Comparing Reflective Thinking in Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Conventional wisdom about synchronous vs. asynchronous communication says that while they both have their places in the online classroom, adult learners prefer asynchronous communication for its flexibility and that asynchronous communication allows more time for reflective thinking. However, a paper presented at the 2004 meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) contradicts these notions.

Online Classroom recently spoke with Barbara Levin, one of the paper’s authors, about these findings and their implications.

The study looked at a Web-supported classroom management course in which post-baccalaureate pre-service teachers used threaded discussion and chat in Blackboard to discuss six case studies.

At the beginning of the course, students were given a survey to determine their perceived communication preferences. The students strongly preferred asynchronous communication because of previous negative experiences with synchronous communication, familiarity with threaded discussions, and relative lack of experience with synchronous communication. Only three of the 36 students said they would prefer synchronous communication.

The survey also asked students whether they would prefer instructor- or peer-led discussions. Seventeen students indicated a preference for instructor-led discussion because

  • they would stay on task better
  • the instructor would have deeper insights and more knowledge about the cases
  • the instructor was more experienced at facilitating discussions.

The students were divided into small groups for each discussion, and they alternated between synchronous and asynchronous discussions so each student participated in three of each. They also alternated between instructor facilitation and peer facilitation.


For each discussion, students were assigned case readings. Before the discussion, each student was to write a case analysis that addressed the following:

  • What problems or issue does this case raise for you regarding classroom management and instruction?
  • Why are these problems or issues for you?
  • What are some potential problems?
  • What are the pros and cons of the solutions you are suggesting?
  • Suggest an action plan by stating what you would do first, second, and third — or — what you would do in the short term and then in the long term.
  • From your readings, what ideas or evidence can you cite that relate to this case?

In the asynchronous discussions, each student answered these questions in his or her initial posting. Students in the synchronous discussions submitted their answers directly to the instructor through the digital dropbox before the chat began. Levin told students that they could keep a copy of those answers and copy and paste them into the chat when appropriate.


At the end of the course, 17 students said they preferred synchronous communication, 15 said they preferred asynchronous. “They said [synchronous communication] was more conversational and that they liked getting that immediate feedback and a response to their ideas. It felt like a real discussion,” Levin says.

Levin also looked at students’ level of reflection. Was the depth of their understanding of the issues in the cases as good synchronously as asynchronously? Seven of eight randomly selected students had mean levels of critical reflection that were higher in the synchronous discussion than in the asynchronous discussion, “I think because they were engaged for that time, they felt like authentic conversations. I think asynchronous discussions tended to slow things down. [In the asynchronous discussion,] they didn’t really have an audience in the same way they had an audience in the synchronous discussion,” Levin says.

As for peer-facilitation vs. instructor-facilitation, the end-of-course survey showed that fewer students preferred instructor-facilitation because they had come to value their peers’ insights. Five of the 13 who still preferred instructor-facilitation by the end of the course also said they valued their peers’ ideas.


“My purpose in this course is to get students to reflect on the issues in these cases, to think about them seriously and deeply. Now I know they can do that in either format,” Levin says.

She will continue to offer students communication choices to meet their preferences but not until after they experience one asynchronous and one synchronous discussion in the course.

One modification that is required in going from asynchronous to synchronous is group size. Levin found that each asynchronous case discussion can accommodate six to eight people while synchronous case discussions only accommodate up to six. “You have to have enough participants to have different perspectives, but you have to have it small enough so everybody’s voice gets heard,” Levin says.

Also, to avoid confusion asynchronously, Levin recommends having students address each by name because sometimes there are several conversations happening simultaneously.


Levin, Barbara B., He, Ye, and Robbins, Holly H. (2004). An analysis of preservice teachers’ reflective thinking in online case discussions: A comparison of synchronous vs. asynchronous discussions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Diego, Calif., April 2004.

Barbara Levin is the director of graduate studies in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Contact her at