Pedagogical approaches to teaching in higher education

April 20, 2023

Pedagogy is the method behind the art of teaching. It considers how students learn and uses that knowledge to develop philosophies, approaches, and techniques for the classroom.

Not every teacher has a pedagogy. Especially at the college level, many educators don’t receive formal training in how to teach. Changing this paradigm requires proactive educators and institutions committed to student success.

The first step is learning about different pedagogical methods. Pedagogical knowledge can help any teacher become a more effective educator. The more approaches you understand as a teacher, the more effective you can be in designing coursework to meet your students’ needs.

What Are Pedagogical Approaches?

Pedagogical approaches are the methods educators use in the practice of teaching, from course design to content delivery. The education system encompasses multiple pedagogies, each stemming from a different philosophy of learning.

A pedagogical approach is a good match when it reflects an educator’s beliefs about the practice of teaching and serves the students’ needs. 

Why Is Pedagogy Important in Higher Education?

Pedagogy is a significant area of focus for educators who work in kindergarten through 12th grade. K-12 teachers spend hours learning various teaching styles and how to match their instruction to their students’ developmental levels.

Higher education takes a much different approach. The traditional lecture is still an accepted teaching approach, especially in large classes and the sciences. Many students still spend their class hours passively taking notes as the professor talks. 

The lecture has been a mainstay of higher education for generations, but recent research confirms what students have long known.

It doesn’t work.

In one recent study of science, engineering, and mathematics students, failure rates increased by more than 55% when students learned via lecture versus actively engaged approaches.

Pedagogy allows educators to understand how students learn and to design instruction based on goals. Educators learn how to engage students, focusing on learning outcomes and retention. Particularly in the life sciences, where critical thinking is essential to progress, educators need to understand and apply more active approaches.

What Are the Learning Profiles Within Pedagogy?

Learners engage with educational material in different ways. Studying via a preferred method may improve retention and help a student feel more comfortable with the material.

For example, in a biology class, you may have students who read a textbook chapter and come to class with a good understanding of the material. Another student may struggle with the chapter but understand when the teacher explains it. A third prefers to see a diagram, while a fourth must participate in an experiment to internalize the concept.

Knowing these preferred learning styles can help educators to understand pedagogical practices. No student learns in only one way, but engaging in their preferred way can make the topic more accessible. 

By familiarizing yourself with these student learning profiles, you can design more well-rounded, student-centered courses. You will also be more able to suggest ways for students to review the material. 


Auditory learners internalize information by hearing and speaking. They may read out loud to themselves or seek recorded versions of the material. Often the most enthusiastic in-class participants, they shine when asked to explain a concept to peers. 

Auditory learners benefit from listening but may understand better if they can converse. 


Tactile learners, also known as kinesthetic learners, prefer to learn via movement and physical engagement. In a life sciences class, these students look forward to laboratory work. They may struggle with theoretical assignments and abstract concepts. 

Tactile learners need to “do” something to understand it. Physical movement such as pacing can help them stay focused, but hands-on work is best.

Tactile learners used to be challenging to reach in online courses, but technological advancements have helped significantly. Now, interactive content allows these learners to engage in ways that work for them.


Visual learners understand what they can see. They appreciate illustrations, graphs, diagrams, and outlines. Some experts refer to this learning profile as “spatial” to distinguish it from the reading and writing style.

Visual learners need to see things laid out in front of them. They appreciate notes on the board — virtual or physical — and may need to sketch an idea to understand it.

As online students, visual learners appreciate material with plenty of spatial signals, such as arrows and moving flowcharts. They do well with 3D models showing how something looks and functions.

Reading and Writing

Reading and writing learners prefer to engage with the world through words. They’re comfortable with independent reading assignments and excel at writing essays and papers. 

Reading and writing learners tend to be skilled researchers and express themselves articulately. They have much experience engaging in their preferred learning style since traditional educational methodologies tend to be text-based.

Online and in classrooms, these students may struggle with face-to-face lectures. They need print versions of what they hear, or retention may suffer.

Pedagogical best practices incorporate an understanding of all four learning profiles. 

Six Essential Pedagogical Approaches

No pedagogical approach is universally correct or superior, and different methods will resonate with different educators. Here are the six foundational approaches to understand when working with today’s higher education students.


Constructivism embraces the idea that students come to the classroom with unique worldviews. No two students have the same background, so no two students will interact with the material in the same way.

