Instructional strategies refer to the techniques instructors use to deliver their lessons. Effective instructional strategies help students become actively involved in the learning process. When done right, instructional strategies also support students in reaching their learning objectives.
By reading the guide below, you’ll gain a solid understanding of the various types of teaching strategies, why they’re important and how they can be applied to the learning process to benefit both professors and students.
In this guide, you’ll:
- Learn what instructional strategies are, and the various strategies educators can use to teach more effectively
- Gain a deeper understanding of how instructional strategies for teachers—including formal and informal assessments, case studies, debates, flipped classrooms and more—play into the overall student learning experience
- Get equipped to implement instructional strategies that are appropriate for your course in order to become more effective at teaching and engaging students
- Get access to a free instructional strategies list, packed with 25 easy-to-implement exercises for your next course
With this collection of teaching strategies, you’ll be ready to guide students towards success in any classroom setting. Plus, putting a few of these techniques into practice will ensure students come to class prepared to engage with the material, with their peers and with you.
1. What are instructional strategies?
Instructional strategies encompass any type of learning technique a teacher uses to help students learn or gain a better understanding of the course material. They allow teachers to make the learning experience more fun and practical and can also encourage students to take more of an active role in their education. The objective of using instructional strategies beyond subject comprehension is to create students who are independent, strategic learners. The hope is, with time and practice, students will be able to select the right strategies on their own and use them effectively to complete tasks.
There are various instructional strategy examples that can be used effectively at all levels and subject areas, with a wide range of learning styles. These learning strategies motivate students by improving their engagement, capturing their attention and encouraging them to focus on not only remembering course material, but truly understanding it.
Educators who use instructional strategies allow students to make meaningful connections between concepts learned in class and real-life situations. They offer an opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge and course correct on their own when needed. Teachers also benefit from using instructional strategies because they’re able to better monitor and assess student performance through different methods of evaluation.
2. Types of instructional strategies
There are far too many types of instructional strategies to catalog in one place. And there’s no single, specific way to group them together. While the categories below are by no means exhaustive, instructional strategies often fall under general groupings. These include: active learning, assessment-based, group-based, advanced strategies, organizational (or classroom management) and tiered.
3. Active learning instructional strategies
3.1. Exit tickets
Before students leave your learning environment, ask them to answer a question related to a key concept discussed in the lesson that day. They can write it down on a piece of paper or index card. Questions can be simple, like asking students what they found most interesting about the lesson. Or, they can be more complex, such as having them draw a sketch that demonstrates what they learned, or asking them to connect the key concept they learned to a real-life situation. Have students hand the ‘tickets‘ to you as they exit (or have them submit a response to your discussion board), then review the responses.
The feedback can help educators determine which students need additional teaching in specific areas. Using this approach, teachers gain a quick understanding of how the whole class is grasping and reacting to the material.
Use the information from the exit tickets to form groups in the class that follows. Place students at similar levels of understanding, or who have similar views on a topic, together. Conversely, group students with opposing views together in order to foster debate and conversation. Learn more about the types of exit tickets you can use in your next course—download an exit ticket template here.
3.2. Flipped classrooms
Regardless of where you teach, flipping your classroom is one of the most popular forms of active learning and among the most well-known instructional strategies. Instead of using classroom time for lecturing, educators provide students with a pre-recorded lecture to watch prior to class. They’re often concise, posted to sites like YouTube, or presented in the form of a podcast that students can listen to at home or during their commute. Educators can then use classroom time to engage students in learning activities related to the lecture they’ve already seen or heard.
Flipped classrooms are an effective teaching technique because they allow students to review and learn concepts on their own time. Students are then free to complete more interactive and collaborative work in class, including discussions and tasks with their peers and teacher. They can also collaborate and discuss material online, via forum discussions with peers and subject matter experts. In class, students can actively apply concepts via peer learning, group work, and presentations.
Flipped learning helps keep students continuously engaged in class instead of just passively listening. And it makes good use of downtime by allowing students to combine a workout or commute time with further learning, when it’s most convenient for them. Built to enable this strategy, Top Hat makes it simple to adopt a flipped classroom—simply run quizzes prior to your lecture and create interactive discussions for students to collaborate during class time.
