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Synchronous Learning
July 2020


What does the research say about the importance of synchronous learning experiences and whether these opportunities to build and maintain relationships are worthwhile considering the logistical challenges of implementing synchronous learning in virtual settings?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Barbour, M. K. (2015). Real-time virtual teaching: Lessons learned from a case study in a rural school. Online Learning Journal, 5, 54-68.

From the Abstract:
"Due to the challenges facing rural schools, many jurisdictions have resorted to the use of virtual school programs to provide curricular opportunities to their students. While the number of virtual schools that rely on synchronous instruction as a primary or significant method of delivery is quite small, there are some programs that do (and a growing number of virtual schools that use it with small groups or individuals). This case study examined the use of synchronous online instruction by one virtual school with students in a single rural school in Newfoundland and Labrador. The data from a variety of collection methods revealed three themes: similarities with online student experiences and their traditional classroom experiences, the development of local learning communities, and the preference for students to use chat over audio."

Delahunty, J., Verenikina, I., & Jones, P. (2014). Socio-emotional connections: Identity, belonging and learning in online interactions. A literature review. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 23(2), 243-265. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This review focuses on three interconnected socio-emotional aspects of online learning: interaction, sense of community and identity formation. In the intangible social space of the virtual classroom, students come together to learn through dialogic, often asynchronous, exchanges. This creates distinctive learning environments where learning goals, interpersonal relationships and emotions are no less important because of their ‘virtualness', and for which traditional face-to-face pedagogies are not neatly transferrable. The literature reveals consistent connections between interaction and sense of community. Yet identity, which plausibly and naturally emerges from any social interaction, is much less explored in online learning. While it is widely acknowledged that interaction increases the potential for knowledge-building, the literature indicates that this will be enhanced when opportunities encouraging students' emergent identities are embedded into the curriculum. To encourage informed teaching strategies this review seeks to raise awareness and stimulate further exploration into a currently under-researched facet of online learning."

Hrastinski, S., Keller, C., & Carlsson, S. A. (2010). Design exemplars for synchronous e-learning: A design theory approach. Computers & Education, 55(2010), 652-662. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Synchronous e-learning has received much less research attention, as compared with asynchronous elearning. Practitioners that consider using and designing synchronous e-learning are in urgent need of guidance. In order to address this need, we propose design exemplars for synchronous e-learning. They are directed towards a primary constituent community of teachers, administrators, managers and developers of e-learning. The exemplars have been theoretically as well as empirically grounded through cross-case analyses of studies conducted between 2003 and 2006. Moreover, the exemplars have been evaluated by conducting focus group sessions with experienced practitioners having experience of using and developing e-learning. Strong support was identified for each design exemplar. The exemplars can be used as research hypotheses and be tested in future design research."

Martin, F., & Parker, M. A. (2014). Use of synchronous virtual classrooms: Why, who, and how. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(2), 192-210. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Virtual classrooms allow students and instructors to communicate synchronously using features such as audio, video, text chat, interactive whiteboard, and application sharing. The purpose of the study reported in this paper was to identify why instructors adopt synchronous virtual classrooms and how they use them after their adoption. An electronic survey was administered asking instructors from various institutions to describe their experience adopting a synchronous virtual classroom in either a blended or online course. In describing their reasons for adopting the technology, respondents most frequently cited institutional resource availability, increasing social presence, enhancing student learning, and the availability of technology. Along with audio chat, the features that most influenced the adoption of virtual classrooms and were used most frequently by respondents were the ability to archive conference sessions, see participants through webcams, and use text-based chat interfaces. Open-ended survey responses revealed that instructors used virtual classrooms to promote interactivity, develop community, and reach students at different locations. There were also distinct trends characterizing the demographics of faculty members who reported using virtual classrooms. These findings provide meaningful data for instructors interested in providing synchronous components in their online teaching and for administrators interested in promoting technology-enhanced learning on their campuses."

Martin, F., Parker, M. A., & Deale, D. F. (2012). Examining interactivity in synchronous virtual classrooms. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 227-261.

From the Abstract:
"Interaction is crucial to student satisfaction in online courses. Adding synchronous components (virtual classroom technologies) to online courses can facilitate interaction. In this study, interaction within a synchronous virtual classroom was investigated by surveying 21 graduate students in an instructional technology program in the southeastern United States. The students were asked about learner-learner, learner-instructor, learner-content, and learner-interface interactions. During an interview, the instructor was asked about strategies to promote these different forms of interaction. In addition, the academic, social, and technical aspects of interactions were examined in three course archives using Schullo's (2005) schema. Participants reported that the Wimba interface was easy to use and that various features, such as text chat and the webcam, facilitated interaction among the students and with the instructor in the virtual classroom. The importance of students' ability to receive immediate feedback and their experience as presenters was highlighted across the various kinds of interaction. The instructor's teaching style and visual presence were instrumental in engaging students with the content. The results suggest that student interaction, and hence learning, was aided by the live communication that occurred through the virtual classroom. This study has implications for those who are considering adopting virtual classroom technologies for their online or blended teaching."

Mayer, G., Lingle, J., & Usselman, M. (2017). Experiences of advanced high school students in synchronous online recitations. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 20(2), 15-26.