There are eight basic principles of constructivism:

  • Knowledge builds from knowledge. This is the foundational theory of constructivism. It holds that each student processes information through the lens of their experiences in the world. Each new piece of knowledge is scaffolding for future learning.
  • Knowledge is personal. Students can’t “leave it at the door” when they come to class. Everything they learn becomes a part of how they understand the world. Educators who recognize the personal nature of learning have a better chance of making a lasting impression.
  • Learning is social. A student’s social world plays a crucial part in their learning and understanding. They apply knowledge by interacting with others, from classmates to co-workers. By creating an interpersonal learning experience, educators make the process more meaningful.
  • Learning requires context. Students don’t learn disconnected facts or ideas. They make meaning by connecting new information to existing knowledge, beliefs, and competencies. The only way to facilitate authentic learning is to give information relevance and place it within the student’s world.
  • Learning requires motivation and meaning. An unmotivated student is unlikely to retain information if they don’t want to learn it. They don’t always need a deep passion for the topic, but they do need personal initiative and the desire to know more.
  • Learning is active. Students must participate in their education to truly learn. Simply hearing a lecture won’t result in long-term retention. The student must engage in a dialogue with the material and figure out what it means to them.
  • Learning teaches students to learn. At every level, the school experience teaches students something about learning strategies. They learn the material and how to integrate information, think critically, and challenge previously held ideas.
  • Learning happens in the mind. Hands-on learning activities are conduits for integrating information into a student’s mental model. Educators need to design these activities with specific cognitive goals in mind.

The constructivist approach is the almost direct opposite of the teacher-focused approach that has traditionally dominated higher education. Constructivism requires a collaborative learning mindset and an understanding that students bring as much to the classroom as the professor.

To create constructivist learning environments, each educator must see themselves as a facilitator and guide rather than a distributor of knowledge. There is room for direct instruction in constructivism. However, the educator must balance it with opportunities for students to take the lead. Small groups and collaborative projects are common elements of the constructivist classroom.


Inquiry-based learning works well in the life science classroom. Questions are a standard part of the scientific process, and science students are familiar with questioning their findings. Even in introductory courses, students learn how to experiment and analyze results.

Inquiry-based lesson plans can take one of four forms, depending on the students’ familiarity with the topic and the inquiry process. From most to least structured, the four formats are:

  • Confirmation inquiry: The instructor provides the question, a known result, and a method for reaching that result. The goal is to explore how a question leads to an answer. Educators may use this method to introduce students to the scientific method.
  • Structured inquiry: The instructor provides the question and a process for answering it, but not the expected results. Students learn how to reach an evidence-based result and justify their response.
  • Guided inquiry: The instructor provides the question. The students design a method of questioning and reach a conclusion.
  • Open inquiry: Students choose the topic, an original question, and an investigational procedure. 

As students take ownership of the inquiry process, they gain more experience with higher levels of thinking. An introductory-level science course may provide students with more framework, relying on structured inquiry until they internalize the process. More advanced courses can assume some understanding of the scientific process and allow students to explore guided and open inquiries from the beginning.

Regardless of level, the goal of inquiry-based learning is to encourage higher levels of thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classic hierarchy of thought and education, links high-level thinking to student ownership of ideas. 

The four levels of inquiry-based learning allow students to progress from the lower levels of understanding and application to the highest levels of evaluation and ultimately, the creation of original work.


The Socratic method is arguably the most famous pedagogical approach in education. It comes from the work of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who used questioning to encourage critical thinking in his students. 

Like constructivism, the Socratic method turns traditional higher education on its head. Instead of presenting their knowledge to an audience, the educator asks open-ended questions to encourage the students to think more deeply about a concept.

The Socratic method requires carefully chosen questions that encourage critical thought. These questions are open, requiring more than one-word answers, but not random or broad.

Simply asking, “What are your thoughts?” isn’t enough for a Socratic discussion. The educator must come prepared with relevant questions and thoughtful follow-ups that encourage students to go deeper.

Socratic questioning works in any field, from the humanities to the hard sciences. For example, in a human anatomy course, an educator might use the Socratic method to deepen students’ understanding of the body. They may include questions like:

  • How would you describe the shape of {body part}?
  • Why do you think it took on that shape?
  • What would happen if it had a different form?
  • Why isn’t it thicker/longer/in another place?

Students who engage with this kind of questioning will have a deeper understanding of the subject and its context. A purely Socratic method is impractical for an entire course, but nearly every educator can use it to some degree.


Integrative learning is similar to the constructivist approach. One of its primary goals is to connect new learning to other knowledge. However, integrative learning focuses less on a student’s worldview and more on connecting with other disciplines and ideas.

Many colleges and universities promote integrative learning as the most appropriate approach for today’s students. For example, Ithaca College has adopted its integrative core curriculum to help its students address complex issues and develop innovative solutions.

An integrative pedagogy works well in this cross-departmental context. When an entire institution participates, students can explore related concepts in multiple courses and with extra-curricular experiences. Educators can also explore these concepts in their classes.

For example, in the life sciences, an integrative pedagogy can link biology and biochemistry with social and political issues. A human disease course may explore pandemics and epidemics in their historical contexts. Instructors may examine the implications of disease prevalence in specific populations.

Integrative learning processes have four key phases:

  • Application: Connecting an idea to a new context
  • Comparison: Considering the similarities and differences of contrasting ideas or experiences
  • Context understanding: Considering the source of an idea and the belief system where it developed, and why the context led to a particular perspective
  • Synthesis: Blending perspectives to deepen understanding

According to a 2012 study, students have the most success with higher levels of integration when they engage with the material. Personal engagement encourages students to compare perspectives and reconcile conflict. This conflict may happen between students, across disciplines, or inside the self.