3.3. Journals and learning logs
This instructional strategy lets students record their thoughts, feelings and reflections on a variety of topics. Journal entries could refer to something discussed in your lecture, or they can allow students to reflect on a relevant newspaper article or piece of media they came across. Journals can also be used for getting students to think critically about the course material and how it can be applied to the real world. This activity lets students make predictions, brainstorm ideas, connect ideas and even identify solutions to problems presented in class.
You might consider using the following prompts in advance of a journaling assignment to promote higher-level thinking. At the start of a lesson, you might ask, “What questions do you have from yesterday?” During the middle of a lesson, ask, “What do you want to know more about?” At the end of your lesson, ask, “How could you use these findings outside of class?” Encourage students to note any thoughts that come to mind at these three points. At the end of the semester, their journal can form the foundation of a more comprehensive study guide.
3.4. Minute papers
Pose a question about the day’s teaching, and give students a moment to reflect before writing down their answer on their own or in pairs. The responses can provide valuable insight into student comprehension of the material.
Minute papers can be presented in a number of ways, but the easiest is a “ticket out,” whereby educators wrap up class a few minutes early. (We saw this earlier in our instructional strategies list, under ‘exit ticket’). They then ask students to answer what the most important thing they learned today was and what questions they still have. The first question requires students to think quickly, recall class material, decide on the main points, and put it into their own words. For the second, they must think further about what they’ve understood thus far.
Teachers can use the responses to determine how well students understand the material. Minute papers can also help students understand where their own learning gaps are. Once this is realized, both students and teachers can identify and address weaknesses.
3.5. Muddiest point
The ‘muddiest point’ is another active learning instructional strategy. This activity asks students to use index cards (or an app), to anonymously submit what part(s) of the course material they’re having the most difficulty with. Educators can then use the responses to determine where extra instruction is needed and adjust lessons accordingly.
Alternatively, these topics can be addressed during student review sessions. Ask students to identify topics they feel they need clarification on and consolidate these into a list. Then get each student to select a term from the list they feel they can explain to the rest of the class.
Cross it off the list, and move on to the next. By the end, it will be easy to see which concepts students are having the most issues with by process of elimination. And if terms haven’t been selected, they are being avoided for a reason. Naturally, students will pick the terms they are most comfortable with.
Use that information to devise more instructor-led sessions on the concepts that most students are confused about, or that require more clarification, to eventually complete the entire list.
Hand out blank index cards or a pre-designed worksheet at the end of a class session and ask students to use them to submit a response to a question about the day’s lesson. Alternatively, ask students to submit a discussion board response. The reflection prompt could be simple, like asking what they learned, or what they found the most interesting. Or, you can make your prompt more application-based, like asking them to connect what they learned to a real-life situation, or telling them to explain why what they learned is important.
The purpose of reflection is to encourage students to consider what they have learned. Like a number of other instructional strategies in this list, it also gives the teacher an idea of where students stand on a topic or issue so they can use this information to help better prepare for the next lesson. The added benefit is that having students express these thoughts on paper can result in better memory retention.
To drive this strategy in higher education, Top Hat’s interactive discussions make it easy for students to reflect on what was covered in class. Allow students to discuss concepts with their peers, with the ability to grade discussions as desired.
This active learning technique is another of the best-known instructional strategies. After presenting a lesson, pause the lecture for a moment to ask students to pair up with a partner. Have them discuss the material they just learned. Prepare questions, and, once they’ve had some time to discuss with their partner(s), get students to take turns presenting their observations to the rest of the class.
Make the question challenging, such that it could spark debate between the grouped or paired students. Give them just a few minutes to talk amongst themselves and come to a collective conclusion.
Think-pair-share can work especially well for the first few lessons of a class, keeping students on their toes and interested in the material that is to come. But it can also help recapture student enthusiasm near the middle of a term, reminding students that they aren’t alone in their learning and that others share their views or concerns, and that there are different perspectives to support an issue that are worth considering beyond their own.
