Instructional Strategies

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Instructional Strategies for Your Classroom

We’ve collected our favorite instructional strategies (aka teaching hacks) right here! Give some a try and let us know what works for you! 

Classroom Management | Collaboration | Connections and Rapport | Creative and Critical Thinking | Differentiated Learning | Engagement | Feedback and Assessment | Risk-taking and Perseverance | Student Choice


Classroom Management

There is no reason why you can’t make routines even more awesome! Make a list of your classroom routines, then think about which ones you could “funnify.” For instance, instead of clapping your hands to get student attention, blow on a horn made by decorating a PVC pipe. Instead of just shaking students’ hands when they enter the door every day, create a secret handshake for each student. View printable strategy.

We spend lots of time transitioning from one activity to another. Figure out how to keep minds engaged by adding academic content to these transition times. For instance, while walking down the hall, have younger students silently count their steps by twos or fives. For older students, have them estimate the amount of time it takes them to clean up after an activity. View printable strategy.

Never argue. When students attempt to engage, simply listen, nod empathetically, and say, “But what did I say?” If they continue to argue, kindly repeat, “But what did I say?” Be caring and be consistent, and this approach will work wonders! View printable strategy.

Shrink your list of rules—no more than five!—and make them more flexible. Instead of saying, “Turn your work in on time. Be on time to class.
Bring the necessary materials,” say, “Do your best.” Instead of saying, “No hitting. No kicking. No biting. No eye gouging. No insults or name-calling,” say, “Be kind.” These broader rules are applicable to a wider range of issues. View printable strategy.

Let students know you respect them by giving them choice. For instance, assign one more problem than you need students to complete. Then, let them choose which one to skip. Got lots of extra problems? Let them choose which half to omit! View printable strategy. View printable strategy.

Respond to student misbehavior not with anger but with disappointment. No matter what rule they break, start with a sympathetic “Oh!” Follow it up with, “That’s a bummer,” or “That’s so sad,” to help students understand that you care about them. For example, if a student roughhouses in class, say, “Oh! That’s a bummer! I know you can do better,” before you impose any consequences.  View printable strategy.

Students should get to throw something every day. Use the Throw It strategy to include movement and games simultaneously. For example, instead of handing in your papers, have students try to throw them into the hand-in basket. The further away they are, the more points they can earn. To get everybody on the same team, keep a scoreboard and see if they can score more points this week than last. View printable strategy.

Share control of the classroom by having students design a lesson to teach about a concept they understand well. Have them teach a student who is still struggling to understand the material, or a student from a younger grade. Both the “teacher” and the student learn the concept more deeply, and teachers feel trusted and valued for their expertise. View printable strategy.

Collaboration and Communication

Try using an anchor chart to intentionally teach non-cognitive skills. If you are focusing on perseverance, place that term in the center of a paper or whiteboard and divide the paper into 3 sections: What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? Place the anchor charts around the room as you are building those non-cognitive skills. View printable strategy.

Have students respond in groups to a topic or prompt on chart paper. Give each student a different colored marker. Then, have them respond directly to the prompt, as well as the ideas written by their group members. The challenge is that the students don’t get to talk at all. View printable strategy.

Provide each student with a sheet of plain white paper and a pencil. Ask each team member to do a quick sketch about the topic being studied. After a designated time, have the students pass their sketches to the person on the right. This person may add to the sketch by drawing more, adding labels, or adding descriptions. Rotate the drawings until each student has an opportunity to contribute to each drawing. Then, allow the groups time to share their finished drawings in their groups and discuss what they learned. View printable strategy.

When starting cooperative teams, have students create the rules of engagement. Give them 2 minutes to discuss what the rules should be for cooperative learning. Then make a class list from the discussion. When students create the norms/agreements, they have more ownership and are more inclined to follow them. View printable strategy.

Before starting a group discussion, use the “COWS” strategy to differentiate roles within a group. C= Communicator (facilitates group conversation) O= Observer (gives feedback to group regarding collaboration) W = Writer (records and organizes group notes/work) S= Speaker (Uses writers notes to share with the class). View printable strategy.

For questions that have multiple possible answers and/or perspectives, put four different answers to the question in the four corners of the room. Ask students to go to a corner, discuss the topic with the other students in the corner, and then support and defend their choice to the rest of the class. View printable strategy.

