Teaching strategies

Teaching is a complex activity, requiring knowledge of content, knowledge of the learners and knowledge of different ways to interact with learners and with the content.

There are a number of teaching strategies that are your teaching tools to support learning in higher education. No one strategy works all the time, as learners have different needs and content requires different approaches.

During a session of teaching you will make many decisions about your actions, your words, the sequence of activities and the resources you will make use of. A key decision you will make is the teaching approach you will take. The focus of your teaching will always be the learner: their needs, their engagement, their understanding. however you may choose to take a teacher centred approach or a learner centred approach and this will influence the strategies you then implement with the learners.

Approaches centred on the...

  • teacher has control over what is taught
  • teacher decides how information is presented
  • strategies include direct instruction, expository teaching
  • stronger emphasis on the learner's role in the learning process
  • learning comes from peers, self, teacher - the teacher has less direct control over what is presented and how it is presented
  • strategies include cooperative learning, inquiry learning, discovery learning.

Both approaches have a valid place in the repertoire of teaching strategies you will use. The differences include

  • what the teacher does
  • the way learning sessions are organised
  • how active the learners are during the session
  • how learning is assessed
  • how much learners are responsible for their own learning

Having decided on your approach, you will then make decisions about the strategies you will use to engage the learners with the content. Quality teaching uses a range of strategies and includes both teacher-centred and learner-centred approaches. It aims to develop understanding rather than expect rote memorisation. Quality teaching motivates learners to be active learners rather passive. It requires learners applying learning in different contexts, and it provokes curiosity about the content.


Here are some strategies you may want to explore further. It is better to use a range of strategies to provide different learning experiences for your learners. Individual learners respond to different approaches.

One of the most frequently used strategies in higher education teaching, it involves:

  • breaking a larger group into smaller groups, and providing them with a task to complete
  • learners work together without constant direct supervision of the teacher
  • looks like: small clusters of students working together, active engagement, the teacher moving among the groups and listening, asking questions, checking in
  • sounds like: active conversation, idea sharing, many voices speaking at once.


  • Develops skills that are important in the workplace, including collaborative skills, working in teams, listening and responding to others.
  • Improves problem solving skills, verbal skills, cooperation. Requires learners to draw on their previous knowledge, and to connect pieces of information together.
  • Different groups can be working on different topics or areas of a topic, and then contribute to the learning of the whole group.
  • Allows students to play different roles within the larger group, and reduces the domination of louder voices across the whole group.

What you need to do

  • Plan carefully for the task learners will be doing so that your instructions are clear.
  • Set a clear time limit for completion, and the expectation of what they will need to produce, or share.
  • Plan innovative ways of sharing the outcome - simply having each group report back in turn is not engaging! Have them share with one other group and then produce a shared summary, or have them write a reflection for posting on your subject site.
  • There are times when it is necessary to choose the groups rather than self-selection - as the teacher you will know what group make-up needs to be. Encourage students to explore who they work with.
  • Be present during the group activity time. Drop in on a group and listen, reflect back what you are hearing, challenge their assumptions or ask a new question to move them on. Continue to teach across the groups.
  • Involves the teacher maintaining the focus and supporting learners to manage the discussion.
  • Involves the learners providing input and generating ideas, solutions and connections.
  • Is a learning conversation where everyone present is able to express their ideas and respond to each other.
  • While the teacher may seek an outcome, the discussion is open-ended - the teacher does not lock the discussion down for particular ideas or conclusions.
  • Looks like: everyone engaging in focussed conversation around a topic, issue or question; the group is arranged in a circle all participants are visible and able to make eye contact.
  • Sounds like: managed conversation, with individuals speaking, listening and responding to each other, building on the points made.


  • Effective strategy to hear diverse viewpoints, and to explore ideas together.
  • Encourages all learners to listen, reflect and respond to the ideas of others.
  • Provides an opportunity for 'thinking out loud' and testing ideas with the group.
  • Allows for exploration of complex issues and ideas, for further questions or concerns.
  • Can help students draw on previous learning, and hear different perspectives.
  • Brings new ideas and perspectives to learners, and the teacher.

What you need to do

  • Establish a framework around the discussion eg only one person speaks at a time; respect all ideas and views; suggest a time limit for speaking eg can only speak for 2 minutes at a time; remind students of the purpose of having a discussion.
  • Pose a question or provocation to stimulate discussion.
  • Allow time for learners to reflect and think on this before opening discussion by inviting someone to contribute.
  • Be aware of the individuals who may dominate the conversation. You may need to ask them to wait for others to speak, or remind them that it is important to listen to different ideas. You may need to provide them with some personal instruction on engaging in discussion.
  • Ensure you as teacher don't dominate the discussion - sit within the circle, let students self-nominate to speak, neither agree or disagree with comments - ask what the group feels; or if someone has a different idea to invite other suggestions.
  • Know when to end the discussion. While this may be the end of the set time, it may also be at a point where engagement drops - the idea has been explored fully.
  • Is a teacher-centred strategy.
  • The academic content is presented in a structured format, where the teacher explains/instructs/ demonstrates, directs learner activity and monitors students.
  • Emphasis on academic content and skills.
  • Looks like: lectures, explicit teaching, teacher leads discussion and conversation, instruction or direction.
  • Sounds like: teacher voice, teacher instruction, learners answer questions when directed.