4. Assessment-based instructional strategies
One of the most used instructional strategies, assessments are considered any graded test, quiz, project, or exam. Informal checks of student progress throughout the year, such as discussions or presentations, can be included too. There are many different assessment-based instructional strategies (and a few follow in this group).
In general, there are various ways to run assessments and different ways to adapt them to class time. These include: asking certain groups of students to only complete specific parts of a test, allowing students to respond orally versus in writing, or asking students to demonstrate what they’ve learned in a more hands-on way, like building something or drawing a diagram.
The most critical thing to remember with assessments is to try and stay focused on evaluating the concept that’s most important for the student to grasp. This might mean your assessments have to be more practical. Asking a student to put the learning to work and actually do something can be a far better indicator of what they know than simple written or oral answers.
One tip is to include test or quiz questions that vary in complexity, and focus on different aspects of a concept. You could include one question mandatory for responding, but allow students to choose which ones they want to answer among the remaining ones.
“Cubing” is a version of the above. It involves writing a command or question on each of the six sides of a cube, then having students roll the cube like a die and respond to the question or command accordingly.
The questions can relate to describing, comparing, contrasting, applying, predicting or imagining concepts. Get students even more involved in this cooperative learning activity by having them come up with their own questions that they then exchange with classmates, taking turns to answer.
Take it to another level by creating multiple cubes with questions of varying levels of complexity. Assign students to work in groups—have each group of students write or dictate their answers to the questions on their cube. Use the data to determine which students should work on which concepts come assignment time.
4.3. Grade as you go
This instructional strategy is ideal for subjects that involve repetitive practices and rote memorization, such as mathematics and language. Have students work on assignments either alone or in pairs, checking and marking their work.
This teaching technique is motivational because students instantly know if they’re on the right track, allowing them to gauge their achievement level. But it also helps students immediately correct something they’re doing wrong. Once they identify the mistakes, they can translate that learning to subsequent questions, instead of completing the entire assignment incorrectly.
Instructional strategies such as ‘Grade As You Go’ also help educators pinpoint students who have a superior grasp of the material, allowing them to move on to a more challenging assignment.
By the time the assignment is completed, it’s far more likely that the entire class will be ready to move on to the next concept or skill. And since grades have already been given, it reduces after-class grading time for teachers. Put this strategy into practice this fall by relying on the Top Hat Gradebook. This comprehensive tool lets you view attendance, participation and completion data in one place and makes it easy to retroactively adjust grade weights as needed.
4.4. Homework practice
The purpose of homework, as one of the numerous assessment-based instructional strategies, is to extend learning beyond the classroom setting. Homework gives students extra time to master concepts studied in class and further refine their learning. To use this effectively, assign homework based on the student’s skill level, ensuring it aligns with the areas they need more practice in.
The amount and complexity of homework varies depending on subject and level. Students should be able to complete homework independently, with minimal involvement from tutors or peers. If they can’t, it should serve as a red flag to both the student and educator.
Built to enable this strategy, Top Hat makes it easy to create, personalize and assign interactive homework assignments. Choose from a variety of question types including fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice and embed discussion questions throughout your assessments.
4.5. Questions and quizzes
Question-asking is among the simplest of the instructional strategies, but it can still be strategically complex. The simplest way to gauge student understanding of course material is to ask them questions about it. During group discussions, pose several questions of varying complexity so that everyone has a chance to respond, including both those who are experiencing difficulties with the class, as well as those who are mastering the concepts. Strategically adjust the questions you ask based on who you plan to call upon. This helps build student confidence and ensures the class runs smoothly.
Timing is important, too. When the class starts, or there’s a pause between concepts or topics, you can administer a quick quiz or poll to get an understanding of how far along students are in their learning. In order to effectively assess comprehension, it’s best to not attach a grade to this activity. Students will inevitably worry if the quiz is going to impact their overall grade for the class. Platforms like Kahoot! can be used to facilitate informal games or trivia sessions at the start of class, setting the stage for what’s to follow in your lecture.
