Strategic thinking in teaching and learning in higher education

By Dr. Samuel Adeyinka-Ojo

What goes on in the mind of the strategist? Or better put, what goes on in the mind of a professional instructional leader? In the teaching and learning environment, that could be a lot, but if closely scrutinised to its core essentials, it can be said strategists are engaged in the process of dealing with strategic challenges and situations.

From a management perspective, there are several definitions of strategic thinking. In its simplest form, strategic thinking is an ability to plan. It is the capacity to prepare strategies and conjure ideas that will both cope with changing environments and consider the various challenges that lie ahead. Strategic thinking is a planning process that applies innovation, strategic planning, and operational planning to develop business strategies that have a greater chance for success.

However, for the purpose of this article, the following definitions from two notable authors will be adopted. Strategic thinking is a means of solving strategic problems that combine rational and convergent approaches with both innovation and a differentiated thought process (Bonn, 2005).

In another context, strategic thinking represents the process of finding alternative ways to compete and provide value to customers (Abraham, 2005).

There are different types of strategic thinking. These include critical thinking, logical thinking, practical thinking, divergent thinking, and convergent thinking. Strategic thinking skills in teaching and learning are any skills that enable instructional leaders to use critical thinking to solve complex problems relating to teaching delivery and plan for the effective future teaching and learning outcomes. These skills are important to achieve learning outcomes, overcome challenges, and address issues related to online teaching and learning deliverables.

Why is strategic thinking, strategic planning, and strategic leadership important in teaching and learning? The purpose of strategic thinking is to create a strategy that is a coherent, unifying, integrative framework for decisions, especially about direction of the teaching and learning resource utilisation.

Meanwhile, strategic planning is the process of developing a blueprint for the teaching activities instructional leaders will implement within the available resources.  Notably, strategic leadership is grounded in a strong understanding of the complex relationship between the university system (higher education provider) and its environment. It requires taking a broad view, involving the right professional instructors, with important information and perspectives, asking probing questions and facilitating conversations. Strategic thinkers then identify connections, patterns, and key issues.

Strategic leadership in teaching and learning in higher education requires instructional leaders to think, act and influence learners in ways that promote the enduring learning success of the set curriculum and scheme of work. Professional instructors as strategic thinkers should be able to identify connections, patterns and key issues instructional leaders must be familiar with by recognising themes, trends, and data applications and envisioning big ideas.

Strategic instructional leaders who engage in strategic thinking consider the interplay between teaching and learning implementations and responses from learners by considering a set of learning outcomes that are explicitly stated or implicit in an instructional leader’s understanding of a higher education institution and its needs.

Strategic thinking skills in teaching and learning can be developed in four different ways namely:
(a) be proactive about researching and gathering information that will help instructors make decisions in the future;
(b) constantly question one’s opinions;
(c) learn how to embrace conflict and how to use it to come up with a creative solution; and
(d) take cognitive breaks and allow brain to rest. To do these tasks successfully, strategic instructional leaders must acquire and develop strategic thinking skills (STS). These STS include communication skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, planning, and management skills.

Strategic thinking skills are not needed only in times of growth. During tough times, like the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that has accelerated application of digital technologies in teaching and learning, especially when resources are tight, it is even more important to ensure these resources are employed in much needed areas for effective teaching delivery. Importantly, strategic thinking competencies such as systemic thinking competence, innovative thinking competence, and vision-oriented thinking competence are indispensable.

Professional instructional leaders can improve their strategic thinking skills in teaching and learning environments in four different perspectives. The first is to ask strategic questions. Doing so helps instructional leaders to demonstrate planning skills, become familiar with creative and innovative opportunities, and develop a more strategic mindset in teaching and learning through digital and physical contact platforms. The second is for instructional leaders to observe and reflect on their existing teaching practices, ensuring any strategy conceive is grounded in credible facts.

Next is to take into cognisance opposing ideas and new developments that challenge assumptions, and put current hypotheses through rigorous testing so credible alternatives are not overlooked. This is followed by the need for instructional leaders to embrace formal training to update and improve their strategic thinking skills. For example, by enrolling in the online courses, attending conferences, and teaching and learning workshops organised by the Office of Learning and Teaching in their respective universities.

In conclusion, as instructional leaders in higher education, it is important that the qualities of strategic thinkers (always learning, always seek advice from others, not being afraid to take risks, and never forgetting the teaching and learning objectives) are embraced to be proactive throughout their professional teaching careers in higher education. Strategic thinking skills, strategic planning and strategic leadership are indispensable to achieve effective teaching and learning outcomes in higher education in this disruptive digital technologies age.

Dr. Samuel Adeyinka-Ojo is a senior lecturer of the Department of Marketing at Curtin University Malaysia’s Faculty of Business. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), and Certified Management and Business Educator (CMBE) of The Chartered Association of Business Schools, United Kingdom. Dr. Samuel’s research interests include project management, destination branding, rural tourism, social media marketing, sharing economy, and disruptive digital innovations in hospitality and tourism management. He has published his works in a number of peer-reviewed journals, book chapters and conference proceedings. Dr. Samuel was a recipient of two international education leadership awards in 2018, the Student Council Curtin Malaysia Student’s Choice Award in 2019 for outstanding teaching performance, and the Curtin Malaysia Excellence in Teaching Award 2020. He can be contacted by email at


Abraham, S. (2005). Stretching strategic thinking. Strategy & Leadership, 33(5), 5 – 12.
Bonn, I. (2005). Improving strategic thinking: A multilevel approach. Leadership and Organisation Development Journal, 26 (5), 336 – 354.