28 Instructional Strategies to Foster Participation in College Classrooms

Cover image for Poll Everywhere blog about instructional strategies.

Instructional strategies, or the different ways educators deliver their lessons and go about teaching, play a huge role in student success. When used effectively, instructional strategies can improve student engagement, comprehension, and learning outcomes.

We’ve collected 28 different instructional strategies that higher ed instructors can use in their classrooms, including strategies that work in virtual or hybrid classrooms with a little help from interactive tech tools like Poll Everywhere. Let’s dive in and find the best instructional strategies for your classroom, learn how they work, and explore templates and examples to help you reach students of all levels and backgrounds.

What are instructional strategies?

Instructional strategies, also called learning strategies, are the techniques educators use to convey course content and help students learn. Using instructional strategies in your classroom encourages independent learning as well as builds critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In other words, almost any classroom activity can be categorized as an instructional strategy.

Instructors should aim to use a variety of instructional strategies during class to reach students at different levels of comprehension, as well as play to students’ strengths and learning styles. There is no one best instructional strategy. Rather, educators should choose the method that’s most effective for their students and learning goals.

28 types of instructional strategies

Instructional strategies for active learning

1. Current events

Instructors can use current events and news to add relevance to a lesson or course. This helps students develop critical thinking skills and, if encouraged to present their take on current events, it can improve their presentation skills as well. Using current events as a teaching strategy also strengthens understanding of the relevance of course topics to real-world situations.

Case studies are a variation of this strategy, which ask students to examine a real-life event or scenario and apply their knowledge to explain or solve it.

2. Field experience

Getting students out of the classroom helps them apply their knowledge to real-world problems and settings. While field trips are traditionally seen as a reward, they can also give learners the opportunity to explore different industries on-site or work alongside an expert in their field of study.

Benefits of field experience range from motivating students toward academic success to improving equal access, making this strategy a powerful way to create an inclusive, engaging learning experience.

3. Flipped classrooms

Flipping your classroom is becoming a popular instructional strategy, especially as hybrid, virtual, and HyFlex classrooms become commonplace. In this strategy, the instructor posts a pre-recorded lecture to the LMS that students can watch before class. The instructor then uses class time for discussion or engaging learning activities that are related to the lecture.

The flipped classroom strategy introduces students to concepts on their own time followed by more interactive, in-depth discussion during class.

Educators can further use the flipped classroom strategy to encourage asynchronous discussion in forums or on communication platforms like Slack.

4. Exit tickets

Before students leave class, ask them to answer a question related to the lesson or in-class discussion. Their answer is considered an exit ticket, or something they can turn in as they leave—which can also help you take attendance and see who stayed through the entire class.

The instructor decides which question is most appropriate—the idea is to pose a question that helps you assess student comprehension and if anyone needs additional help in a specific area.

Some examples of exit tickets include the following:

  • What’s one important thing you learned in class today?
  • Write one question you have about today’s lesson.
  • How do you think today’s class could be improved?
  • Was today’s learning activity useful for you? Why or why not?
  • How could you use the knowledge you learned today in the real world?

Quick tip: Teaching a hybrid or virtual class? Use Poll Everywhere’s Open-ended question feature to share an exit ticket with students and collect responses.

5. Modeling

With modeling, students are asked to demonstrate a new concept or skill while their peers learn through observation and emulation. Modeling can be extremely effective for sharing knowledge and retention, especially when students are able to observe others’ thought processes and imitate their actions. It’s also been shown to reduce cognitive bias so students can strengthen their decision-making skills.

Modeling can take different forms depending on instructor preference, including but not limited to the following:

  • Task and performance modeling: The instructor or a student demonstrates how to complete a task.
  • Metacognitive modeling: Students share their thought processes out loud while they complete a task.

6. Reflection

A reflection prompt is a question that requires students to think deeply about the day’s lesson. The question can be as simple or complex as the instructor deems fit, and responses can be logged on paper, discussion boards, or with a teaching app like Poll Everywhere.

Some example reflection questions include the following:

  • What’s the most interesting thing you learned in class today?
  • How would you use today’s lesson in real life?
  • How would you explain a concept you learned today to your five-year-old nephew or niece?
  • Why is today’s lesson important?

7. Think-pair-share

This active learning technique has students pair up after you present a lesson. Students then take some time to discuss what they’ve just learned with each other, and then present their conclusions to the rest of the class. The instructor can open up discussion by asking questions and encouraging friendly debate.

Think-pair-share can be especially helpful for engaging students at the beginning or in the middle of a semester by reigniting their interest in the course material and reminding them that their peers may also share their views and concerns.

This learning strategy example is similar to cascading persuasion, a technique used by law professor Christopher Robertson at the University of Arizona. In class, Robertson doesn’t reveal the answer to a multiple-choice question if too many students answer incorrectly.

Instead, the students pair off and debate whose answer was right. Once consensus is reached, they argue their decision to another pair of students. This continues until the whole class agrees on the correct answer.