Use technology like clickers to administer things like multiple choice quizzes that can be tabulated immediately for large classes, with questions that challenge or check an assumption before a lecture begins. Then, administer the same or a similar quiz at the end of class, and compare the results.
Educators can determine how effective the lesson was and see if they need to revisit the subject matter again, or can confidently move on to the next topic.
5. Group instructional strategies
5.1. Case studies
Case studies, as instructional strategies, are more spontaneous than structured group projects. But this is a good thing. It helps prepare students for when they enter the workforce, where problem solving on the fly is an essential skill. In a practical work environment, students can’t just do what they’re told and expect to succeed. Case studies can help prepare them for life after college or university.
To use case studies, put students into groups and task them with finding a way to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired from reading course materials and listening to lectures into real-world scenarios that match your assigned content area(s).
In a classroom setting, working on case studies encourages students to think critically about what they’ve learned, not just recite points back to the class.
Instructional strategies like these work as a structured form of argumentation. Debates require students to research concepts and think critically in order to present their positions in a convincing and justifiable way.
Most fitting for concepts with opposing points of view, debates help students develop listening and presentation skills. Once presented in class, having a debate can also introduce new perspectives on topics, and convince students to conduct further research in order to build stronger arguments, or intelligently counter those of the opposing side.
5.3. Peer instruction
With the teacher’s guidance, students can prepare and present course material in class, encouraging interaction with peers. Try to do this without the use of slides as an aid, so students have to communicate more with classmates and discover more creative ways to present the material.
It’s best to do these kinds of student-led instructional strategies at the beginning of a class, so students can teach one another about what they know, sharing their knowledge and experiences that relate to course material.
5.4. Role play
The use of simulations and games in your instructional toolkit can give you a deeper look at the impact of learning, as well as demonstrate how students can invent and experiment with learned concepts. Role playing also offers students a chance to practice their interpersonal skills in an environment in which they are comfortable and familiar.
Having the opportunity to visualize, model or role play in dynamic situations promotes curiosity, exploration and problem solving. It can aid students in working towards a greater understanding of the material. The more ways that students have of representing the knowledge they’ve acquired beyond writing and oral explanation, the better their comprehension and recall of the information will be.
In math and science fields, for example, students can experiment with simulated projects that would otherwise be difficult or cost-prohibitive to do in real settings. Examples include: designing a model of a roller coaster to understand slopes, angles and speed; using a hard-boiled egg to demonstrate Newton’s Law of Motion; or building a model volcano to understand what makes them erupt.
6. Instructional strategies for advanced students
6.1. Curriculum compacting
These instructional strategies encourage educators to identify students who already have advanced knowledge of a subject, skill or concept so they can spend less time on these areas. Curriculum compacting frees students up to focus more on the areas where they need to develop a greater understanding, versus concepts with which they’re already proficient. It’s ideal when working with individual students or small groups.
6.2. Independent study project
If students appear to be ahead of the class, assign them independent study projects. These projects should allow them to focus on a single concept around material discussed in class. They can also work on a separate but related topic for which they’ve expressed an interest or passion, making this an inquiry-based learning exercise.
Once the project is completed, the student can share what he or she learned with the class, demonstrating their mastery of the concept, and further educating the rest of the class on a specific area or example.
Independent study projects usually run anywhere from three to four weeks.
7. Organizational instructional strategies
An agenda sets out a comprehensive list of the assignments, activities, projects and tests students are responsible for working on and completing throughout the year, along with a timeline for each. Students can decide how they want to complete the work and in what order. Do they want to focus on one area of learning for an entire week? Do they want to tackle the subject matter they’re most comfortable with first, or start with more difficult concepts? In addition to encouraging students to come up with a structure they can follow, agendas help them practice time management skills.
To get going, provide each student with a blank calendar to fill in with their own schedule, ensuring they’ve organized work in order to meet assignment and project due dates. If different students are working on the same part of an assignment at the same time, consider allowing them to work together during class. Take on the role of a facilitator here, helping students set reasonable deadlines according to their needs.
