I remember my shock the first time I was working with one of my fourth-grade students who spent most days working asynchronously — on his own — at home during the pandemic. He had completed all the online lessons assigned to him and came to school to take a multiplication test in person. Of the 20 problems on the test, he got none correct. Since this was a student who had started the school year with a solid set of math skills, I expected him to be successful, but he simply had no idea how to multiply.
He could follow the directions on the self-paced lessons enough to receive credit, but he had not learned the skill. Then, when we moved on to division and fractions, the same thing happened — he passed the learning modules without really grasping any of the material. When he came to work with me in person, however, we reviewed the concepts and there was a clear and fast difference in his ability to understand them. He grasped a lot more.
To meet the needs of my fourth-graders during the pandemic, I had provided my students with multiple options for math instruction: synchronous in-person, synchronous online and asynchronous online. Synchronous in-person students received instruction in the classroom with me and completed their work online, with my support, in real time. Synchronous online students received instruction through Zoom and Nearpod with me. They completed practice problems online with me offering feedback and did lessons on their own as well. Asynchronous online students received instruction via video. They did not interact with me personally and worked through lessons on their own.
I was interested in the role that asynchronous learning could play in their learning, so I ran a study to see how it would affect my students.
I developed this study as a member of the Teacher Run Experiment Network, a group of educators devoted to answering their most pressing questions through research. The Learning Agency Lab assisted my research through workshops on experiment design, data collection, data analysis and one-on-one research support.
The formation of the network was timely, given COVID-19 and the sudden shift to remote and hybrid learning. As teachers, we are often asking “What works?” and COVID-19 only raised more questions, especially around learning environments and the role of the teacher.
There is also a bigger movement around teacher-driven research, which can leverage the knowledge of those who work most closely with students and lead to faster results from research in order to impact instruction. One example of this can be seen in a study done by Bill Hinkley, a math teacher who uses ASSISTments, an online math tool to explore how the use of pencil and paper to solve math problems affects his students. The results suggested that pencil and paper seem to be more effective than online tools for students learning math.
As I navigated through the new world of remote teaching during the pandemic, I was interested in the role that asynchronous learning could play in my students’ learning. Did they always need me to provide feedback? Was it possible that some students could work independently using online programs that will give immediate feedback to their work?
The data I collected provided a clear answer: No. My study showed that synchronous learning led to better outcomes overall. My students who worked asynchronously generally performed worse than their peers who received instruction from me in real time, either online or in person. The mid-range of scores on classroom assessments for in-person students was between 80 and 100 percent, while for online synchronous students, it was between 67 and 100 percent. The mid-range for asynchronous students was the lowest, at between 55 and 81 percent.
While I suspected that synchronous instruction would be more beneficial, I was surprised by how much the lack of teacher interaction affected my asynchronous students. I knew they had completed numerous lessons online, watched instructional videos, completed practice problems and used a program with assistive technology to help clarify misconceptions. Still, it was as if they had not done any of this at all.
My students’ relationship with me seemed to positively influence learning, and this was one of the missing pieces for my asynchronous students. I noticed that students who were learning in real time with me were more invested in the outcome. They were visibly happy when they did well and frustrated when they didn’t succeed. If students worked asynchronously, I saw less investment. When they interacted with me personally, they put more effort into their work.
Of course, it makes sense that students give more attention and effort when they are being held accountable by a teacher who knows them. It also makes sense that students ask more questions when working synchronously and therefore have more opportunities to receive feedback. Asynchronous learning seemed to promote passive learning behaviors in my students.
I do think there is a place for online platforms and that asynchronous learning can be beneficial in some contexts, but I would need to do more research on how to make that approach more effective. In future research, I might look into different options for delivering asynchronous instruction, like including a writing component.
The pandemic upended schooling for millions of students and teachers. Some have predicted that there’s no turning back from the infusion of technology that the pandemic forced on schools. However, the data from my research makes clear to me that the teacher will always be at the heart of learning.
Krystal Clifton is a fourth-grade teacher in Illinois’ Kankakee School District.
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July 24, 2021 at 01:40PM