3. Instructor-Student Interaction

Recommendation 3.5: Balancing Interaction
Plan how to balance synchronous (same time) and asynchronous interactions (own time) in your course. Take into account how students benefit from both forms of participation.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Use synchronous time for high-impact active learning interactions where there is a clear benefit from hearing from each other (such as to gather ideas to solve a problem or advance a project). Lecturing is seldom the best use of synchronous course meeting time. Also consider what content can be made available asynchronously. All students benefit from engaging and interacting in multiple ways both in and outside the classroom.

How to Put Into Practice

Instruction or activities can be delivered synchronously (in-person or web conference) or asynchronously (outside of class or online). To determine the best balance of synchronous and asynchronous components in your course, consider your course learning outcomes, student needs, and the potential impact on your own workload. 

Choose an approach that matches your goals

Consider your specific goals before deciding the balance of synchronous (same time) and asynchronous (own time) activities. For instance, a course that focuses heavily on oral presentations might seem to require many synchronous sessions in an online format, but the use of video recordings and asynchronous discussion spaces can provide similar practice and even more time for thoughtful analysis of peer presentations than a single, synchronous event. 

As you are developing course activities, think through questions such as: Does the activity require students to interact with you? With each other? Or is it something that could be done without coming together? What content can be made available asynchronously for students without reliable technology, in different time zones, or with other issues that impact synchronous participation.

Balance Benefits and Challenges

Synchronous and asynchronous approaches offer distinct possibilities and require attention to particular challenges:

Synchronous activities allow real time engagement and interaction, including almost anything in a face-to-face classroom, such as mini-lectures, discussions, demonstrations, problem-solving, small group activities, and so forth. Synchronous activities are often best for things such as answering questions while students complete problem sets, vigorous discussions, or office hours. Technical or scheduling difficulties (e.g, internet connectivity and bandwidth issues, learning online from significantly different time zones, or limited access to web conferencing tools in China) may cause issues with synchronous sessions. Consider recording sessions live so students can access content at a later date. See strategies and tools outlined below for more specifics.

Asynchronous activities afford more flexibility and can make it easier for more students to participate. Activities may include peer-to-peer group work, recorded student presentations, quizzes, responses to written prompts and/or discussion. Staying on track and time management can be especially challenging for students in courses with many asynchronous activities. Creating regular weekly due dates help students with these challenges.

Student Needs

Streamline your course by planning for common student needs in synchronous and asynchronous formats.

  • Provide a poll at the start of term to determine whether any students are likely to struggle with internet bandwidth or other concerns that could hinder participation in synchronous components—and to check for specific concerns about managing asynchronous components.
  • During online synchronous web conference sessions, be flexible regarding student camera use—being able to see students’ faces has benefits, but tying webcam use to grades can create equity and accessibility challenges.
  • For in-person synchronous sessions, design for flexibility in how students participate, such as by using a mix of full-class and small-group or pairs interactions, using a Minute Paper to ensure that everyone has a chance to think before you invite students to speak, setting up a queue of speakers, or by asking students to contribute to a shared Google Doc to take notes and record questions.

Large Classes

Large classes pose unique challenges for real-time interaction, whether in-person or online. Here are strategies and tools for facilitating interaction in these settings.

  • For a large in-person class, TopHat is the UW-Madison supported tool for asking questions and collecting responses electronically. Effective questions can range from simple knowledge checks to open-ended, thought-provoking questions. See technical guidance on TopHat and pedagogical strategies for using in-class polls. Google Forms can be used in a similar manner. 
  • For online synchronous sessions, consider chat, Zoom polling, or Google Forms for interaction and feedback.
  • Use the Fishbowl Discussion as a recurring structure in the course. In a Fishbowl Discussion, a small group of students (“inside the fishbowl”) is assigned to discuss a topic or prompt while the rest of the class listens actively (“outside the fishbowl”). See strategies implementing and making the most of the Fishbowl structure both in-person and online.

Additional Resources

  • Zoom in Canvas (Learn@UW): An introduction to using Zoom as the web conferencing within a Canvas course, with links to support resources and training.
  • A video tour of the platform Zoom in Canvas: This video walks through questions such as: How do I turn on Zoom in my Canvas course?; What is my “personal room”?; How do I create class sessions and what do the setting options actually mean?
  • If you are new to Zoom or are using it outside of Canvas, start with UW-Madison Zoom: Getting Started.

Background Information

What is this?

Students interact in multiple ways during their learning, both synchronously (same time) and asynchronously (own time). Both approaches offer distinct benefits and, at the same time, require planning and attention to particular challenges.

Why is this important?

Students learning benefits from regular and substantive interaction.

Synchronous activities, whether face-to-face or online, allow for real time engagement. Asynchronous activities afford flexibility and can make it easier for students to participate. Both forms of delivery can be made more meaningful through careful planning. Keeping in mind both the importance of engagement and flexibility, carefully consider the balance of synchronous and asynchronous elements of your course.

Where is this?

Depending on the size and nature of your course, both online and face-to-face courses may use learning technologies to enable both synchronous and asynchronous interaction. The main tool for synchronous interactions in-person is typically the classroom. For online synchronous interactions, the main tool is Zoom in Canvas. Tools for face-to-face include in-class polling, such as Tophat or Canvas surveys. Asynchronous options include Piazza, Canvas discussion boards, chatrooms, as well as journaling, blogging, group projects and reflective writing.

Success Factor 3: Instructor-Student Interaction

The course is designed to include regular and substantive interaction and communication between student and instructor. Regardless of modality, a fully-realized educational experience provides students with ample opportunity to ask questions, receive answers, and obtain feedback and guidance from instructors.

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