Arguing on Asynchronous Learning

So, I’m continuing to think about how we maintain student engagement in a primarily or entirely asynchronous online learning environment. This is going to be long, but hopefully helpful to teachers, students, and parents looking ahead to the fall semester.


Asynchronous courses are more equitable than synchronous, because they allow students who have additional work or care responsibilities to still participate fully. This may be less of a concern at elite institutions for the majority of the students, but for my own state school, research 1 university, I have a host of students who have had additional work land on them due to the pandemic.

They’ve had to take jobs to supplement family income after parents were laid off or became too sick to work, they’ve had to take on childcare responsibilities for younger siblings not in school, or for their own children when daycares / schools closed. Many of them simply cannot attend synchronous classes this fall, or can only attend 1 or 2 of them, and since financial aid is often tied to being enrolled in a minimum number of classes, asynchronous course offerings can make the difference between staying in school this fall or not.

I admit, for my own daughter, if she were an entering freshman this fall, I’d seriously consider counseling her to take a gap year and do an internship / intense volunteer project instead. But for many of my students, with different family circumstances, dropping out for a semester too quickly leads to dropping out of college entirely. So I’m arguing that if you CAN make your online courses asynchronous this fall, you should seriously think about it, for equity reasons. (It’ll be some work, I know. That’s addressed further below.)

My courses are going to be primarily asynchronous, in the sense that ALL the required work will be done when the student wants to. Although even there, I’ll add a caveat — that’s mostly asynchronous just on a weekly basis. If I assign something small, they’ll often have 3-7 days to get it done, so it’s not asynchronous over the whole semester, just over that time stretch. Every week, students (and me) should be able to tell whether they’re keeping up or falling behind, and we should be working together to catch up the ones who are having trouble. Those benchmarks are a kind of scaffolding that will be important. More on scaffolding below.

(CAVEAT: All online education (synchronous or asynchronous assumes that students have decent access to computers & WIFI; if they don’t, it is on the school to address that gap. If the gap still exists, synchronous teaching can offer some predictable times when a student can make the case that they ‘need’ a shared family device; conversely, asynchronous can offer some flexibility to do work at times when that same device is not otherwise needed.)


It’s not as simple as just offering the asynchronous elements and letting the students put in (or not put in) the optional additional time as they choose. Because of course, while some students will opt into that, others won’t, and we want to encourage students to do as much as they can reasonably do (and that they need) to support their learning goals.

I’ve only failed two classes in my life. One was a calculus class, and I can directly blame having a boyfriend for the first time, fall semester freshman year, realizing no one was making me go to class, and choosing to spend mornings in bed with him instead of dragging myself to an 8 a.m. class. Tip for freshmen: don’t schedule a class you’re not excited for at 8 a.m. if you can avoid it. My B at the start of class quickly dropped to an F by the end. (Sorry, parents. Not too sorry, though; I was in love for the first time. What can you do?)

The other was a C++ programming class, which I tried to take online, asynchronously, from Berekely’s continuing ed program when I was living in the Bay Area as a 27-year-old adult. By the third session, when it started getting difficult, my intrinsic motivation had fizzled out, and my having paid for the class wasn’t enough to keep me struggling with the assignments. I just stopped doing it, and failed out.

Without the reinforcement of in-person supports, asynchronous classes risk students losing engagement, and thereby failing. So if you’re taking out the in-person support element, I think teachers HAVE to think about how they’re planning to build in different supports for asynchronous classes.

NOTE: Not all students will need those support. Some will be sufficiently intrinsically motivated to do well regardless. (Kevin, my husband, famously coasted through Berkeley not showing up to his math classes and just coming in to take the final exam and pass with flying colors; he ended up a mathematician, unsurprisingly.) But I’m assuming here that as a teacher, you want to teach the whole class, even or especially the reluctant or challenged learners, and this is primarily geared towards supporting them.



I’ve taken / taught English / lit. classes at various levels:

– at Miss Porter’s high school and U Chicago, I was a bright kid at a fairly elite school, with high expectations for academic skills on the students’ parts

– at Mills College, I was tutoring in the writing center and TA-ing for traditional college students at a private school

– at Salt Lake Community College, I taught mostly highly-motivated returning students (who tended to do well) and students who found traditional college classes extremely challenging (who often struggled to get C’s); many were ESL learners as well

– at University of Utah, the student population was similar to Mills in many ways (though overall notably more conservative)

– at Roosevelt University, 70% of the students were the first in their families to go to college, and often had to argue with their parents to even be allowed to go to college; many found college very challenging, even though they were generally hard-working and motivated, because they were underprepared by their previous educational experience

– at Vermont College (low residency-MFA), I asynchronously taught returning students who were strongly motivated

– at Northwestern University, the undergrads were similar to my classmates at U Chicago, and possibly a little more focused on getting good grades — (for example, the entire class did not just all the reading, but also all the optional reading I assigned, for the first two-thirds of the semester)

