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Finding Your Pace in College: What Learning Format is Right for You?

Finding Your Pace in College: What Learning Format is Right for You?

Choosing the right mode of learning can make all the difference in your college journey. With so many formats to choose from these days — including synchronous vs. asynchronous, online vs. hybrid vs. in-person, or full-time or part-time — knowing what you need for success is important. We break down all of the options here to make that decision easier for you.

Earning your degree opens the door to a world of opportunities, but with those opportunities come decisions — especially when it comes to choosing the right learning format.

So where do you start? Full-time or part-time degree? Synchronous or asynchronous courses? Online or hybrid classrooms? Making these crucial decisions requires you to take stock of your lifestyle and commitments, your educational and professional goals, learning style, academic preferences, and more. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive into the various different college learning formats. By gaining a holistic view and examining the pros and cons of each approach, you’ll be empowered with the knowledge and insight necessary to chart your own path to success. Whether you’re seeking a fully immersive experience or require the flexibility of part-time learning, understanding your options is the first step towards charting your successful educational journey.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous

Online learning typically takes place in one of two forms: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous learning is typically more structured and requires students to gather at the same time and place — virtually or physically — to interact in real time. Asynchronous learning allows students to access materials and complete coursework at their own pace.

Understanding the differences between these two approaches is crucial for choosing the format that best suits your learning style and schedule. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each, so you can make a decision that best suits your needs.

Learning Format: Asynchronous


  • You can set a flexible schedule around other commitments
  • Learn at a pace that works for you and choose when you study — giving you full control over where and when your work gets done
  • You can revisit course materials (notes, handouts, lectures, etc.) at any time 
  • An asynchronous format works well for autonomous students looking for independent, self-guided education with some structure


  • Can be more isolating than a synchronous learning environment
  • Requires diligent time management and self-discipline skills to stay engaged and on track
  • Lacks immediate feedback from instructors and interactions with your peers

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing

Learning Format: Synchronous


  • Real-time interaction with peers and instructors — most similar to in-person learning environments
  • Deadlines for coursework and requirements for active participation in online discussions give more structure to the course
  • Collaborative environment gives a sense of community among students
  • Allows you time for communication and feedback with instructors
  • Studies show that students acquire better skills when taught in a synchronous setting


  • Limited flexibility — may require you to be at your computer at specific times or to attend class in person (common in hybrid formats)
  • Requires a higher level of interaction with your peers
  • Because you must log on at set times that are convenient within specific time zones, you’re more constrained by location

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing:

Deciding Between Synchronous & Asynchronous Pacing

  • Asynchronous programs might be for you if… you prefer flexibility in your learning, want to work at your own pace, and value the ability to revisit course materials as needed.
  • Synchronous programs might be for you if… you thrive in interactive learning environments, enjoy immediate feedback, and can commit to set class schedules.

Ultimately, understanding your learning preferences and lifestyle will guide you toward the optimal learning format that aligns with your goals and maximizes your academic success.

Online vs. Hybrid vs. In-Person

When choosing what type of learning format works best for you, you have options between online, in-person, and hybrid learning (which is a mixture of some instruction on campus and some online). While course materials and outcomes are typically the same across all modalities, where and how you receive instruction will vary with each option. Take a look at the breakdown for each of these formats and decipher which works best for your needs. 

Online Learning


  • Many online courses use pre-recorded videos of instructors rather than live sessions, which gives you the flexibility to study at your own pace as you earn your degree
  • This learning format prioritizes flexibility and convenience
  • More variety of courses available — all accessible to students of diverse backgrounds
  • Typically more affordable when you factor in lower tuition prices (many schools don’t charge higher tuition for out-of-state students in online format), no need to relocate, and no money spent on transportation and parking 


  • Less social interaction with your peers and instructors 
  • Requires more self-discipline to stay engaged
  • Students may have difficulty fulfilling obligations because there is often less structure and accountability
  • Lack of face-to-face interaction can depersonalize the experience and leave students feeling less motivated 

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing 

Hybrid Learning


  • A good combination of the benefits from both online courses and in-person courses
  • Course material is easily accessible online — and you have the ability to rewatch lessons as needed
  • Allows you to take an online course and enjoy the social aspects of an in-person lesson


Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing 

In-Person/Traditional Learning


  • Gives you the ability to interact with your peers and course instructors in real time, which is shown to be helpful in learning
  • Most students are familiar with in-person and traditional learning, so it can feel more comfortable and routine than online and hybrid formats
  • Removing technological barriers makes this format more accessible to learners who enjoy face-to-face interaction


  • Requires you to be in one physical location, putting constraints on where and when you can attend class
  • Typically, more expensive than online courses
  • You’ll be following the pacing established by your instructor, meaning less ability for self-paced education

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing 

Deciding Between Online, Hybrid, or In-Person Formats

  • Online programs might be for you if…. you’re a self-motivated learner seeking flexibility. You value the convenience of remote study, are comfortable with navigating technology, and can manage your time independently and effectively to navigate asynchronous coursework.
  • Hybrid programs might be for you if… you want the best of both worlds. You appreciate the flexibility of online classes while valuing the hands-on engagement and networking opportunities that in-person components provide.
  • In-person programs might be for you if… you thrive in face-to-face interactions, enjoy an immersive and traditional campus experience, and prefer structured schedules that keep you engaged.

