Read this ultimate guide to gain a solid understanding of instructional strategies, why they’re important and how they can be applied to the teaching and learning process to benefit both students and educators for both students and educators.

In this guide, you’ll:

  • Learn what instructional strategies are and the various types educators can use to teach more effectively
  • Gain a deeper knowledge of how methods like assessments, case studies, debates, flipped classrooms and more play into the overall student learning and instructional experience
  • Get equipped to implement instructional strategies that are appropriate for your course in order to become more effective at teaching and engaging students.

You’ll be ready to tackle any kind of classroom setting, from grade school to higher education, with a host of instructional strategies that will guide students towards success.

Table of contents

1. What are Instructional Strategies?
2. Types of Instructional Strategies
2.1. Agendas
2.2. Anchor Activities
2.3. Assessments
2.4. Case Studies
2.5. Cubing
2.6. Curriculum Compacting
2.7. Debates
2.8. Exit Tickets
2.9. Flipped Classrooms
2.10. Grade As You Go
2.11. Homework Practice
2.12. Knowledge Charts
2.13. Independent Study Project
2.14. Learning Contracts
2.15. Minute Papers
2.16. Muddiest Point
2.17. Peer Instruction
2.18. Questions
2.19. Quizzes
2.20. Reflection
2.21. Role Play
2.22. Think-Pair-Share
2.23. Tiered Activities
2.24. Tiered Rubrics
3. Conclusion
4. Further Reading

1. What are Instructional Strategies?

Instructional strategies encompass any type of learning technique a teacher uses to help students 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 a variety of different instructional approaches 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 have the capability 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, nor is there only one, specific way to group them together. While this isn’t by any means an exhaustive list, instructional strategies often fall under general groupings. These include: student assessment; discussing and examining ideas; group formation; physical activity; collaborative work; content adaptation; student discussion; and note-taking.

What follows is a selection of common instructional strategies educators use to teach.

2.1. Agendas

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.

2.2. 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. Teachers can also provide students with notes they can copy to use 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.

2.3. Assessments

Any test, quiz, project, or exam that is graded is considered assessment, as are informal checks of student progress throughout the year.

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.

A useful tip: include test or quiz questions that vary in complexity, and focus on different aspects of a concept. Make one question mandatory for responding, but allow students to choose which ones they want to answer among the remaining ones.

2.4. Case Studies

Case studies 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.

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.

2.5. Cubing

The instructional strategy of cubing 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/commands 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 and 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.

2.6. Curriculum Compacting

This instructional strategy encourages educators to identify students who already have advanced knowledge of a subject, skill or concept so they can spend less time on these areas. This 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.

2.7. Debates

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 oratory 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.

2.8. Exit Tickets

Before the students leave class, ask them to write down an answer to a question relating to a key concept learned in the lesson that day on a piece of paper or index card. Questions can be simple, like asking them to highlight what they want to learn more about, or 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 them hand the “tickets” to you as they exit, then go through 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 well the class is grasping and reacting to the material.

Use the information from the exit tickets to form groups in the following class. 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.

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2.9. Flipped Classrooms

Flipping your classroom is one of the most popular forms of active learning. 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 they can listen to at home or during their commute. Educators can then use classroom time to engage 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 do 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 workout or commute time with further learning, when it’s most convenient for them.

2.10. Grade As You Go

This instructional strategy is ideal for subjects that involve repetitive practices and rote memorization, such as mathematics and languages. 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.

Grade As You Go also means educators can pinpoint students who have a superior grasp of the material and allow 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.

2.11. Homework Practice

The purpose of homework 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 student and educator.

2.12. Knowledge Charts

Prior to 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 background knowledge on the subject prior to beginning lessons, and get a feel for how interested they are in a topic.

Knowledge charts 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 charts, teachers can get an idea of where students are. Students themselves can gauge their own progress and see where more work is needed.

2.13. 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 for.

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.

2.14. Learning Contracts

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 do-able timeline, determining what dates and times they plan to complete different parts of the assignment. This helps them set their own goals and practice time management skills—both of which are useful in the real world. Once the contract and timeline is set, put students who are working on the same parts of the assignment at the same time to work together.

2.15. Minute Papers

Pose a question about the day’s teaching, and give the 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 as a “ticket out,” whereby educators wrap up class a few minutes early. 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 help students avoid illusions of fluency, where they think they’ve mastered something that they actually haven’t. Once this is realized, both students and teachers can identify and address weaknesses.

2.16. Muddiest Point

Using index cards or an app, ask students to anonymously submit what part of the course material they’re having the most difficulty with. Use the responses to determine where extra instruction is needed and adjust lessons accordingly.

Alternatively, these 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: if terms haven’t been selected, they are being avoided for a reason. Students, naturally, 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.

2.17. 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 this 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.

2.18. Questions

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.

2.19. Quizzes

When the class starts, or there’s a pause between concepts or topics, administer a quick quiz to get an understanding of how far along students are in their learning. Count this as formative, rather than summative, assessment. In order to effectively assess comprehension, it’s best to not to attach a graded outcome to this activity. Students will inevitably worry if the quiz is going to impact their overall grade for the class.

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.

2.20. Reflection

Hand out blank index cards 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. It could be simple, like asking what they learned, or what they found the most interesting. Or, make it more involved, 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 take a moment to think about what they learned that day. 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.

2.21. Role Play

The use of simulations and games can give teachers a deeper look at the impact of learning and demonstrate how students can invent and experiment with learned concepts. It also gives them 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.

2.22 Think-Pair-Share

This active learning technique is one 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 or two. Have them discuss the material they just learned. Prepare questions, and, once they’ve had some time to discuss with their partner(s), have them 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 for 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.

2.23 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, than include one that’s a step-up in difficulty to challenge students with a better understanding of the material, and a simplified version for students 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.

2.24 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.

3. Conclusion

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. Instructional strategies serve as a backbone for teaching, and, when applied correctly, can help students gain a deeper understanding of course material beyond just basic retention and surface thinking. Educators, too, can benefit by using different instructional strategies throughout the semester to determine the efficacy of lesson plans, and how each student is progressing through each concept.

4. Further Reading

Learn about the different instructional strategies that 13 of the most innovative profs use to improve student engagement.

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