Confused about synchronous and asynchronous learning and how you can promote higher-order thinking skills in your classes? Then this is the post for you!
I’m going to try to explain this confusing topic as simply as possible without a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo.
The first thing we need to understand is Bloom’s taxonomy.
This is where the whole idea of “higher-order thinking skills” comes from. What Bloom’s taxonomy does is standardize what learning actually is into a hierarchy of six levels of thinking from simple to complex.
The six levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are:
- Create: Highest order thinking skill where students produce new work.
- Evaluate: Students can argue or defend a position.
- Analyze: Students can compare and contrast different ideas to decide their worth.
- Apply: Information can be applied to different situations.
- Understand: Students can describe information in their own words.
- Remember: Lowest order thinking skill of memorizing and repeating.
It describes the process, in other words, how people go from knowing nothing about something to being able to understand the concept well enough to create something new with it.
And yes, I lied about not using academic mumbo jumbo.
You also need to understand a little bit about synchronous vs asynchronous learning.
Asynchronous learning is performed outside of class preferably with some sort of data collected by the teacher that can then be used to streamline feedback in the next synchronous session. If you’re not sure what I mean by collecting data, have a look at my asynchronous learning is not homework article to learn more or take a peek at my easy solution for collecting student data.
Synchronous learning means pretty much the same thing as your traditional classroom although now it might be on some sort of web conferencing tool.
The strength of synchronous learning is social interaction.
Social constructivism in group work allows students to stretch their cognition while being scaffolded both mentally and emotionally by the other group members.
Learners are also able to get feedback from the teacher quickly in synchronous sessions, and the teacher can gauge student understanding using visual cues.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to the good stuff.
Asynchronous is for students’ lower-order thinking tasks and where the teacher checks for understanding.
Asynchronous activities are for the boring stuff.
It’s the basics of remembering, understanding and applying new information.
This could be tasks like reading a passage, learning new vocabulary, answering multiple-choice questions, writing a summary, or responding to a prompt.
Lower-order tasks are boring and a waste of synchronous class time.
Memorizing vocabulary, answering multiple-choice questions, and writing a few sentences silently are not exactly the most stimulating uses of live synchronous class time.
Wouldn’t it be better to have students do these sort of monotonous tasks on their own time with the help of technology?
The answer is yes. It is better.
Using technology, data can be collected from asynchronous activities to streamline feedback and identify gaps in knowledge.
By checking the data from students’ asynchronous activities, the teacher can identify the biggest gaps in knowledge and plan their feedback accordingly.
While this feedback is valuable, it is not the focus of the class and the majority of time should be dedicated to setting up some sort of interactive activity, where the students can use the higher-order thinking skills.
To sum up so far, in their asynchronous time, students are doing the boring lower-order stuff, then the teacher gets a little data from that, and uses it to get better feedback and to design an appropriate activity for the students to practice higher-order skills.
Play to student strengths when designing synchronous higher-order thinking activities.
One tip I would give is when you’re designing this activity is to play to the students’ strengths in their understanding.
Don’t pick something that they’re really weak on, because they’re not going to be able to use higher-order thinking skills if they don’t have a strong basic understanding of the new knowledge.
I usually never base the higher-order activity on the main issues that I gave feedback on. Instead, aim it toward an area that students have already demonstrated some proficiency in remembering, understanding, and applying.
In short, don’t throw a curveball and expect them to hit a home run.
Evaluate students based on process, not performance.
This is a hard one to get used to!
In traditional face-to-face learning, teachers will often evaluate the students based on their performance because students usually know what to do in a face-to-face class as there’s no barrier to them successfully completing whatever the task is.
In blended courses or online classes, it’s not always clear for the students how to move forward in an activity because there is that extra layer of technology and distance between them and the other learners as well as their teacher.
Additionally, the way the group works together is just as important as their overall performance in the activity.
Part of the higher-order thinking skills is, students are going to have to be able to communicate their ideas together.
Most of the time this is going to be really messy.
It doesn’t always go that well, but if it some aspect of the task is a little bit better than before then that’s an improvement.
You have to encourage any sort of growth you observe, whether it be socially, emotionally, or organizational.
Synchronous sessions are where students analyze, evaluate, create, and REFLECT.
Again, you’re evaluating based on process so:
- Did they engage and move forward as a group?
- Was there a misunderstanding of the information?
- Can they reflect on why they misunderstood?
- Did they work well together as a group?
The students may completely miss the mark in terms of performance, but reflection is a powerful tool to make them aware of what caused the issue in the first place.
If the group didn’t really work well together, can they learn from that?
I use a reporter system for each group, where one person reports to the teacher what the group talked about and how well the group worked together.
This is an efficient way to communicate with multiple groups without eating up too much class time.
The point I’m trying to hammer home here is that taking this opportunity to allow students to reflect, in a non-judgmental way, will raise their awareness of problems and allow them to make adjustments that can result in more productive group work as the course goes on.
It’s a lot of information, but if you can figure this one out – your students will start to thrive.
By removing the boring, lower-order thinking activities from our live class time, we can focus on fostering students’ higher-order thinking skills while scaffolding their cognition via social interactions during group work.
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