Students may only go so far as comparison and context understanding, and that’s understandable. Integrative learning is still valid and beneficial even if high-level synthesis doesn’t happen. Students in the 2012 study struggled with synthesis. However, they were still able to compare perspectives, identify context, and apply new understanding to their lives outside class.


The problem-based approach uses complex practical issues as vehicles for learning. First, the instructor introduces students to a real-world problem that requires a solution. Then, students must actively engage with the problem to understand its context and develop potential resolutions.

Problem-based learning is both collaborative and self-directed. Students co-create methods for exploring the problem and evaluating the viability of solutions. In the process, they learn to develop mental models for learning and engage firsthand with the scientific process.

According to a paper published in 2012 in Health Professions Education:

[Problem-based learning] is a pedagogical approach that enables students to learn while engaging actively with meaningful problems. Students are given the opportunities to problem-solve in a collaborative setting, create mental models for learning, and form self-directed learning habits through practice and reflection.

The authors of this paper reviewed multiple studies that proved problem-based learning to be highly effective in teaching aspiring medical professionals. They found the most significant benefits in long-term retention and the ability to apply knowledge, both of which are essential components in any health sciences course.

Educators can use problem-based learning as the overriding approach behind an entire course. It can also be the foundation of a laboratory exercise, experiment, or group project.

The key is identifying a challenge or question that will spark learner engagement. Problem-based learning works best when the problem generates uncertainty or confusion. It must inspire students to turn to their prior knowledge and research skills to deepen their understanding.

The educator serves as a facilitator, helping students to build new knowledge from existing understanding and find further information. The educator must also set up a way for students to share their findings so that they can learn from each other’s thought processes.


Reflective pedagogy is a commitment to thinking about teaching strategies and the learning that plays out in class. There are two primary components — reflection with students and reflection about pedagogy.

As a teaching method, reflective pedagogy asks students to think about their learning and progress. Students reflect on the information they’ve gathered and what they still need to learn about the topic. This process may take multiple forms, including:

  • Grou]p discussions that challenge students’ assumptions of their knowledge
  • Frequent self-assessments to help students take control of their learning
  • Assignments that require students to evaluate their conclusions 
  • Conversations that ask students to track their logical reasoning

A paper in The Journal of Educators Online discussed using reflective pedagogy in online courses. The authors share how virtual classrooms provide unique opportunities for students to discuss concepts with a geographically diverse group. They emphasize the importance of designing courses that integrate meaningful reflection and discussion using digital learning technologies.

Online instructors must be more purposeful and proactive when integrating online learning simply because the format leaves less room for spontaneity. However, with a thoughtful course design, educators can give students more ownership of their learning by adding reflection to the experience.

Educator self-reflection is also a vital element of this pedagogical approach. It requires instructors to think about their curriculum and presentation of a particular session and its effects. There are four basic steps:

  1. Describing what happened: The educator’s actions, students’ observable responses, and classroom circumstances
  2. Analyzing the circumstances and outcomes: Asking why the class progressed the way it did, including what could have affected the work and why the students responded as they did
  3. Meaning and application: What the educator can learn from the class and how they may want to change their approach in the future
  4. Implications: What concrete steps the educator can take to optimize learning in the future

The goal is not self-judgment but an objective assessment of teaching and learning. 

Tools and Course Materials to Augment Pedagogical Approaches

Educators learn about different pedagogical approaches for two reasons: to understand their students’ experiences and develop more effective instruction. Course materials also play a crucial role in instructional planning and help educators to implement their chosen pedagogies.

Interactive Models

Most contemporary pedagogy involves some degree of student-directed learning and interest-based inquiry. Interactive models allow students to follow their curiosity and explore visual concepts such as anatomy hands-on. This experiential learning makes education more personal, particularly for the tactile learner.

Multimedia Lectures

Multimedia lectures let educators speak to students with varying learning profiles. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing learners can deepen and internalize their understanding. This internalized knowledge is critical for today’s active learning pedagogies.

Supplemental Resources

Supplemental resources are non-required learning materials made available to students in a course. They encourage curiosity, provide context, and allow students to develop a deeper understanding. They serve students who need extra help to understand foundational concepts and those who are ready for higher-level thinking.

These resources are essential in self-directed pedagogies such as problem-based and inquiry-based learning.

Forums and Chats

Online and in-person courses can benefit from collaborative learning tools that let students communicate digitally. Contemporary pedagogical approaches rely heavily on personal engagement and questioning, and many are grounded in discussion. Educators must integrate synchronous and asynchronous discussions to keep students engaged and build the learning community.

Implementing Pedagogical Approaches in Online Education

Developing a pedagogy is an ongoing task. As teachers learn more about the art and science of their work, they incorporate new approaches and choose the techniques that work best for a particular topic, group, or course.

Quality materials play a significant role. At Caduceus International Publishing, we provide health sciences educators with a vetted curriculum for a wide variety of course topics, from medical terminology to community health. Reach out today and learn how Caduceus can help you apply a more effective pedagogy.

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