Working interdependently is at the heart of cooperative learning! Place students in their “home” groups and have each student choose a different task to complete (i.e. reading an article, completing an investigation, etc.) After completing their task, each student will join a new “expert” group consisting of students who completed the same activity. That activity is discussed and then students re-form into their home groups and share what they learned. View printable strategy.

It’s good to start small when building your cooperative classroom. Have students pair up and interview each other. Have each student represent a person/thing relating to the current topic and create interview questions. For example, what questions would a mitochondria ask the nucleus of a cell? Then, have them summarize and share their partner’s answers with the rest of the class. View printable strategy.

Use the “Round Robin” group brainstorming technique to elicit students’ personal knowledge or to share information about a topic. Ask students a question or give them a prompt, and have them write their response on index cards. Compile a combined list from the individual cards and record additional ideas. This brainstorming allows all students to have a voice, even those less comfortable with speaking up in class, and results in building a complete list of ideas around a topic. View printable strategy.

Building Relationships

Investing time in getting to know your students outside of who they are academically is essential. Ask 1 question, during a 2 minute conference, to 3 students every day. The idea is that your time focusing on each student will be met with purpose and a focus. View printable strategy.

If you want students to be curious, they first have to feel that their ideas and their wonderings matter. Make an effort to greet every student every day. Look each student in the eye and welcome them to your classroom. It’s a small gesture that makes a big impact. View printable strategy.

Instead of having “check-in” conversations with students in the physical confines of the classroom, surrounded by the listening ears of their peers, take time on a weekly basis to pull each student out into the hall and chat about anything that is on their mind. View printable strategy.

Connecting with students as soon as they enter the classroom can make their whole day. Greet students at the door every morning with a hug, handshake, or high five. As you get to know your students better, get creative with it: develop handshakes or “hellos” that are unique to each student! View printable strategy.

Students often rise to the expectations we set for them, and sometimes we inadvertently set that bar too low. Once you learn what students are interested in, give them nicknames that take that interest to its highest level so they know you think they are capable of greatness. Yolanda is interested in politics, call her President Yolanda. Sam is interested in space, call him Astronaut Sam. View printable strategy.

Validating the work our students are doing is essential to building connections and rapport. Write a simple message of praise on a post-it note and place it inside your student’s desk or locker. Make it thoughtful and specific like, “I notice how much you have improved in memorizing your multiplication facts.” or, “I appreciate the way you handled yourself when (friend) made you upset.” View printable strategy.

Get students to slow down and evaluate their work. First, have them Self-assess their assignment. Next, have them Locate areas of improvement. Then, have them Organize their new learning into their piece. Finally, have them ask, “Why?”. Why were these improvements needed? View printable strategy.

If you say the word “baboon,” you’re always a little happier than you were before you said it. So make a rule that when kids pass you in the hall or in a public place, they can say, “baboon” to you and share a bit of silliness together. It never fails to brighten a day! View printable strategy.

Creative and Critical Thinking

When returning a test, let students know that you marked two questions WRONG that weren’t actually wrong. If students find which ones, they can argue their case with you privately and receive credit. Of course, in your grade book you can keep everything marked correctly, but it’s great fun watching students think critically about every single question they missed! View printable strategy.

Challenge students to take what they are learning and convey it in a condensed form. For example, ask them to describe a particular concept in 5 words or less. Simplifying a message is one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace and requires both creative and critical thinking. View printable strategy.

Have students write letters from one inanimate object to another. For example, primary grade students may write a letter from the number 1 to the number 3. Older students may write a letter from the element Radon to the element Argon. Inanimate letters require students to re-contextualize what they know about the subject(s) and apply their thinking in a novel way. View printable strategy.

Ask students to evaluate and organize their data in a visual way. They must think critically as they evaluate the validity of their data and decide how to organize it. They must think creatively as they communicate their data in the form of a graph, drawing, or infographic. The more students exercise critical and creative thinking, the better problem solvers they will be! View printable strategy.

Use the book White Owl, Barn Owl, by Nicola Davies (or another of her books in a similar format) as a model and then have students write expository captions to go with a narrative story on a similar topic. View printable strategy.

