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Online College Courses Across Time Zones

When residential colleges move to all online instruction, not all students may be in the same general area as the school. They may be from another state or from across the country, and thus may live in another time zone. This can put students in a bind, as taking online classes at your college when you live hours behind it or ahead of it can be frustrating and tiring. Luckily, there are ways to smartly schedule your college courses to avoid the worst of time zone fatigue.


Synchronous vs Asynchronous Courses

Synchronous Courses

Synchronous courses are college classes that happen online in real time, where students and professor(s) gather in a shared virtual space at the same time. Synchronous courses operate much like an in-person class, where the professor lectures or leads a discussion and the students listen and participate with real-time feedback. Because they mimic in-person instruction synchronous courses can feel more normal to students unused to online learning. But they can be a hassle for students who live in a vastly different time zone than their schools. If a synchronous course starts at 8 A.M. and you live two hours behind, you’ll have to log into a synchronous online course at 6 A.M. instead.

Asynchronous Course

Asynchronous courses are not in real time. Rather, they are prepared materials and pre-recorded lectures that do not require live instruction. This allows students in asynchronous courses to work independently through a class on their own schedule. Asynchronous courses do not involve the kind of peer or professor interaction that characterize most college courses. However, they are a great option for students who live in a time zone vastly different than their school’s time zone. Not all college courses will be offered asynchronously, so make sure to read your course catalog closely.

Smart Scheduling

It’s easy to imagine the frustration students feel taking classes at odd hours simply because they live in a distant time zone from their school. For these students, smart scheduling around their time zone differences can make a big impact.

Note the difference between your time zone and your school’s time zone. Try setting a physical clock or changing the time on your computer to match your school’s time (unlike mobile phones, computers usually do not auto-sync to local time).

Decide what is the earliest and latest time that you would want to have a class. You likely don’t want to start class at 6 in the morning or end at 9 at night.

Opt for asynchronous courses at times when your time zone precedes or extends your school’s time zone. If you live on the east coast and your school is on the west coast, you might take an asynchronous class in the morning before normal instruction starts. Vice-versa if you live on the west coast and attend school out east – your school’s day will end in your early afternoon, so an afternoon asynchronous course is a good use of time.

Schedule synchronous courses when you and your school’s time zone intersect. Attending synchronous courses in the late morning, midday or early afternoon will be easier on your body and mind.

Make a calendar of all your assignments. Keeping track of time zone differences in your head can be dizzying. Use a calendar or planner to write down all your assignments and when they are due in your time zone so you don’t turn in an important project or essay late.

Strategies for Smoothing Out Time Zone Differences

There may be some courses that you must take at less-than-ideal times due to major requirements or lack of options. Professors are aware that online learning requires flexibility and may be offering 24-hour windows in which to take exams or are recording their lectures to be watched by students on their own time. Being upfront with your professor about your time zone issues can help set you up for success further down the line. If your course requires an in-class presentation or speech that you can’t make, ask your professor if you can prerecord it. And if you must take a proctored exam, ask if you can reschedule it to a time when you and your professor are both available.

While nobody wants to take a college course at an odd hour, here tips on how to get the most out of it:

  • Get plenty of sleep, and power nap when you can during empty periods.
  • Don’t overly rely on caffeine to keep you up. It can be great in a pinch, but too much caffeine can give you stomach aches and jitters, and leave you crashing at the wrong time.
  • Set up a study space for your online classes away from other people in your house. You wouldn’t want to wake them up or keep them up.

With these tips, smart scheduling and course knowledge, students from disparate time zones can find success in online classes. And if the time zone difference just can’t be bridged, it may be a sign to look to transfer to a school closer to home.


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Last Reviewed: December 2021