  • Effective strategy to introduce core, basic knowledge or skills.
  • Valuable a broad overview or key concepts need to be made clear.
  • When supported by a demonstration or clear explanation ensures learners have necessary guidance (eg safety procedures, scientific procedures, core vocabulary).

What you need to do

  • Present the information enthusiastically- share your passion for the content.
  • Pause and provide opportunity for student questions or comments - ask them what they are thinking.
  • Before beginning, check what students already know about the topic or content.
  • Highlight important points for learners.
  • Include different perspectives as you teach.
  • Avoid long monologues without breaks and respond to learner behaviours that indicate lack of engagement, confusion or uncertainty.
  • Involves learners working to resolve a problem that is complex, messy and with many different elements.
  • Can be challenging for learners as there is uncertainty, and there may be more than one answer.
  • Is a learner centred strategy - the learning that happens meets immediate needs. The teacher is a resource of further guidance, necessary skills, new questions.
  • Depends on the problem being substantial, authentic and complex to challenge learners to see things differently, to apply their knowledge, and intentionally seek new knowledge.


  • Learners need to remember important ideas from content and apply them in a number of ways.
  • Using real, messy problems requires learners to ask good questions and to learn from and with others.
  • New skills and knowledge have to be learned with a real purpose and an outcome that relates to the discipline/profession.
  • Connects learners to the profession/industry.
  • Learners are required to make informed judgements and to explain their reasoning, evaluate their understanding.

What you need to do:

  • Identify real and challenging problems in the field, capture them and know how they link to content (though this does not have to be neat).
  • Know where you can guide learners to find more information, more details.
  • Be prepared to let learners go down the wrong path, but watch when you need to intervene with a new question or a suggestion 'have you thought about...?'.
  • Prepare learners by teaching them critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, communication and team work skills.
  • Help learners to feel comfortable with the uncertainty and adaptability needed when learning through problem solving. Be present in the environment to support learners.
  • A learner centred approach as learners work together to achieve a common goal.
  • Is different to small group work because it depends on the learners working together to achieve/create a shared outcome or product.
  • Relies on the different skills, capabilities and knowledge that learners have - each member brings an important attribute to the task.
  • Expects learners to interact with each other to discuss the approach, the roles and responsibilities and to plan their tasks.
  • Requires each learner to be individually accountable for a component of the outcome. The whole group/team is accountable for each member successfully completing their part.


  • Builds interpersonal skills: listening, interacting, clarifying, solving conflict, resolving difference.
  • Learners depend less on the teacher for input, and more on their own ability to think, to find information from different sources and to learn from their peers.
  • Takes learning beyond memorisation of facts for repeating back, towards fully applying and critiquing knowledge and constructing new understandings.
  • Encourages learners to ask for help or more information.
  • Provides the opportunity for learners with different skills to use them to help others.

What you need to do

  • Co-operative learning takes time. Allow enough time to work through the early stages of clarification and organisation to that learners can reach the final stage of the task.
  • Support learners who find it difficult with coaching, or advice.
  • Connect with groups while they are working, and check in with them to re-direct or to provide knowledge they may need.
  • Manage conflict that arises with a group by supporting them to work out how to cooperate.
  • Create tasks that authentically need different types of skill and ability.
  • Be clear on why working cooperatively is necessary to achieve the task.
  • Uses narrative or stories from life to introduce and reinforce concepts for learners.
  • Connects learning to real world situations.
  • Helps learners to apply concepts to different contexts.
  • Invites discussion and sharing of how knowledge works in the field.
  • Looks like: learners viewing/reading/listening to a story from the field and then exploring answers to open-ended questions that draw out different perspectives.
  • Sounds like: story telling followed by discussion and conversation around the details of the story.


  • Learners apply theory to real life and are able to see why they need to know information.
  • Learners have to analyse and critically think about information.
  • Connects learners to the real world, helping them to see the integration of knowledge and concepts.
  • Encourages deep learning, as learners have to think about how to apply theory and content from other experiences.
  • Learners hear different viewpoints about a content area.

What you need to do

  • Prepare the case/s carefully - while you may begin with a real story, you may need to make sure it covers the relevant issues that meet your outcomes.
  • Present the case to learners in an interesting way. Using multi-media and different sources of information is engaging and realistic.
  • Facilitate open conversation about a case, drawing attention to different elements and to the connections with outcomes.
  • Allow learners time to individually explore and reflect on the case study in the context of their learning.
  • Ensure learners have the skills to analyse information and draw out key elements to drive work.
  • While individuals or groups may be responding to the case study, set times for coming back together and sharing thinking, or to bring new information into the story.
  • Use a range of other strategies as they work through the case study - plan the learning journey through the activity.


Material for this content has been drawn from

Biggs, J. B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. (4th edn) Berkshire, UK: Open University Press

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Killen, R. (2015). Effective teaching strategies: lessons from research and practice. (7th edn). Australia: Cengage Learning

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