Worksheets get a bad rap, but in the hands of the right teacher, they can inspire creative and critical thinking. Instead of handing out a worksheet, challenge your students to write their own worksheet. Have them think about what they need to learn and come up with questions, problems, or prompts that require the target learning in order to answer. Creating a worksheet is usually more than enough work to lock in the content, but if you want to have more fun, have students “answer” one another’s worksheets! View printable strategy.

Use the SCAMPER activity to differentiate instruction, promote creative thinking, and/or discover alternate design solutions. Once students have studied a concept or designed a solution, ask them to SCAMPER it. They can choose one letter of the acronym to revisit their learning. S=substitute, C=combine, A=adapt, M=modify, P=put to other use, E=eliminate, R=rearrange. View printable strategy.

When students “craft” a plan to solve a problem, replace paper or index cards with jumbo craft sticks. Limiting space to write requires students to use a limited amount of words to get their ideas across. View printable strategy.

Differentiated Instruction

When some students seem to provide an answer or explanation more quickly than others, routinely ask those fast finishers to show you “another way.” What’s another way you can get that answer? What’s another explanation for the result? What’s another way to explain what happened? View printable strategy.

Whenever possible, allow for student choice. This could include allowing for different variables to be investigated, encouraging a variety of ways that data can be presented, providing different media for journal recording, or supporting different styles of presenting an argument. When students have a choice they can exercise critical thinking, they can learn from mistakes, they can develop self-direction, and they are more engaged and motivated to learn. View printable strategy.

When curious people learn new information, they continue to ask questions and make connections to their unique interests and background knowledge. Encourage students to share their learning from secondary resources using a Fact-QuestionConnection format. They should share one fact they learned, one question they still have, and one connection from what they learned to something they already know, something they are interested in, or something another classmate said. View printable strategy.

When students need practice with a concept, provide options in the form of a learning menu. Include choices that differentiate for content (such as harder or easier texts), process (such as where to work), and product (such as presentation format). This can take the form of a tic-tac-toe board, or an appetizer-main course-dessert, or any other format you dream up! View printable strategy.

When some students get it and others don’t, assign the former group to teach the latter. The “teacher” will be evaluated on whether or not the “student” succeeds. Watch both parties deepen their learning! View printable strategy.

Use the RAFT strategy to differentiate instruction and to promote creative thinking. Assign (or have students choose) a Role, an Audience, the Format, and the Topic. For example, you may have students present a Topic that is related to the investigation question, and students might choose to play the Role of a newscaster, present in the Format of a cartoon, and pretend their Audience are parents. View printable strategy.

To scaffold struggling students and move each learner forward, consider tiering key assignments. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for tiering. For example, if working on identifying theme, you might ask your struggling students to summarize the theme of a text using evidence. Students who are ready for more of a challenge could apply the theme of one story to another story. Students who need even more challenge could evaluate the theme, using evidence from the story to argue the importance of that theme in society. View printable strategy.

Not everything that students know is on the test. Finish every assessment by asking, “What else do you know that isn’t on this test?” in order to suss out the diverse understandings your multitalented students possess! View printable strategy.


We learn through play. Foster curiosity and intrinsic motivation with this gamification strategy. For example, play the game Apples to Apples™ by making cards with key concepts on them. Judges will take turns deciding which of two concepts are the most similar. Are exponents more like division, subtraction, or addition? Is air more like sun, soil, or water? View printable strategy.

Games make learning fun. Up the fun in your classroom by playing charades to get students thinking about key concepts from any subject area. Guess whether the actor is pretending to be a proton, neutron, or electron—or the legislative, executive, or judicial branch. View printable strategy.

Learning is more engaging when we see, hear, and touch what we’re learning about. Make learning concrete by incorporating costumes and props. Learning about railroads? Bring in a railroad spike. George Washington? Find yourself a wig, dress up, and play the role yourself! View printable strategy.

Before moving directly into an investigation, allow time for students to “mess about” with materials and supplies to begin exploring and building interest in phenomena. During this experience, students can brainstorm questions they are interested in exploring later, while also building the prerequisite knowledge and experience they need to be successful in the investigation. Messing about builds curiosity and engagement. View printable strategy.

This is another great way to “gamify” key concepts. Studying Greek myths? Have your students draw and guess the gods and goddesses. Doing some geography? Draw and guess different countries from around the world! View printable strategy.