Assessment-based instructional strategies

8. Cubing

Cubing can spark both educator and student creativity by providing a random approach to class activities. It involves writing questions or commands on each side of a dice cube, then rolling the die during class to determine what question or command a student must respond to.

Instructors can even give students more control by having them write commands and questions on multiple cubes. You can purchase a dry-erase cube to reuse over and over again, or use a digital spin-the-wheel app to get ideas, questions, and collaboration rolling in your virtual class.

9. Formative, performance, summative assessments

Assessments are a key type of instructional strategy. Each type of assessment provides different benefits.

  • Formative assessments: A low-pressure form of assessment, these allow instructors to check in on student comprehension through formats like peer evaluations, pop quizzes, and gamified learning activities.
  • Performance assessments: Requiring students to actively demonstrate their skills and understanding, performance assessments go beyond rote memorization and gauge practical application.
  • Summative assessments: Another way to see whether students acquired the right skills and knowledge, summative assessments are used at the end of a defined period, such as at the end of a class, semester, or project.

10. Grade-as-you-go

Grade-as-you-go is an excellent strategy for topics requiring repetitive practice, like math or language arts. Students can work on in-class assignments alone or in pairs, and as they do, the instructor makes their way around the class to provide instant feedback on what they’re doing right, as well as any mistakes.

This real-time feedback allows students to immediately correct mistakes and gain confidence about what they’ve got right—without waiting to get homework back.

Real-time feedback also provides educators with a quick assessment of whether the class needs to spend more time covering a specific topic or if it’s time to move on.

11. Practice and homework

Homework is an integral part of education, as is practice. Both provide students with additional time to learn and apply skills both inside and outside the classroom. Each should include clear expectations about the purpose of the task and its results. Educators should provide feedback that provides students with further learning opportunities after homework or practice is complete.

12. Quizzes and Q&As

While questions and quizzes are the bread and butter of education, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used strategically. Both activities allow you to quickly gauge student understanding, but it may be difficult for all students to feel comfortable enough to participate.

That’s where varying the method and complexity of questions can help—like Poll Everywhere’s anonymous response system. Additionally, you can call on specific students to answer different questions so that those who are excelling in class can answer more complex questions while those who are struggling can answer questions that boost their confidence and build upon their knowledge foundation.

Instructional strategies for group activities

13. Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning divides students into small groups with the goal of sharing knowledge and collaborating on tasks. This type of group work not only invites modeling but also improves team building, group interaction, and individual accountability.

14. Debates

Debates encourage students to build critical thinking skills to present their stance on a potentially divisive topic. When structured properly, debates can encourage open-mindedness and the ability to consider different points of view.

Additionally, debates present an opportunity for students to research concepts and ideas in order to argue their point—as well as consider counterpoints and defenses against them.

15. Peer analysis

Instructors can use pairs and small groups to facilitate peer feedback on a specific assignment, task, or thought process. Students can submit feedback openly or anonymously.

Ideally, the instructor also provides a clear rubric for assessing the quality of the assignment, task, or thought process, so everyone’s analysis is consistent and comparable. This is especially helpful if the instructor extends the analysis and discussion to a class-wide setting.

16. Peer-led classes

Learning from peers benefits both the students being helped and those providing the assistance. By inviting students to lead a class (or portion of a class), instructors can encourage them to take ownership of reviewing, organizing, and presenting existing knowledge and material.

This form of active learning requires students to understand the fundamentals of topics, fill gaps in understanding among their peers, discover and relate additional meanings, and apply knowledge to new conceptual frameworks.

Pro tip: Inviting them to help you plan and lead the lesson can improve student engagement as well, even if you just ask for feedback and suggestions.

17. Role-play

Simulations and games positively impact learning outcomes by boosting student motivation. Role-playing in particular helps students develop interpersonal skills in a low-risk setting. Students feel encouraged to participate and experience an inclusive learning environment where everyone feels safe to practice and experiment.

18. Socratic seminar

This instructional strategy calls for students to discuss ideas or questions posed by assigned reading (or sometimes a work of art). The instructor can initiate or guide discussion with open-ended questions, and students should use the assigned text as evidence to support their responses.

While the original approach requires students to signal their intention to speak through eye contact, hybrid and virtual classrooms can rely on the tradition of raising hands.

An alternative to this is called Socratic circles, which involves one group of students sitting in a circle and discussing the text or work of art while a second circle of students listens to the inner group discussion and provides critique.

19. Jigsaw

Jigsaw is a cooperative learning method where the instructor splits students into “home” groups. Within each group, individual students focus on learning about a specific aspect of a topic, assigned reading, or task. Then, students meet with members of other groups who were assigned the same focus to develop mastery of the material.

Once they’re done mastering the material, students return to their home group and teach the other group members what they’ve learned. In this way, each student in the home group has a piece of the puzzle and by working together, the group completes the jigsaw.

