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Keeping Students Engaged in Asynchronous Lectures

Faculty Fellow Claire Gordy. Photo by Katie Harris.
Faculty Fellow Claire Gordy. Photo by Katie Harris.

During the shift to emergency remote instruction, online teaching became synonymous with synchronous Zoom sessions, and active learning became synonymous with breakout rooms, polls and reactions, and the chat box. But online learning has been around much longer than COVID-19 and Zoom, and innovative instructors have spent the past two (or more) decades developing active learning pedagogies for the asynchronous online environment. What makes the learning active or passive is not the modality (Zoom vs. pre-recorded videos vs. text-based lessons), but the structure of the lesson the instructor creates.

A large part of the appeal of Zoom is that it “feels” for many instructors most similar to an active, engaged classroom, and when used effectively, it provides opportunities for interaction and the ability to check in with students, both about their understanding, and their well-being. Online synchronous learning also presents similar drawbacks to in-person teaching – just as students can blend into the background in a large-enrollment course, they can turn off their cameras, and just as it’s easy to miss something important during an in-person lecture, the same can happen over Zoom.

Asynchronous online learning has some advantages over synchronous learning – most importantly, increased access. Course materials (videos, reading assignments, activities) are available online, and students can return to them at any time, removing the concern of missing a lecture, or even missing one really key slide. My students report that they sometimes watch a video multiple times, adjusting the speed to quickly skip over parts they understood the first time and slow down where they need a little more time. 

In addition, asynchronous videos allow for accurate captioning. Accurate captions are legally required for students with certain disabilities, and are an important learning tool regardless of disability status – of the 135 students in my online Molecular Genetics course in Spring 2022, 40 mentioned captions as an access need. Pre-recorded videos, along with lower-bandwidth learning materials like text and images, are also easier to access than live video streams for students with limited internet access.

Despite these advantages, a perception remains that asynchronous courses are not active. There are more examples of asynchronous active learning than I can provide here, so I will simply explain a method that I think will appeal to instructors who have found a comfort level with providing short lectures interspersed with breakout room activities in Zoom. This method is based in part on the “handouts with gaps” technique that many NC State instructors may be familiar with from Rich Felder and Rebecca Brent’s work.

Each week, I provide students with a module that has the same structure: a series of short Panopto videos with embedded questions and a single Google Doc “Guided Notes” document that pairs with all of the videos for the week. Neither the embedded questions nor the Guided Notes are graded assignments – they exist to structure the content for the week, help students know what they should be focusing on (and help them to stay focused!), and prepare them for a formative assessment at the end of the week. This is a relatively basic strategy, but simply providing this Guided Notes document transforms the series of videos from something to passively watch or halfway listen to while doing the dishes to something that the students back up and rewatch when they don’t understand something. (I know that they do this through the Panopto video statistics.)

So what do these Guided Notes look like? I’m sharing an example of the document I used for the first week of Molecular Genetics in Spring 2022, along with one of the videos that pair with this Guided Notes document. Some parts of this document simply provide structure for note-taking — tables that need to be filled in, a list of items that needs to be completed, or in some cases, a blank area prompting the learners to take notes on a specific concept.

In addition, the document contains many of the same images used in the slides – meaning that students don’t have to spend their time trying to redraw the images, but can instead annotate them. Many of these images are partnered with a series of detailed questions. Because my asynchronous classes are structured nearly identically to my face-to-face classes, I typically discuss a topic, process, or molecule for a minute or two before posing a question. In these recorded lectures, I pose a question, and ask students to use their Guided Notes document to answer the questions related to the image we are discussing. The video then pauses, and when they have finished the questions in their Guided Notes, they have to answer an embedded question to resume the video and access the discussion of the answers.

When I present this strategy to other instructors, they often ask me the same four questions:

  • How do I know this works? In Molecular Genetics, the evidence that students are staying active in the course material comes from Panopto video statistics. The evidence that they are learning comes from their weekly formative assessments, and the evidence that they are engaged and interested comes from their reflective writing. 
  • What motivates the students to complete the Guided Notes if they are not graded? The Guided Notes have to provide a benefit to the students. In my course, they are intended to help students complete the formative assessments each week. This may look different in different courses, but quizzes, writing assignments, or other activities on which students can use the Guided Notes and on which you expect the students to perform better if they have completed the Guided Notes will provide motivation.
  • Is it okay to use the Guided Notes as a graded assignment? Yes! I do this in other classes, in which the Guided Notes have much more open-ended questions that I want to be able to provide feedback on.
  • How much time does this take? I can’t provide an exact amount of time, as it really depends on your learning objectives and the lengths of your videos. Some ways that I have found to save time are to always write a script before recording (it seems counterintuitive, but always saves time in the long run), to apply for a captioning grant to ensure my captions are accurate without needing to spend a lot of time doing it myself, and to engage an undergraduate teaching assistant in helping me to create alt-text for the numerous images in my slides and Guided Notes documents. While creating a course with this structure does require effort up front, teaching the same course in subsequent semesters becomes easier, as most materials are ready and only need small changes, allowing the instructor more time to interact with students via email, forums, or synchronous course meetings. 

This approach can be adapted in many ways — it can be paired with media other than videos (including readings, podcasts, or even online simulations). The key to success in using Guided Notes to structure asynchronous learning is simply to focus on the alignment between the Guided Notes and the learning materials, and between the Guided Notes and assessments.