Background Asynchronous, computer based instruction is cost effective, allows self-directed pacing and review, and addresses preferences of millennial learners. Current research suggests there is no significant difference in learning compared to traditional classroom instruction. Data are limited for novice learners in emergency medicine. The objective of this study was to compare asynchronous, computer-based instruction with traditional didactics for senior medical students during a week-long intensive course in acute care. We hypothesized both modalities would be equivalent. Methods This was a prospective observational quasi-experimental study of 4th year medical students who were novice learners with minimal prior exposure to curricular elements. We assessed baseline knowledge with an objective pre-test. The curriculum was delivered in either traditional lecture format (shock, acute abdomen, dyspnea, field trauma) or via asynchronous, computer-based modules (chest pain, EKG interpretation, pain management, trauma). An interactive review covering all topics was followed by a post-test. Knowledge retention was measured after 10 weeks. Pre and post-test items were written by a panel of medical educators and validated with a reference group of learners. Mean scores were analyzed using dependent t-test and attitudes were assessed by a 5-point Likert scale. Results 44 of 48 students completed the protocol. Students initially acquired more knowledge from didactic education as demonstrated by mean gain scores (didactic: 28.39% ± 18.06; asynchronous 9.93% ± 23.22). Mean difference between didactic and asynchronous = 18.45% with 95% CI [10.40 to 26.50]; p = 0.0001. Retention testing demonstrated similar knowledge attrition: mean gain scores −14.94% (didactic); -17.61% (asynchronous), which was not significantly different: 2.68% ± 20.85, 95% CI [−3.66 to 9.02], p = 0.399. The attitudinal survey revealed that 60.4% of students believed the asynchronous modules were educational and 95.8% enjoyed the flexibility of the method. 39.6% of students preferred asynchronous education for required didactics; 37.5% were neutral; 23% preferred traditional lectures. Conclusions Asynchronous, computer-based instruction was not equivalent to traditional didactics for novice learners of acute care topics. Interactive, standard didactic education was valuable. Retention rates were similar between instructional methods. Students had mixed attitudes toward asynchronous learning but enjoyed the flexibility. We urge caution in trading in traditional didactic lectures in favor of asynchronous education for novice learners in acute care.