Full-Time vs. Part-Time

Besides choosing your learning format, you also have options when it comes to determining the length of your studies. Many programs will offer both full-time and part-time tracks, allowing you to choose a cadence that works for you. The choice between the two will have an impact on your ability to work full-time, how quickly you can earn a degree, and more.

We’ve rounded up some of the top pros and cons for each pathway below. 

Full-Time Programs


  • Allow you to complete your degree and begin your career more quickly, meaning you’ll also likely earn a competitive salary upon degree completion sooner 
  • Give you a comprehensive experience, with opportunities for campus involvement and networking
  • Full-time students may have access to more financial aid options and scholarships


  • Increased tuition costs and higher fees: Courses are generally charged per credit hour, so the more you take, the more you will have to pay each semester
  • A full-time course load can be demanding, especially during peak academic and/or employment periods
  • Given that your time will be more concentrated on your studies, you will have fewer opportunities for part-time employment or internships

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing 

Part-Time Programs


  • Allow you to balance your studies with work, family, or personal commitments
  • Part-time students may save on tuition and have more manageable expenses
  • More opportunities to gain work experience or pursue internships while studying


  • It will take longer to complete your degree due to the reduced course load
  • You may have fewer opportunities for on-campus involvement
  • The longer timeline to earn a degree might delay your entry into the job market

Examples of schools that offer this type of pacing

Deciding Between Part-Time and Full-Time Programs

  • Full-time might be for you if… you prioritize completing your degree efficiently, seek a vibrant campus experience, and can commit ample time to your studies on a weekly basis.
  • Part-time programs might be for you if… you value flexibility, need to manage other responsibilities alongside your education (such as a full-time job, a family, caregiving, etc.), and prefer a more gradual approach to completing your degree. 

Choosing the Right Mode of Learning for You

As you embark on your college journey, deciding which mode of learning is right for you can significantly impact your overall experience and academic success. In this section, we will guide you step by step, helping you to weigh your options methodically. 

Below, discover how you can find the ideal learning format that aligns with your personal goals, degree choice, desired pace, lifestyle, limitations, and budget.

  • Consider Your Personal Goals

    What goals and aspirations do you have for earning your degree? Is it important to you to have an immersive experience with your peers in a vibrant social setting, or would you prefer the flexibility and autonomy of completing classes anywhere on your own time? Understanding your expectations and goals will help you find a program that fits your preferences and learning style best.

  • Think About Your Degree Choice

    If you have specific schools already in mind because of the degree you want to pursue, then you might have more limited options when it comes to learning formats. 

    Some programs, like business, are going to be much more likely to be found in online, asynchronous environments. However, degrees that require in-person components, like hands-on science programs with laboratories and clinical work, will require you to choose more hybrid or in-person options.

  • How Quickly You Want to Earn Your Degree

    If you prefer a faster pace than traditional synchronous classes offer, explore programs or schools that provide self-paced options. This allows you to complete courses on your own time.

    Finding a learning format that accommodates your desired speed can accelerate your path to graduation. Full-time courses will equip you to start the next chapter of your career sooner.

  • What Mode Fits Your Lifestyle the Best

    Your lifestyle plays a significant role in determining your ideal learning format. For example, maybe you want to consider working full time to pay for school and need to arrange classes outside of working hours. Or if you’re employed and travel frequently, online education may be your best option. Alternatively, if you’re seeking the social aspect of in-person classes, finding a hybrid opportunity could help meet those needs. 

    This is your chance to reflect on your lifestyle, then choose a format that best serves it. 

  • Do You Have Any Limitations to Consider?

    This could be a physical limitation, a geographic limitation, or something else. For students with disabilities, certain learning formats may pose unique challenges. Or perhaps you have to stay in your hometown to take care of your parents or run the family business. All of these various situations influence what kind of degree optimally accommodates your needs. 

  • Think About Your Budget

    Cost can be an influential factor when deciding between program types. An in-person program, for example, typically costs more money. You’re also limited to schools in your area — or will need to relocate, an even more expensive consideration — if you focus solely on in-person programs.