Following a lesson, encourage students to voice any questions they have. Affirm the questions and compile them on a “Question Wall.” Periodically, gather and answer the questions using secondary knowledge sources. When there is time, students can design their own investigations to answer a question from the Question Wall. View printable strategy.

Get students moving around the classroom as they form and share opinions. Have students pick a side of the room based on whether a topic rocks, or not. For instance, they can choose whether Christopher Columbus was a great man or a villain—or anywhere in between. Let them move around as they change their opinions based on the evidence presented. View printable strategy.

There’s nothing more tempting than forbidden fruit—so use the Top Secret strategy to make knowledge a mouthwatering apple. Before you teach new content, close the door. Tell them you don’t want anyone to find out that you’re teaching them this idea. Take advantage of the fact that people are fascinated by the illicit. View printable strategy.

Feedback and Assessment

Make sure each assignment or test is aligned to specific learning targets. Then assess how each student is performing against each learning target. This means one test might actually have three grades if it addresses three different learning targets. The goal is to create a record of evidence for each student against each learning target. View printable strategy.

If you want to assess each student against each learning target, the last thing you need is 100 points of nuance and complexity. Opt for a 4-point rubric where 0 means there is no evidence of learning. 1 means there is some evidence of learning. 2 means a student is almost proficient at the learning target. 3 means the student is proficient, and 4 means the student is showing evidence beyond the learning target. View printable strategy.

If a student has failed an assignment, meaning there is no evidence of learning, a 59 conveys failure just as much as a zero. The difference is that there is 60 points worth of failure to overcome from a zero, making it virtually impossible to recover from. With a 59, there is still hope, and hope is a necessary ingredient to maintaining motivation to learn. View printable strategy.

Have students write the answer to a question that helps to summarize new learning. This can happen on the way out of class or on the way into class. This formative assessment gives insight into student thinking and helps students take ownership of their learning. View printable strategy.

Have students capture their ideas in a journal as they work through a project. Primary grade students can capture their thoughts in drawings, keeping them engaged as they move through the PBL process. Older students can express their learning in writing, enabling them to see their learning clearly. Check student journals regularly and use them as a quick formative assessment to provide insight into how the students are processing their learning. View printable strategy.

To make grading more consistent, use rubrics with clear criteria for each learning target. Then ask students to assess their own performance against the rubric. They will often be more critical on themselves than you would have been and they learn to take ownership of their learning process. View printable strategy.

If grades are intended to convey what a student knows and is able to do, then it is fundamentally inaccurate to dilute that grade with non-academic related scores. Habits of work are important and should be evaluated, but measure things like participation in class, or meeting deadlines, separately and expect mastery in both content and habits of work. View printable strategy.

Not all standards are created equally. Use this FREE Standards Scoring tool to quickly score content standards so you can identify those that are most critical to students’ long-term success and align with your school improvement goals. Download now.

Periodically, ask students if they could teach their learning to someone else. Ask for thumbs up (yes), thumbs down (not yet), or thumbs sideways (I’m not sure). This will provide a quick formative assessment. View printable strategy.

Risk Taking and Perseverance

When students provide an answer or explanation, routinely ask them to show you “another way.” What’s another way you can get that answer? What’s another explanation for the result? What’s another way to explain what happened? Thinking of these alternatives strengthens students’ critical and creative thinking skills. View printable strategy.

Teach students that success is controllable by praising controllable characteristics. With this strategy, praise progress and effort instead of talent and achievement. Instead of saying, “You’re so talented at science,” say, “I can tell you’ve really worked hard to learn a lot about science!” View printable strategy.

Real passion is long-lasting. Help students persist in their passions by allowing them to choose a project to work on for one hour a week. The most important part of this strategy is making sure that they follow the project all the way through to completion—teach them that true passion doesn’t give up! View printable strategy.

Allow students to replace some homework assignments with equally challenging work on topics they love. If your student is a proficient mathematician and doesn’t need extra math practice, don’t make them do it. Instead, use the opportunity to encourage them to design a project on something that interests them. For instance, have them write an opinion piece on a current event they care about, or about which car is the coolest! View printable strategy.

