would you like your students to still know 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 are asking them to complete certain tasks. To keep students engaged with learning activities, explain the purpose of each activity and how it connects to essential learning outcomes or major assignments. For example, take the case of an assignment in which students propose questions inspired by a reading to a discussion forum. The instructions for this assignment could explain that the purpose is to help students practice thinking like a scholar in the discipline and develop an innovative research question that is well 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 want to also acknowledge “why” the assignment may be helpful for them.
Nurture Student Motivation with Clear Instructions and Guidelines
While our students may be generally comfortable with apps and other digital tools, it will be important 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, a sense of competence might 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 effective 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 the assignment, and the criteria for assessing student work (see Winkelmes, 2016). Nods to past successes in the semester, examples of the kind of work you expect, and use of familiar genres can also boost this sense of competence.
Choose Asynchronous Strategies Intentionally
Studies of students who engage in deep learning note that these students 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 most important 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 understanding with practice tests, peer feedback, and questions for their instructors.
We can create deeper 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 from that experience.While it is not necessary to include every step, the more steps of the cycle an instructor includes, the more durable the learning will be. The following sections discuss strategies that engage one or more of the processes in the learning cycle.
Focus Student Attention
Without the cues of co-presence in the classroom, it is more important than ever to direct students’ attention before they read, watch, or listen to something. These concrete experiences are the foundation of an effective learning cycle. It is useful to explain the purpose of the experience or give specific guidance on what things students should be paying special attention to or looking for. Students report greater engagement with readings when they are 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 (Middendorf & Shopkow, 2017). (A brief example of this from history can be found here.)
Specific strategies include:
- Anticipation Guides: Before viewing a lecture or starting a reading, students can be asked 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 generates their own list of questions they expect to be able to answer at the end. This can be completed as a mini-assignment in Canvas where students generate 3-5 questions before viewing a lecture and submit the answers to their questions after viewing. A video introduction can provide an overview and explain how the activity will help students practice thinking like an expert.
- 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 students' efforts on higher-order thinking. 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 be reached and switch to different cognitive processes that reinforce their understanding (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). For pre-recorded lectures, students can pause the lecture to answer the question in their notes or the questions can serve as a discussion forum activity between recorded mini-lectures. Students have been shown to be particularly engaged with these notes when they are the same kinds of questions asked on quizzes, major assignments, or exams.
Ask Students to Expand their Understanding With Discussion Forums
Discussion forums offer a helpful space to encourage students to extend their thinking about important 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 important structure for online discussions. Specific guidance for replies that asks students to extend, use, or synthesize peer posts can promote more engaged and sophisticated discussions. 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 important to provide clear instructions with a due date for initial posts (e.g., Thursday 11:59 pm Eastern Time) and at least 48 hours for replies.
- Students often make minimal posts if they see other students have made comments that are similar to their own thoughts. Selecting “Users must post before seeing replies” in Canvas is a useful means to have all students contribute to the initial set of posts. These initial posts serve as students' entry ticket 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 important opportunities for students to provide support for one another in their learning. Taking time to create or modify classroom discussion arrangements for the online environment is an important step. This 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 time to review your work before posting and ask clarifying questions when possible.”
- Instructors and Teaching Assistants can help maintain student motivation by clearly outlining how the discussions allow them to practice using knowledge and skills needed for major assignments or exams. With simple comments and questions, instructors and teaching assistants can create a teaching presence in a discussion forum. Encouraging more cycles of discussion by asking students to clarify or extend their comments is a simple, but productive technique.
- Low-stakes grading of contributions to online discussions provides one form of accountability that also signals to students that these discussions are an important component of the new learning environment. This Sheridan Center web resource includes common criteria for assessing student contributions, including online posts.
- Information on other features of Canvas Discussions and the Piazza add-on tool for Canvas can be found in the Teaching Continuity Resource Index.
Instructors and teaching assistants can contribute to students’ sense of community in the classroom by making your presence felt online, sharing humanizing personal stories, interjecting in discussion forums to extend conversations, or encouraging all students to drop in for a group virtual office hour. 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. Google Chat may offer a useful means to have casual Q&A with students in an asynchronous format (for basic instructions see this IT Knowledgebase article).