Organizational or classroom management instructional strategies

20. Agendas

Just as agendas are helpful for keeping meetings on track, they can also set the stage for students’ self-paced learning. The instructor provides a list of assignments, readings, projects, and assessments students must complete during the course as well as a due date or timeline for each one. Students then decide which task to work on and in what order.

By building their own agenda, students develop time management skills and personal accountability.

21. Anchor activities

Anchor activities involve starting class with a quick assignment and then building on that assignment during the rest of class time. The anchor assignments can range from having students answer a question and supporting it with evidence to solving a math “problem of the day.”

22. Concept maps

When students create graphic organizers like concept maps, they’re required to consider the visual representation of the relationships between facts, words, or ideas that make up a task. This visual approach to knowledge sorting provides learners with a variation on how they think about course content, which can better resonate with different types of learners.

23. Learning contracts

Also called a goals contract, a learning contract helps you and your students agree on clear expectations by specifying the skills and behaviors required for success in your class. These are most often presented at the beginning of the semester and typically include a statement that the student must agree to by signing their name.

Learning contract agreements may include the following or similar statements:

  • I have read and understand the course syllabus.
  • I have reviewed the course schedule and taken note of the required deadlines.
  • I understand that all course announcements and assignments will be posted in Blackboard (or another LMS).

Another approach to learning contracts asks students to set goals and list the strategies and resources they’ll use to achieve those goals by a specified due date. Here’s a learning contract template that focuses on student-specific goals that you can use in your class:

Student learning contract worksheet

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24. Portfolios

Portfolios are one way to confirm that learning contract objectives have been met. They require students to create, collect, and reflect on their class work. They should choose only their best work that exhibits their understanding or application of a specific concept or topic.

Portfolios can include storyboards, essays, final projects, and more. And because a portfolio curates a student’s best achievements, they are well-suited for job applications in their chosen field of study.

Other types of instructional strategies

25. Curriculum compacting

If some of your students have a strong grasp on a topic, skill, or concept, curriculum compacting can free up time otherwise spent on these areas. This strategy works best when interacting with students on an individual basis or in small groups, but may also work well in HyFlex classrooms that give students more control over their pace of learning.

26. Independent projects

If one or a few of your students are far ahead of the rest of the class, giving them a hands-on project to complete themselves can keep them engaged while you work with other students.

Usually, an independent project encourages students to concentrate on one concept from class, allowing them to direct their own learning. Alternatively, a student can select a topic related to those covered in class for an inquiry-based learning approach.

Once their project is complete, students further benefit from presenting their project and discoveries to the rest of the class. This also benefits their classmates by providing them with an alternative approach to the course material.

Project-based learning activities typically require three to four weeks’ worth of work. Here are some examples:

  • Build a website focused on a course topic, assigned reading, or concept
  • Record a video that explains a course concept in an engaging way
  • Design an infographic that visually represents a concept
  • Create a comic or illustration that retells a concept or assigned reading as a story
  • Build a Poll Everywhere quiz for classmates and grade it

27. Tiered activities

With this strategy, the instructor creates three to four different activities for students to complete in class. Each activity focuses on the same topic or concept, but completing each activity requires a different level of comprehension.

If you’re unsure how to create different tiers of activities, it may help to build the activity that requires an average level of comprehension to complete. Then use that activity to inform how you build the easier and more challenging variations.

When class starts, group students based on their plausible level of comprehension and assign them the activity with the corresponding level of complexity. Alternatively, you can let students assign themselves.

Once activities are completed, gather everyone together to discuss and compare results. The benefit is that every group ends up with a better understanding and application of the specific topic. If students assign themselves to a group, the instructor can also get an idea of who might feel less confident about the topic than others.

28. Tiered rubrics

A tiered rubric provides a tailored approach to outlining and building required class skills and levels of comprehension. The tiered rubric features the same assessment categories, but the assigned point values or requirements change based on the level of proficiency.

Students with a higher level of proficiency demonstrate their comprehension by completing more difficult challenges and fulfilling more requirements. Students with a lower level of proficiency must complete less difficult challenges and fulfill fewer requirements.

Here’s an example tiered rubric for academic writing:

Sample tiered rubric for academic writing

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Engage students with effective instructional strategies and Poll Everywhere

As you can see, there are dozens of instructional strategies to choose from. But the most effective teaching methods are based on individual student needs and the content you’re covering.

Your classroom format can also influence which instructional methods you choose, but don’t dismiss traditional techniques if your classroom is online or a mix of online and in-person. Tech tools like Poll Everywhere bridge digital and analog experiences to engage students with interactive presentations and activities.

Best Practices for Managing Devices in Education

Love them or hate them, cell phones are a common sight in today’s classrooms. But there are ways to turn technology into powerful engagement tools that inspire students to participate in class. Ready to discover how technology in the classroom can help you boost student performance and create an engaging learning environment?