7.2. Anchor activities
Also referred to as ‘sponge’ activities, anchor activities are assignments that students must work on immediately in order to maximize instruction time. They can complete these activities at the beginning of every class or right after, but the idea is to keep the learning and educational process going.
Anchor activities might include the student revisiting a question posed in the previous day’s class and composing a response to it, or presenting and discussing an answer out loud to a partner. Another option could be drawing a picture to represent a concept they just learned, or writing down an opinion about a key issue. This instructional strategy for teachers can also be used to provide students with notes as a reference when they’re studying for exams.
Be mindful of anchor activities that are simply ‘busy work’ to pass the time. Just as a sponge soaks up water, the goal of anchor activities is to help students soak up a better understanding of a concept or skill.
7.3. Knowledge charts
Before delving into a new topic or concept, have students submit what they already know, what they want to know and what they’ve learned already. Then, assess their prior knowledge on the subject, and get a feel for how interested they are in a topic.
Knowledge charts, as instructional tools, can also be used at various times to see how students are progressing, and if their interest in the topic is waning or growing. In filling out these graphic organizers, teachers can get an idea of where students are at academically. Students themselves can gauge their own progress and see where more work is needed.
7.4. Learning contracts
Another one of the several instructional strategies aimed at more advanced students is the learning contract. Use it to help students who need to be challenged by providing a specific assignment and list of directives that they must complete within a set period of time. Work with the student to set out the requirements of the contract, and provide a blank calendar they can use to devise a doable timeline, determining what dates and times they need in order to complete different parts of the assignment.
This is an effective instructional strategy to help students set their own learning goals and practice time management skills—both of which are useful in the working world. Once the contract and timeline are set, encourage students who are working on the same parts of the assignment at the same time to work together.
7.5. Portfolio development
Portfolios allow students to gather, organize and illustrate examples of their learning and academic achievements. Portfolio development is the process of creating, collecting, reflecting on and selecting work samples that best showcase students’ understanding of a given concept. Once students select their top pieces that best represent their learning outcomes, they can then use a binder or scrapbook to organize their work.
Work samples kept in a portfolio might include notes from an interview, a diagram, storyboards, essays, infographics and more. Portfolio development is a necessary and effective process for most humanities and STEM majors. Art students can use a portfolio to curate their top pieces—whether paintings, drawings or photographs—at the end of the semester. Alternatively, students in architecture or engineering courses can use a portfolio to house mockups and wireframes of a new building or the parts of an engine. No two students’ portfolios will include the same work since these differ based on discipline and course.
8. Tiered instructional strategies
8.1. Tiered activities
Set up three or four activities of varying complexity for students to participate in. Each should have the same common goal of helping students understand a specific element of the subject material. For example, it might be different experiments that all explain the basic concept of physics.
Start with a mid-level activity that would apply to most students in the class, then include one that’s a step-up in difficulty to challenge students with a better understanding of the material. Alternatively, offer a simplified version for students who are still working to gain a full understanding of the concept.
Place students in groups based on their perceived level, or give a brief description of each of the assignments and let them choose which level they feel most comfortable working in. Once completed, discuss and compare the results.
By the end of this collaborative exercise, each group will have a greater understanding of the material. If students are able to choose which group they join, the teacher will also get a feel for the comfort level of each student.
8.2. Tiered rubrics
Present a couple of rubrics (scoring guides) to students, based on their current level, so they have the skills needed in order to better focus and be successful in class.
The rubrics should all contain the same basic categories, but the point value or required elements should be adjusted based on the student’s readiness. For students equipped to take on greater challenges, add more categories or requirements. Conversely, remove some requirements and/or categories for students who need more assistance, or haven’t quite grasped the material just yet.
In exploring various types of instructional strategies, you’ll find that there’s something to suit every type of student level, subject and lecture format. When applied effectively, instructional strategies for teaching can help students gain a deeper understanding of course material and encourage critical thinking, beyond basic retention and surface understanding. Educators, too, can benefit by using different teaching methods throughout the semester to determine the efficacy of lesson plans, and how every student is progressing through each concept.
Download our free instructional strategies guide, filled with 25 effective activities and best practices to use in any college course.