– I also taught in Northwestern’s continuing ed creative writing program; returning adults, very self-motivated; they also did all the work, generally

– at UIC, where I’ve now been for over ten years (eep), I teach mostly traditional college students, but at an economically diverse mostly-commuter campus, and one where many of the students have outside jobs or care responsibilities (not typical of Mills / U Chicago / Northwestern residential students)

– and I’ve taught a host of writing workshops, generally single day, long weekend, and week-long sessions — again, highly motivated students, on a tight timetable and trying to get as much as they can out of it



The point I’m trying to get to here is that ALL of these student groups had different learning needs, and that means that as a teacher, I’m always going to be trying to adapt my teaching approaches to meet those needs. For one concrete example:

– as a student at U Chicago, I had upper-level English classes where my only grade was the final paper at the end of the semester; the professors were mostly able to get away with that little evaluation because the students in those classes were generally highly-motivated, and were keeping up with the reading and participating in classroom discussions

(U Chicago, I’ll note, tilts towards the ‘less support’ end of universities, since many of the faculty are more interested in their own world-class research and their graduate students / apprentices, than their undergrads. That works okay as long as those undergrads are self-motivated and not dealing with other challenges (physical and mental health issues, family crises, economic crises, language issues, etc.); otherwise, students start falling through the cracks, and at least 25 years ago, U Chicago didn’t have a lot of structure in place to help catch them before they fall too far; I knew several people in my class who either never finished or flunked out, which to me, is in large part a failure of the institution. I loved that school, but I hope they’re doing better at that now.)

– by contrast, at Roosevelt University (and this took me some getting used to, and I’d like to take a moment here to apologize to my colleagues there who had to put up with my resistance in department faculty meetings to what seemed to me at the time to be unnecessary busywork), the professors were very invested in their undergrads’ success, and knew that their first-in-the-family-to-go-to-college students needed a lot of support, what we’ll often call ‘scaffolding,’ to help them acclimate to the college environment. They needed help to understand what was expected of them in writing papers, showing up and participating in classes, doing the reading homework, etc.


That scaffolding generally shows up in a variety of ways, such as:

– reading quizzes

– 4-5 shorter papers over the course of the class instead of 1 long one at the end

– in-class and homework assignments designed to demonstrate understanding (and let professors see where there are gaps that need additional support)

– requiring that students come in to office hours early in the semester — we did this in the basic composition classes at Utah as well, cancelling a few classes early on and using that time for 10-minute student appointments in office hours, to get them accustomed to the idea, get past the intimidation of being alone with the professor (lots of potential social class-related issues here), familiarize themselves with the practice, and habituate to coming on their own later — every single time I’ve required this, it’s led to a dramatic uptick in students coming on their own to office hours later


I know some teachers reading this are going to be thinking — that’s a lot of extra time you’re asking of me, to generate all those extra assignments, to grade all those extra papers, to spend all that extra time in office hours. Yes it is, and I have a few additional thoughts on that:

a) there is a hard limit on time that correlates with how big your class size is; my best classes as a student have pretty much all been 5-12 students in the class; when it gets larger, it’s just impossible for even the most dedicated teacher to give individualized attention to every student, and if you add in students with learning disabilities or other challenges (students from poor communities with very limited access to tech and books, for example), that multiples the problem — the only real solution to this one is money, since you need to spend more money to hire more teachers and aides, to make class sizes smaller; that’s mostly beyond the scope of this piece, but I’d argue that if your university is spending a ton of money on adding fancy tech to classrooms to let them record lectures to be broadcast to students, that money might be better spent on simply hiring more adjunct faculty so class sizes can be half as big. But putting that aside for now…

b) It’s a balancing act, assessing how much scaffolding your students need, and how much time (in class or out of class) you need to give to the scaffolding; that time will necessarily come out of in-depth instruction. If 95% of your students need reading quizzes in class in order to make sure they actually read Act II, scene 3, that eats time that might otherwise go to a deeper dive into the character of Othello.

This is why we do roughly group students — why I have intro fiction students and advanced fiction students, and why I run those classes VERY differently. The intro classes have tons of exercises, for example; by the advanced level, they’re usually working on projects of their own, and don’t need the same kind of prompts. When I was teaching at Northwestern, and the students just did all the reading and the optional reading, I didn’t need to give reading quizzes, which gave us more time for discussion.

(SIDE NOTE: At our local schools, we’ve made an equity move recently to put gifted education materials into all the classrooms, rather than having a gifted ‘track’, and while I support that on equity grounds (it’s not fair that statistically, black students are dramatically under-selected for gifted programs despite many being well suited to do the work), the correlation is that unless you hire more teachers or at least aides to help with such differentiation, you won’t be able to do it as well as you might.)

c) You need (for your own sanity, and for your students’ sake) to think about how you can do additional scaffolding that DOESN’T take an unreasonable amount of time on your part. Some options:

• your first and second papers are shorter, 3-4 pages instead of 5-6, so you can grade them quickly.