From the Abstract:
"The question of how to best design an online course that promotes student-centred learning is an area of ongoing research. This mixed-methods study focused on a section of advanced high school students, in college-level mathematics courses, that used a synchronous online environment mediated over web-conferencing software, and whether the affordance of multiple communication channels and student-centred activities affected involvement, cohesion, and satisfaction. Study participants reported that anonymous input and group work activities encouraged their involvement in learning activities, increased their satisfaction, and fostered social cohesion. Although the on-going management of technical issues limited student involvement and satisfaction, there were no differences in final grades obtained by students participating in this delivery format and their peers participating in an alternate learning environment facilitated by video-teleconferencing. This study offers supporting evidence that a student-centred learning environment mediated over web conferencing software can foster social cohesion, student involvement, and student satisfaction."

Peterson, A. T., Beymer, P. N., & Putnam, R. T. (2018). Synchronous and asynchronous discussions: Effects on cooperation, belonging, and affect. Online Learning, 22(4), 7-25.

From the Abstract:
"Supporting productive peer-to-peer interaction is a central challenge in online courses. Although cooperative learning is a well-established method for eliciting productive interaction (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), online modes of cooperative learning have provided mixed results. To explore the factors underlying these mixed results, we used a quasi-experimental design to examine the effects of synchrony on students' sense of cooperation, belonging, affect, and cognitive processes in online small-group, discussion-based cooperative learning. Fifty-two undergraduate students were assigned to synchronous and asynchronous interaction conditions in an online course. The findings support prior research that asynchronous communication interferes with the relationship between cooperative goals and the outcomes of cooperation. The results extend the literature by indicating that synchrony positively affects students' perceptions of belonging, positive affect, and cognitive processes. Results inform theory and practice by showing that asynchronous cooperative learning may not work as designed due to students' lack of perceptions of interdependence."

Olson, J. S., & McCracken, F. E. (2015). Is it worth the effort? The impact of incorporating synchronous lectures into an online course. Online Learning, 19(2), 1-12.

From the Abstract:
"This study explores student achievement, sense of social community, and sense of learning community (Rovai, 2002) in two sections of an online course taught concurrently by the same instructor. One section was delivered in a fully asynchronous format; the other incorporated weekly synchronous lectures using an Adobe Connect environment. Students were randomly assigned to one of the two sections but allowed to change sections (before the semester began) if unwilling or unable to participate in weekly Adobe Connect meetings. Data included grades on course assignments, final course grades, end-of-course evaluations, and responses to the Classroom Community Inventory (Rovai, Wighting & Lucking, 2004). No significant differences were found on measures of academic achievement, student satisfaction, social community, or learning community between the two sections."

Watson, S., & Sutton, J. M. (2012). An examination of the effectiveness of case method teaching online: Does the technology matter?. Journal of Management Education, 36(6), 802-821. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article discusses the effectiveness of the case method when teaching online by comparing synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies with respect to how well they each embody Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. The authors also present their empirical study of the effectiveness of different online case discussion methods with respect to student learning and satisfaction. The empirical findings suggest that student satisfaction and perceived learning are affected by the type of technology used to implement the case method online. The technology used for case discussions in an online course seems to matter, especially with respect to how well it enhances students' engagement and interaction with the instructor and their fellow students."

Yamagata-Lynch, L. C. (2014). Blending online asynchronous and synchronous learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(2), 189-212.

From the Abstract:
"In this article I will share a qualitative self-study about a 15-week blended 100% online graduate level course facilitated through synchronous meetings on Blackboard Collaborate and asynchronous discussions on Blackboard. I taught the course at the University of Tennessee (UT) during the spring 2012 semester and the course topic was online learning environments. The primary research question of this study was: How can the designer/instructor optimize learning experiences for students who are studying about online learning environments in a blended online course relying on both synchronous and asynchronous technologies? I relied on student reflections of course activities during the beginning, middle, and the end of the semester as the primary data source to obtain their insights regarding course experiences. Through the experiences involved in designing and teaching the course and engaging in this study I found that there is room in the instructional technology research community to address strategies for facilitating online synchronous learning that complement asynchronous learning. Synchronous online whole class meetings and well-structured small group meetings can help students feel a stronger sense of connection to their peers and instructor and stay engaged with course activities. In order to provide meaningful learning spaces in synchronous learning environments, the instructor/designer needs to balance the tension between embracing the flexibility that the online space affords to users and designing deliberate structures that will help them take advantage of the flexible space."

Other References

Berry, S. (2019). Teaching to connect: Community-building strategies for the virtual classroom. Online Learning, 23(1), 164-183.

From the Abstract:
"A sense of community is central to student engagement and satisfaction. However, many students struggle with developing connections in online programs. Drawing on interviews with 13 instructors, this paper explores the strategies that they use to help students develop a sense of community in synchronous virtual classrooms. Four strategies for building community online are identified: reaching out to students often, limiting time spent lecturing, using video and chat as modes to engage students, and allowing class time to be used for personal and professional updates."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Synchronous, Virtual (education OR learning), Online (education OR learning), Distance (education OR learning), Effectiveness OR evidence OR impact OR effects OR benefits

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.