Use Writing Prompts to Deepen Learning from Readings
Rather than generating new content for students, instructors can focus on getting the most out of already assigned readings. Informal writing activities that ask students to begin with reflective observation can help them engage with readings more deeply and construct a much richer understanding of the texts. These activities can be carried out in individual learning journals (like a shared Google Doc) or in discussion posts and threaded conversation.
Developing effective prompts is key. Prompts that ask students to reflect on their engagement with and perspectives towards 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 readings more deeply.
- Approaching First Readings - describe own experience reading the text
- Confronting Ambiguity in Text - asks readers to think about contradictions, nuances
- Framing a Specific Inquiry into the Text - take a specific lens or issue to approach text
- Returning to the Text - re-read specific 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 deepen learning from readings can be found under “Examples of Writing-to-Learn Activities” on the “What is Writing to Learn?” web resource created by the WAC Clearinghouse.
Additionally, because students have diverse motivations, an important learning activity can involve asking how learning activities, assignments, or outcomes connect with their own goals and values. Research suggests that short writing activities that encourage students to explain a concept of their choosing from recent material and discuss why they think it is important for themselves or their community enhance learning and help you identify new ways to make material relevant to your students (Harackiewicz et al., 2016).
Nurture Student Motivation with Assignments and Assessments
Offering students opportunities for autonomy, such as choices around how they will interact with material or demonstrate their learning, is an engaging strategy in all circumstances. In cases of adverse experiences and traumatic events, people often confront a sense of helplessness that generates additional challenges (Marquart et al., 2019). Empowering students so they can make certain decisions that matter 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 during the significant disruption of the pandemic.
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.
Other suggestions for asynchronous assessments and assignments can be found in Sheridan’s guide, Inclusive Approaches To Support Student Assignments in Times of Disruption.
Give Targeted Feedback
Feedback is one of the most important 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. For other activities or assignments, feedback on individual student work is more appropriate.
To manage your workload effectively, we recommend separating feedback and precise grading. Instructors will want to focus feedback efforts on smaller assignments and drafts when students are still developing their understanding and skills. Detailed grading can be reserved for major, culminating assignments or exams. Select a narrow focus for your feedback and make clear to students that you are not providing feedback on all aspects of the text. This will help prevent students from being overwhelmed by feedback 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 be providing detailed feedback on grammar or mechanics, but I may note areas where the language is unclear.”
When you take time to provide feedback, it is worth taking the additional step of creating an activity or assignment that asks students to review and reflect on your feedback with the goal of identifying priorities for their attention and improvement on future assignments. For example, students can write learning journal entries or individual assignments reviewing their strengths, areas for improvement, and plans for their next assignment or draft.
Peer feedback offers another strategy to provide timely feedback. In addition, students gain insights from reviewing other students’ work that can improve their ability to assess their own performance. Specific guidance on how to give feedback not only improves the quality of the feedback, it also promotes a supportive learning community. Bill Hart-Davidson (Michigan State University) offers the describe–evaluate–suggest framework as a simple structure for peer reviewers to follow (Designing effective reviews, n.d.).
- Describe - say what you see as a reader.
- Evaluate - explain how the text meets or doesn’t meet criteria established in the prompt.
- Suggest - offer concrete advice for improvement
For more examples of how to structure peer review activities see this useful web resource developed by Eli Review.
Recognize Existing Strengths and New Challenges
The disruption of the semester and experiences with the pandemic are impacting students and faculty alike. Many members of our teaching and learning communities are facing significant stress and anxiety. We want to create and sustain a healthy learning community for our students and ourselves in the face of these challenging situations. The strategies and examples offered above are designed with this in mind.
As we transition to distance teaching and learning, you can continue the learning and sense of community that you have already built in your classes. Brown students have a number of strengths that will help them succeed in this environment. They are highly motivated and already have many of the essential skills and attitudes for self-regulated learning. In addition, they are extremely collaborative and many experience real satisfaction from supporting their peers' learning.
Likewise, the Sheridan Center has valued the thoughtful discussions we have had with many instructors over the past few weeks, as well as the innovative plans that many instructors have shared with us. We look forward to continuing these partnerships. The Sheridan Center is open and is available by email, phone, and Zoom. Please contact [email protected] or consult our staff directory to speak with a member of our team about how we can support your transition to remote teaching and learning.
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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.
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