Asynchronous Online Courses and Active Learning

By: Professor Kenneth Swift (University of Houston)

As law professors transition to an online format in response to COVID-19, one concern for some professors is whether an online course can still provide an active learning experience. I have taught law school courses asynchronously for over ten years and believe that a well-constructed asynchronous course can provide an active learning environment that in some ways exceeds the live classroom. Using this format, I have developed both an Employment Law course and a general drafting course. I also addressed active learning in my article: The Seven Principles of Good Practice in (Asynchronous Online) Legal Education, 44 Mitchell Hamline L. Rev. 105 (2018). In the article, I took principles developed through a series of highly influential articles authored by seven different law professors in the late 1990s, which helped shape modern law school teaching. Then I applied those principles to asynchronous online  teaching.

In this short post, I will share a few tips to create an active learning environment and effective asynchronous course:

I like to keep my discussions to groups of 3 to 4 students. And I use the term “discussion” broadly and use the small groups to also address the type of small group activities you might do in the classroom, such as applying the law to a hypothetical, drafting a portion of a document, etc. While some professors try to have large group discussion boards, it can be difficult to select a topic on which 30+ students can realistically have different viewpoints and analysis.

You may also find that the final product delivered by students in your online course small group is actually more substantial than in the live classroom because each student spends 30 minutes individually rather than 30 minutes collectively. You may also notice that students who were not as comfortable participating in a live small group are much more involved in an online group (at least that has been my experience with former first-year students who subsequently take my upper-level online course).

Do not limit your interactive work to just group work or discussion boards. If you would ask a question or do an exercise in a brick-and-mortar classroom, do it online. This type of course development takes more time (along with the videos), which means that the ramp-up for an asynchronous course is more onerous than with a synchronous course. However, here is another place where an online course can be even more active; unlike in a live classroom where one student answers your question, in the online classroom, everyone answers each question.

One of the most important components of a successful asynchronous course, or even an individual unit, is clear organization. Put together a checklist of items in the order that students should complete them for each individual unit. Break up your readings, videos, and exercises so they are logically organized. For example, a typical subsection might have a reading assignment, a short (10 to 12 minutes) video lecture, and then an individual and/or group exercise. Then, just like in a live classroom, repeat the process for a different skill or topic. Break up learning into small, manageable chunks that fit together logically.

An asynchronous course provides a professor with a unique opportunity to organize readings along with lectures and exercises. Unlike a brick-and-mortar syllabus, which necessarily must provide a reading assignment for at least an entire class session (if not a week), in an asynchronous course the professor can more directly link video lectures and exercises to specific, tailored readings. The professor can, for example, assign one or two cases, a short video lecture on those two cases, and then immediately have a writing or small group exercise that focuses solely on those two cases.

The following contains a few excerpts from my article:

 Utilize small groups. I recommend groups of three for projects such as drafting or editing a document and larger groups of four for a discussion or  debate. Groups larger than four tend to be ineffective and may lead one member to contribute less. Larger groups may also result in more repetition.

Set deadlines for initial participation. Require that, within a day or two of the exercise period, each student must contact the other group members. For example, my normal week runs Tuesday through Monday, so I require students to contact group members by at least the end of business on Thursday. While most of the work will still occur during the last few days of the week, this approach greatly reduces the number of students who don’t participate at all or just participate at the very end.

Require typed responses in a blog or wiki format. It is best to create exercises or discussion groups where the students type in responses on a blog or wiki. The platform I normally utilize for my online courses, Blackboard, provides an easy tool in which to create blogs or wikis.

Reduce or eliminate grading on group work. Two things occur when a professor decides to grade group work: (1) The assignment must be complex enough to allow for score differentiation; and (2) student anxiety increases dramatically because students worry about whether group members are contributing equally.  In my experience, it is far better to have regular, small group projects and discussions than to have one or two large graded group projects in a semester. In my courses, students interact almost weekly, particularly in the first 2/3 of the course. Instead of direct grades, I always set aside a number of points as “participation and effort” points based on their timely and significant contribution to group work. Most students contribute meaningfully because they do not want to appear unreliable or unprofessional to classmates. I further encourage strong group participation by emailing individual students and entire groups. Early in the semester, I also email students a sample of a strong group effort (with student identities redacted).

To learn more, check out my article, which also addresses the pedagogy underlying the Socratic Method as an active learning experience,  the effectiveness of the case method in an online platform, and  how to facilitate collaboration among students in an asynchronous course.

How are you revising your course in response to COVID? Share your good ideas at, and we might just post them as part of our ongoing pandemic planning series. 


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