What is Strategic Teaching?

Strategic teaching is a way of making decisions about a course, an individual class, or even an entire curriculum, beginning with an analysis of key variables in the teaching situation. These variables include the characteristics of the learners, the learning objectives, and the instructional preferences of the teacher. Once these variables have been analyzed, informed decisions can be made about course content, structure, methods of assessment, and other key components.

The process of planning a course is not an easy one. (Although 'the course' is the unit of analysis being discussed, the process of creating an instructional strategy works equally well for an individual class or an entire curriculum.)

As an instructor, you need to make decisions about what topics to include and which to leave out; the order in which those topics will be presented; which pedagogical methods to use (e.g., lecture, discussion, hands-on experiments); appropriate means of assessing the students; materials and technology to employ; how to get feedback; etc.

More often than not those decisions are made based upon what other faculty have done when they taught the class, or perhaps on what your instructor did when you took the same or a similar course.  But those models may or may not accomplish the overarching goal of teaching: to help students master a set of key ideas and skills related to your discipline.

Why Do a Strategic Teaching Analysis?

Undertaking a strategic teaching analysis — by which we mean analyzing several key variables related to the course and making decisions based upon that analysis — increases the likelihood that the course objectives will be met.  (Notice we didn't say "guarantees course objectives will be met" — even the best strategic analysis can't assure that the course will be successful, it only increases the chances that may occur.)

Beginning the process of planning a course by doing a strategic analysis is advantageous for another reason:  It makes the work that much easier.  By consciously identifying the unique characteristics of the course, you create criteria by which you can make informed decisions about how the class should be organized and taught. 

The Elements of a Strategic Teaching Analysis

As Figure 1 indicates, carrying out a teaching strategy involves five steps.  The first is to analyze three key elements in the learning environment:  the characteristics of the students, the objectives of the course, and your qualities as an instructor.  These three elements are interrelated, and, therefore, are likely to have an influence on one another. 

Strategic Teaching diagram

(Dr. Julie Greenberg and Mr. Mark Davila of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology contributed to this work.)

For example, you may want your students to gain the ability to work with others to solve a complex problem [course objective]. But if your students don't have basic teamwork skills [characteristic of the students], they may need training in that area before they can accomplish the objective you have set out.  Or, you may not be comfortable teaching teamwork skills because it requires an active learning approach you’re not familiar with, or because it’s not your area of expertise [your qualities as an instructor].  These three factors may lead you to decide to devote some number of classes to teamwork skills that will be taught by an expert in that area.

As you are analyzing the basic components of the course, you need to keep in mind that any one — or all three — of the elements may be affected by any number of constraints. For example, if you can’t find someone who can teach your students teamwork skills, you may have to abandon that as a course objective.  Or, as another example, you may know that the optimal way to evaluate students is to give them an oral exam, but the amount of time that would require makes it an impossible choice.

The answers to questions about students, instructor, and objectives, tempered by realities imposed by the constraints, will lead you to a series of key decisions about the organization and content of the course, the mix of pedagogical methods to be used, the kind of assignments you will make, and the technologies and materials you will employ.  Because these decisions come from the informed analysis you have already done, you will be able to make them more easily.

The fourth step in a strategic analysis is to identify the assessment processes you will use to get feedback on how the course is going.  How will you get feedback on your instruction?, on course content and organization?, on the performance of teaching assistants? Most importantly, how will you determine if your students are attaining the knowledge and skills you hope they will gain?

Finally, how will you use the various types of feedback you've gathered to refine and improve the course?

Strategic Teaching in Context

It is important to recognize that every course sits within a constellation of social systems — the department, the university, the discipline, the academic community, industries, the community at large — that also influence what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught.  To go back to the example of teaching teamwork skills, you might have decided to have students work in teams because industry representatives were saying your graduates didn’t have adequate teamwork skills.

Strategic Teaching in Context diagram

Naturally, no course is going to be perfect.  Instead, it is going to be a series of good compromises based upon a number of factors.  Good decision-making will be the result of setting priorities and looking for the best possible outcomes.