Online courses are becoming more common. This guide looks at the similarities, differences, and pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous online learning.

Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning: What's the Difference?


  • Synchronous courses feature the structure of an on-campus class without campus visits.
  • Asynchronous courses provide more flexibility for students with busy personal schedules.
  • In both online learning styles, students must actively engage with their coursework.
  • Many online courses implement a mix of synchronous and asynchronous elements.

Synchronous and asynchronous online courses are becoming more common, especially as schools grapple with a pandemic and prioritize the health and safety of students. Additionally, online courses significantly increase access to higher education, removing the scheduling and attendance barriers that make college coursework prohibitive for many working adults.

This guide defines synchronous and asynchronous learning, reviews the pros and cons of each, and looks at how these online course structures can benefit students.

Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning

What Is Synchronous Learning?

Synchronous online learning refers to remote learning that requires students to virtually attend classes at a scheduled time. Digital classrooms allow students and instructors to interact in real time. Unlike asynchronous online learning, synchronous classes have a firm, scheduled meeting time.

Learners enrolled in online, synchronous classes are typically required to complete assignments and readings in preparation for discussions. Synchronous courses may involve lectures, discussions, and student-led conversations and presentations. Online classes may involve Zoom-based lectures and discussions, interactive webinars, and chat-style online interactions.

This style of remote learning typically works best for students who can adhere to a strict schedule and attend regular classes. Synchronous learning also works well for learners who prefer the interactions that come with on-campus classes. Synchronous classes typically meet at least once a week.

Synchronous Learning

  • Class is held virtually on a regular schedule, with professors and students attending
  • Students work collaboratively outside of class time
  • Learners engage in real-time discussions during class
  • Students complete assignments outside of class in preparation for scheduled discussions
  • Classes include live lectures, discussions, and student presentations

What Is Asynchronous Learning?

Asynchronous online learning allows students to complete coursework largely on their schedule. Learners access recorded lectures and assigned readings at their convenience. These online classes often rely on email communication, online forums, and audio and video recordings. Other common asynchronous teaching tools include virtual libraries and lecture notes.

Asynchronous online learning offers students the flexibility needed to complete schoolwork while maintaining other professional and personal obligations. While coursework still has set due dates, students can go over weekly lectures and assignments at their own pace.

These online programs provide a better fit for students with busy or unpredictable schedules. Successful asynchronous learners tend to be self-motivated and can hold themselves accountable academically.

Asynchronous Learning

  • Students complete assigned work at their own pace, as long as they meet deadlines
  • Learners access recorded lectures, readings, and homework at any time
  • Homework and quizzes may be graded automatically, providing immediate feedback
  • Students communicate with instructors and students through online forums and email

How Are the Two Formats Similar?

Synchronous and asynchronous online learning are similar in that students can attend class from anywhere, regularly communicate with professors, and work collaboratively with other classmates. However, as opposed to the structured, scheduled nature of real-time synchronous courses, asynchronous classes are more flexible, and learners can complete work largely at their own pace — as long as they meet assignment deadlines.

Both styles of distance learning are common, and many courses blend the two styles.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

  • Students attend class from anywhere
  • Students and instructors are in regular communication
  • Students work collaboratively on projects and assignments
  • Both formats offer more flexibility than traditional, on-campus classes

Which Is Better: Synchronous or Asynchronous Learning?

While one format is not objectively "better" than the other, some students may thrive in an asynchronous environment whereas others may find a synchronous format a better fit. Students with a demanding work schedule often find the inherent flexibility of asynchronous coursework more compatible with their needs.

Synchronous coursework may appeal to students looking for a bit more engagement with their professors and peers. The real-time, scheduled nature of synchronous classes may also prove beneficial for students who enjoy the structure and accountability provided by an in-person class.


Synchronous Learning

Pros

  • Mimics the student/instructor engagement offered by on-campus classes
  • Gives students regular, direct access to professors, providing opportunities for discussion and mentorship

Cons

  • The rigid schedule may prove challenging for learners with unpredictable personal and professional responsibilities
  • While some schools offer around-the-clock tech support, computer and internet difficulties can have serious repercussions

Asynchronous Learning

Pros

  • Offers online learners more flexibility, which may appeal to those who need to balance school obligations with other responsibilities
  • Students can view lectures and assignments at their convenience, giving them the chance to process and apply information in their own way

Cons

  • For students looking for more personal interaction with peers and professors, the relatively hands-off nature of asynchronous coursework may not be a good fit
  • While a great, flexible option for self-starters, those who benefit from the built-in accountability of face-to-face interactions may struggle

Hybrid Online Learning

Because there are inherent pros and cons in synchronous and asynchronous learning, many online courses blend those two styles. These classes may combine the benefits of real-time lectures and discussions with recorded videos and online chat boards.

Some classes may combine the benefits of real-time lectures and discussions with recorded videos and online chat boards.

Even though blending these two styles can mitigate potential drawbacks, students may still struggle with the rigid schedules of real-time lectures. And others may struggle with the self-directed, asynchronous portions of a class.

Every online class has its own unique set of requirements, so it's best to research specific course requirements and contact your school or program with any questions. Many online degree programs do not have residency requirements, so look around and find a program that fits your personal and academic needs.

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