    Choosing an online degree means you have flexibility in school and cost. You have the opportunity to earn the same degree online, but tuition may be significantly less. However, you’ll have to remember to factor in costs for technology and tools. 

Further Reading on College Learning Formats 

If you’re interested in exploring more about learning formats, we recommend diving into the resources below. We’ve rounded up additional educational publications, blogs, articles, podcasts, and more to help you determine your ideal learning pace and format.

  • College Info Geek — This website offers tips, hacks, and advice to help college students excel in academics, productivity, and personal growth.
  • EdTech Magazine — Explore the intersection of education and technology in this online magazine, which offers insights, trends, and best practices in education.
  • Free Resources and Guidance for Those New to Virtual Learning — This guide from Wiley University Services features several different resources to help students navigate virtual learning environments.
  • Inside Higher Ed — Inside Higher Ed is one of the leading publications covering news and trends within higher education. You can find pieces on tech and innovation as well as tips for student and career success.
  • Library Services — This quality resource guide from University at Albany is an example; you’ll want to check the library services website of your selected school for more resources on online learning.
  • Online Learning Resource Center, Central Michigan University — This guide provides tips for preparing for online learning, managing your course load, and how to maximize learning and find success.
  • Online Learning Resources — While initially developed during the COVID-19 pandemic by the National Communication Association, this list of tools and helpful links for college students remains timely. Scroll down to the “Advice and Tips for Students” section for additional resources.
  • Straight ‘A’ Strategies for SUCCESSFUL ONLINE LEARNING: The Very Best E-Learning Tips & Techniques — You’ll find practical tips inside this guide for efficient ways to complete your online learning classwork — in less time, with better grades, feeling less stress.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education — Here you’ll find a leading source of news, analysis, and insights into higher education’s challenges, developments, and trends.
  • The EdSurge Podcast — Check out this engaging podcast that explores educational technology’s impact on teaching, learning, and the future of education.
  • The Future of Learning Podcast — This podcast features thought-provoking discussions on evolving educational methodologies, technologies, and paradigms shaping the future of learning.
  • The Pros and Cons of Online Learning — This article from MIT comprehensively examines the benefits and challenges associated with online education, aiding informed decision-making.
  • Types of Online Learning — This resource from Fordham University explains various online learning modalities in depth and can help you select the right format for your needs.
  • What’s Your Learning Style? — This 20-question assessment will help you determine whether you’re predominantly an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner, which can help you choose a learning format that aligns with your inherent style.

Interview with an Expert

A smiling woman with braided hair and large earrings, wearing a black outfit. She is in a room with a blurred background showing orange flowers.

Ditra Henry

Ditra Henry is a Professor Emeritus at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. She has had an extensive career of teaching and working with underrepresented groups in education. She taught high school and middle school in the Chicago Public System for several years before moving into higher education. At Northeastern Illinois University, Ditra taught Developmental Writing and English as a Second Language Writing Workshop Courses. Moving to the Community College System, she developed curriculum and designed a Health Care Bridge Program for adult education students. Currently, she is teaching an English Language Transition Course for ELL students in adult education. She has been a mentor for adjunct faculty and has participated on several committees, and teams in the community college governance system.
  • How do learning formats (ie online vs. hybrid/in-person; sync vs. async, etc.) impact student engagement and learning outcomes?

    Learning formats impact student outcomes significantly. Some students tend to perform better in straight asynchronous online classes if they can work independently and without much teacher-student interaction; however, some students don’t do very well with this format. They need to be able to have contact with the instructor and other students in order to get a full understanding of course concepts and how to proceed with assignments. Engagement can be challenge, not completing assignments on time and at times completing them carelessly leads to negative outcomes

    There is also another variable that impacts student outcomes in an asynchronous class: the demands of the course. For example, a critical thinking class can be more challenging for some beginning higher ed students even in a face-to-face learning environment. This may lead to a student only getting a C grade or less. I feel that the student walks away without really knowing the content and is unable to use what they have acquired in the one course as means for advancement and their other courses. 

  • Shouldn’t students be using what they learned in one course to enrich and advance themselves in their other courses?

    With that being said, hybrid/in person teaching/learning is on the top of my list. I can give meaningful feedback to students on the spot as well as not only answer any questions but also give examples and model any items that may be unclear. Students tend to hand in more assignments in this setting and small group interactions tend to be more successful and meaningful. I can also assess them on several levels while in class. While observing how well each student approaches assignments, I can compare their final deliverables with that

    observation and again give more meaningful feedback to the student and get feedback on my own teaching and delivering of information as well.

    I have recently been teaching online through Zoom, and I have found that I can flip my classroom and get close to the same performance from students I get in a hybrid setting by using the breakout rooms. Further, on a hierarchical level hybrid should be the basic course that could/should lead to students being able to do independent online learning courses.