Want to get your students to practice persistent problem-solving? Pin a twenty dollar bill to the wall. Then, offer to give it to the first student who solves a particular challenge. Here’s the twist: make sure the challenge is impossible. For example, have students build a perpetual motion machine, or a two-sided polygon. As they explore and experiment with different ways to win the money, they learn to become fascinated by poking and prodding at problems. Make sure to praise them for their effort and reward their struggle! View printable strategy.

Some teachers say mistakes are okay. Do one better: use this strategy to teach that mistakes are awesome! Celebrate mistakes as a learning opportunity by having students nominate one mistake that really helped the class understand something more clearly. Collect your class’ favorites and display them on a bulletin board or in the hall! View printable strategy.

Resist the feeling that you need to answer every question your students pose. Leave some questions unanswered. Acknowledge the question as interesting, and let it be. Learning to live with unanswered questions builds a sense of intrigue in your classroom and can help activate student curiosity. View printable strategy.

You want students to be willing to try new things and be open to new ideas. To promote this culture in your classroom, make it a habit to try something new every month. Share your efforts with students, especially any failures. Use the construct, “I tried…I failed…I learned…” to model openness to new ideas, perseverance, and a growth mindset. View printable strategy.

Help students get into the flow with this strategy for activating their sense of inquiry. Take a problem that you want students to solve at the end of class, and give it to them at the beginning. Have students collaboratively work to construct a method of solving the issue. By playing with and puzzling over ideas, students develop a passion for problem-solving. View printable strategy.

Student Ownership

Help students take ownership of their learning by allowing them to choose how they represent their data from an investigation. They may stretch in their abilities and learn a new way to graph or chart data. They may observe other students’ representations and want to learn that Student Choice method. Or you may want to share a variety of graph choices to spur their thinking, such as those presented in this Graph Choice Chart. When students take ownership of their learning, engagement increases.

Our students learn differently. Let students choose how they learn by fitting choice into your curriculum. Let communal learners work in groups and have individual learners work independently. Allow analytical learners to express learning through graphs and creative learners to draw or perform their learning. View printable strategy.

We have standards and learning goals that we must teach. So, use these as a springboard for student choice. Give students the learning objective, have them Get the information or resources they need. Then, have them Go to work, by creating or demonstrating their learning in any way they choose— as long as they are meeting that specific goal or objective. View printable strategy.

Instead of having all students write notes or summarize information through written text, give them the choice to draw out their ideas by creating an infograph (a visual image, such as a chart or diagram, that is used to represent information or data). View printable strategy.

Come to class on certain days with an incomplete lesson plan. Share the rough agenda with the students and allow them to suggest the learning, activities, discussions, investigations, etc. for the additional time. View printable strategy.

Before moving directly into an investigation, allow time for students to “mess about” with materials and supplies to begin exploring and building interest in phenomena. During this experience, students can brainstorm questions they are interested in exploring later, while also building the prerequisite knowledge and experience they need to be successful in the investigation. Messing about builds curiosity and engagement. View printable strategy.

Choose one of the mindset categories (skills and intelligence, challenges, effort, feedback, obstacles, or success of others) and have students consider it for one minute. Have them reflect in writing or through conversation about whether the category is something you are born with or whether it is something that can be developed and learned. Use the Fixed vs. Growth Mindset poster as a visual reminder for yourself or your students. Use the Mindset Quiz with your students to help them self-evaluate their own mindset and target specific areas to work on. View printable strategy.

When students are working on a project within a group, have them choose how they want to work through it. First, have each member determine their Role (journalist, interviewer, reporter, etc.). Then, have them identify their Audience. Who will they be presenting their information to? Next, have them determine the Format they will use to demonstrate their learning (brochure, poem, game, advertisement, etc.). Finally, have students choose their Topic. What is it they will be teaching others about? View printable strategy.

In order to build relationships, we need to get to know our students! Find out what your students’ interests and passions are, and ask them what it is they want to learn about. By taking an interest inventory of your class, you will find commonalities and outliers amongst your students, and truly get a feel for what it is that motivates them. View printable strategy.

Keep a class list of things students want to know. When there are a few minutes, or when some students have finished work and others have not, encourage students to pick a topic from the list to research and find an answer. You can limit the list to the specific content they are studying, or you can take a broader approach and encourage a wide range of wonderings. Choose one day each week where students can present on what they learned. View printable strategy.

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