• you type up a list of the five most common issues, so you can cut-and-paste them into responses (and you do that instead of handwriting responses).

• you amend your own teaching practices, putting down the compulsion to red-line their whole paper (which won’t serve them anyway; studies show that students get discouraged and stop trying when there’s too much red ink on the page), and instead focus on the 1-2 elements you’d like them to work on improving for their revision or next paper.

• more group work early on (which significantly cuts down on grading time) and yes, I know some of you are groaning at the idea of group work, but there are ways to do it well and fairly, I swear

• you have the students use a shared Google doc to generate class notes for everyone (assigning 1-2 students as rotating notetakers), freeing up the need for you to produce lecture notes in advance, giving more of them the time to engage in class discussion rather than frantically scribbling notes (I remember one freshman class where I literally could not keep up with the speed at which my music composition professor spoke, and I ended up dropping the class immediately)

• I’m sure there are ways to use tech to automate grading of quizzes, saving us time in the long run, though I haven’t used that yet myself

• there are lots more approaches, and teaching forums online are great places to brainstorm other options


I know. Revising your teaching practices isn’t easy, especially if you’ve gotten into habits over decades of teaching (I’ve been teaching for 20+ years now, so I sympathize), but changing to more effective practices can honestly:

a) make your life much easier, which will make you a happier, less stressed-out teacher, and

b) improve the quality of your teaching too, leading to better results for your students.

Right now, this summer, is the PERFECT time to invest in a serious, hard look at your teaching practices, and think about which ones really serve both you and your students. For myself, I’m putting aside a book project in order to make the time, which on one level sucks. But on another level, we’re in the midst of a global disaster, and this is not a normal time. I’m hoping that it will pay off in not just a good fall seemster, but in more effective, happier teaching for the next two decades of my teaching career (and thereby, time to write more and better books).

(And yes, if I were queen of the universe, I would insist that teachers be compensated for this massive sudden unexpected workload. At the very least, I’d like to see written acknowledgement from my university that normally, we’d get a course release for converting a course from in-person to online, a course release worth about $10K, and that if they can’t fairly compensate all faculty that amount right now, in the midst of pandemic (I know some colleges can afford it, but others are facing the possibility of closure), they should distribute as much of those funds as they can, eating into the fund balance if need be (what is the fund balance for, if not for disasters like this?).

AND they should establish that $10K / class as the baseline worth of the labor for the future, when we’re not in the midst of a global disaster. Our own UIC union is arguing hard with administration about this right now, and I strongly encourage other faculty to take this seriously, join or form a union, and organize and fight for the value of your work. Unfortunately, the neoliberal university will not simply give you fair compensation because it’s the right thing to do.

Okay, back to the work itself — for now, I’m mostly accepted that I have to put in a bunch of extra work this summer, with the hope of having a fall amount of work in the fall AND a productive and happy semester.)


So the question I’m left with is simple — how can I build scaffolding for my virtual asynchronous classes that is:

a) reasonable for me to do, mostly within the time / effort expectations of a normal semester

b) strongly supportive of my students who need or want the extra support

I’m going to be working on that in a lot more detail going forward, and will post here as I do, but I’ll give you a hint now — along with lots of asynchronous threaded discussion (like this Facebook post) and optional Zoom-like sessions, I’m going to be looking to incorporate at least some elements of gamification into my courses to help.


Here’s an example of what I mean: The graphic below is from this morning’s walk with my son — he’s been much more sedentary than usual during the last three months of shelter-in-pace, and I’ve been worried by how much condition he’s lost. So we’ve started doing an early morning walk together, and what makes it extra fun is that we’re listening to a story as we go, using the “Zombies, Run!” app.

Neither of us have any intrinsic motivation to run, especially on a humid Chicago morning while wearing masks. But you see those areas of red and lighter green and orange? That’s where the app told us that there were zombies chasing us, and we needed to run. Sometimes we ran, sometimes we jogged, sometimes we just walked a little further. But three days in, we’re already covering an extra block in the same 20-minute amount of time, and THAT is the power of gamification, that I want to try to harness for myself and my students.

One could argue that the basic point system of the semester, 100 points = A+ is essentially gamification too. But mostly, there’s very little fun in that! If we want students and ourselves to engage virtually, without the inherent pleasure and support of in-person community, then I think it’s worth putting in a little time and thought this summer on how we can structure more fun engagement in the virtual classroom (and that applies to both synchronous and asynchronous work).

Okay, before I come back with more concrete details, I’m going to go off and read some of a book that an instructional designer friend strongly recommended: Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classrooms.

(Also watch some TV, sew some more masks, putter in the garden, play some video games, read some books for pleasure, and maybe write a little something. I can’t think about teaching ALL the time, and shouldn’t.)


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