Rote learning has become passé. So has passive teaching. These days, top educators are thinking about being agile and engaging, and that comes from first principles: your course design.

In the same way software developers create agile software — in which they keep trying new things and improving, and mistakes are part of the journey to excellence — the agile concept can be applied to higher education. Rather building your course design around a static curriculum, the agile framework is about responding to change and measuring ‘meaningful learning’ over grades. The perspective here is that failure is, in fact, an option.

For the educator, this requires an approach wherein course material can be tweaked and modified to better meet the needs of students. While agile guidelines are a great idea in theory, how do you take a more agile approach to course design? And what does that redesign actually look like in your teaching and curriculum development?

Here are some practical teaching and learning strategies on effectively incorporating agility into teaching and learning, enhancing your students’ collaboration and designing classroom interaction around the principle. These are appropriate to implement in all kinds of undergraduate classrooms, many subjects (from mathematics to philosophy), and they enable many pedagogical strategies, like blended learning and peer instruction.

1. Learning sprints

Similar to sprinting on a race track, a learning sprint requires achieving a specific outcome in a specific duration of time—in other words, it has a start and finish line. But a learning sprint can be as short or as long as you choose, from a single class to several weeks (though it’s not meant to be a marathon).

Start by identifying the learning goal or desired outcome, then go into ‘sprint’ mode with a short burst of teaching. After you cross the finish line, assess learner progress and improvement. This can facilitate the identification of any learning gaps and make better use of class time, rather than you discovering months into the course that students are finding the material too easy or too hard.

2. Scrums

This is part of an agile, collaborative approach to software product development — but also makes sense in a learning environment. Students work together in small teams, although scrums are not the same as group work. The instructor serves as ‘scrum master,’ defining the learning objective of a project, and each team takes ownership of implementation and how they will meet that objective.

Scrums solve ‘requirements churn,’ where goals change and challenges can’t be predicted. “As such, Scrum adopts an empirical approach — accepting that the problem cannot be fully understood or defined, focusing instead on maximizing the team’s ability to deliver quickly and respond to emerging requirements,” writes Saga Briggs in an article for informED.1

3. Backchannel

This is a high-tech version of the time-honored tradition of asking questions, but opens up the dialogue to students who might be shy — and allows teachers to pinpoint gaps in instruction and the learning experience. In an educational setting, the backchannel uses real-time online conversation alongside a class lecture or presentation, typically up on a big screen that everyone can see. Students can ask questions or comment on ideas being discussed via the backchannel (either using their name, an avatar or anonymously).

For students, the backchannel can also be used to suggest future topics of discussion for instructors to teach or provide feedback.

Several technological tools, including Top Hat, can rank questions by importance or amplify user-submitted content and comments so that instructors can focus on the most relevant, boosting the effectiveness of this initiative. Multimedia is even an option.

4. Open Curriculums

Higher education could take a lesson or two from the perspective of the startup, where there is a lot of uncertainty—startups must be agile and demonstrate the ability for innovation at a moment’s notice. In the classroom, an open curriculum allows instructors to tweak and modify the coursework as necessary, and according to discipline, to better meet the needs of students.

One piece of advice from Edutopia could be applied to higher education.2 “Allow [students] to help to set the agenda and determine the path that makes sense to them as learners. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your curriculum midstream,” says X. Using digital assessment tools, instructors can get real-time feedback from students and incorporate it into their course design and syllabus — helping students take ownership of the learning process and achieve better outcomes.

5. Think-Pair-Share

For instructors with large class sizes, it can feel like an impossible task to gauge how well students are grasping the course material — let alone teach and engage those students in an agile teaching environment. Encouraging participation is hard when it’s easier to be anonymous. This is where active learning approaches such as think-pair-share can excel; in pairs or groups, students are given a question or problem, which they discuss and then share with the class.

What sets this apart from traditional group workshops, however, is that you can integrate ‘sharing’ by using interactive learning technologies, or other apps that can aggregate and analyze student responses. (Part of the toolkit should be an integration with your learning management system.)

This, and similar learning activities, provides instructors with a better understanding of how students are applying the course material, the level of engagement, and if modifications are needed to fill in any learning gaps.

Among other active learning techniques, reflection and the minute paper are two more student centered teaching strategies that could be baked into your course design for maximum feedback. Both methods involve students directly in their own learning.

More course design ideas

Several instructional techniques encourage feedback and evaluation, and offer methods that can be used to tweak or modify course material, boosting learning outcomes. The ‘grade as you go’ technique, for example, allows students to mark their own work, either alone or in pairs, and apply their learnings in real time to the assignment. At the same time, instructors can gauge whether the course material is meeting student learning objectives. Find out more about this pedagogy and other teaching strategies in Top Hat’s instructional strategies guide.


  1. Briggs, S. (2014, February 22). Agile Based Learning: What Is It and How Can It Change Education? [Blog post] Retrieved from
  2. Kiang, D. (2014, December 23). The Agile Classroom. [Blog post] Retrieved from

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