    The only setback for online learning formats is when students are not familiar with the computer programs, ie. MS Word, Learning Management Systems (like Canvas or Black board) and other digital tools that may be used in the higher ed settings. Lastly, students need to have updated computers in their homes or access to them. Learning online uses a lot of gigabytes and internet Mbps. If your home is not equipped for this type of learning then the experience can be frustrating. Of course, this in turn impacts student engagement and ultimately student outcomes.

    Critical learning is lost many times when we have to spend time teaching students repeatedly how to access the computer components and systems while class is in session.

    There is a need for more pre-class orientation if students are going to take online classes. Students need to know what to expect in the form of technology and what to expect from instructor assignments. This then should become a student outcome to be measured on different levels.

  • Can you explain the concept of hybrid learning and how it combines both online and in-person elements?

    Hybrid is a combination of face-to-face instruction combined with online instruction. A hybrid class can be 50% online and 50 percent online. There can be many combinations of percentages – like 60/40, 70/30, etc. The class can be all in a classroom or there can be classroom time and time that is spent online independently doing online assignments.

  • What are the challenges and benefits of this format?

    Students benefit from hybrid because they are not left totally to their devices for learning and instructors are also committed to seeking out and monitoring student involvement and comprehension — giving accountability for both student and instructor.

  • What technologies and tools are commonly used in online college learning, and how do they enhance the learning experience?

    The most common are learning management systems which seem to be the best tools for enhancing online learning for all formats. Zoom has also chimed in and developed many tools that make the online classroom experience less monotonous and boring. It is used for meetings and office hours. It is great to speak with a student in person but if they cannot make in person office hours a zoom call is always a great format to see and meet.

  • What are the key considerations for selecting the appropriate learning format for a specific course or program, and how can students make informed decisions?

    I think this is a component that is missing. Availability may be the key element at this point. I haven’t seen or checked any research regarding this. (I’m sure there is some research though.) Nor have I been privy to any discussions. The pandemic has put a different outlook into online learning, but pre-pandemic course offerings still may have been influenced by student availability.

    As I mentioned before, I believe there is a need for more pre-class orientations and also maybe more information given out by counselors and advisors on what students should expect and what their instructors will expect from them digitally. Students should also be interviewed and explain what their needs are so they can be matched with their learning preferences and ability to take online courses successfully. We as Instructors may think that putting information in our syllabi alone is enough but the digital world of teaching and learning is still very new. Maybe availability is only a small component now that can be considered in the larger picture of digitally learning.

    In addition, maybe more information and explanations need to exist in our catalogs and online webpages. Students need to not only be informed about their class content but also about modes the class will be delivered in and the course expectations using the digital formats. I have taken several Grad courses with digital components and I have never been informed or counseled ahead of time about the expectations digitally. Only after I was able to access the professor’s syllabus did I know what to expect.

  • Are there any specific fields or subjects that are better suited for online learning, and are there others that are more effectively taught in-person?

    I would say no. However, again it can depend on the instructor’s willingness to support

    disseminating class information, and keeping in touch with students as well as monitoring their progress while online.

  • How can colleges and universities promote a sense of community and belonging among online students who may not have face-to-face interactions?

    Good question! Possibly to give students more access to online links when there are student activities, university/college wide lectures, study groups and building a new type of learning community that may include students that have courses in common not just one class. They can be invited to breakout rooms instead of just being strictly online. We talk about flipping the classroom; let’s flip the student activities as well. In person is always much more enriching but maybe this is something to rethink and revisit.

  • How does synchronous learning enhance student engagement and interaction compared to asynchronous formats?

    Synchronous learning has an advantage because we have used this mode since the beginning of time. Over the years, it has been perfected and enhanced – and we have created experiences like field trips and used tools like PowerPoint and Google Earth to enrich our student’s learning experiences.

  • We will be able to equally use the asynchronous tools and bring this enrichment to our students if we haven’t already.

    YouTube and so many other online formats are at our fingertips for learning. We just need to give our students access to use them as learning and enrichment tools and not just for entertainment. Webcasts/webinars can also be helpful. Using a variety of modes for learning can assist in students becoming engaged and staying engaged.

  • How does the choice of learning format impact the development of essential skills, such as time management and self-discipline, for college students?

    I have found that students who are not self-disciplined or do not have excellent time management skills find asynchronous learning a serious challenge. These are essential skills for online learning that need to be fostered, taught, encouraged to reach some level of mastery before a student should take a straight online course. These skills can be taught in a hybrid class as well as in an online Zoom before that student is allowed to be strictly online and independent, regardless of the course content.

    Possibly this should be added as a sequence of learning outcomes for our students. We have prerequisites for course offerings. Maybe we should add some prerequisites that include digital expectations of our different online classes as well.