Innovative teaching in higher education: Teachers’ perceptions of support and constraint

April, 2021

Source: Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 58:2, 123-134

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This research focuses on pedagogical innovation.
The overarching project on which this paper draws aimed to identify and role model innovation.
It posed three questions:
● What characteristics of innovative pedagogical approaches and practices contribute to learning in a range of contexts?
● What factors support or constrain these approaches?
● What are the characteristics of teachers who consistently adopt innovative approaches?
This paper focuses on the second of these three questions.
The main project explored pedagogical innovations using a case-study methodology in which teachers who were identified by different stakeholders as engaging in innovation were interviewed about their practices and beliefs.
Following Walder (2014), who interviewed award winning teachers about their ideas on innovation, the authors have studied teachers identified by others as being innovative as they feel that they offer a unique perspective on the experiences of implementing pedagogical innovations.
Furthermore, adopting a cross-disciplinary approach allows them to identify emergent ideas that are recognisable institution-wide.


Participants were full-time teaching staff teaching at a medium-sized New Zealand University.
Identified teachers from each of the University’s Faculties were approached and 13 agreed to participate.

Data collection
Participants were interviewed to solicit their experiences of innovation within their teaching and were asked to provide artefacts they felt exemplified their innovation.
These acted as a triangulation tool and included course materials, videos, student created resources and maps.
In addition, focus group interviews were held with students of the participants concerned, thereby giving learners’ perspectives on the pedagogical innovations identified.
This paper uses the participant interviews to address the project’s second question; what factors support and constrain pedagogical innovation?
Interviews were approximately one hour.
Questions were grouped into three sections:
(1) Participants’ teaching, and strategies used to engage students;
(2) Beliefs underpinning their practice and conceptions of innovation;
(3) Support and barriers to pedagogical innovation.

Findings and discussion
The participants in this study were recognised as being innovative by their institution and students.
This project allowed the authors to uncover some aspects of teacher thinking around pedagogical innovation and their responses to identified needs in their courses.
All participants discussed the degree to which other factors either supported or constrained their efforts to innovate.
Each reported different experiences, and by thematising them, they identify positive outcomes and consider how institutions might support the process of pedagogical innovation.
Their analysis revealed a range of factors that affected participants’ experiences.
The institution, its policies and support mechanisms were central to this.
For example, class size and physical teaching environments can either support innovation or present significant barriers to it.
Institutions could, therefore, consider these as drivers for innovation.
However, care should be taken to explore diverse approaches to addressing the challenge.
As noted by Smith (2011), institutions need to create and protect space for innovations of all types and ensure that diversity of ideas are not limited by paths of progress.
Institutions which are open to the idea of pedagogical innovation should consider the importance of aligning policy (for example, rewarding teaching in similar ways to research), support and resourcing to create opportunities for innovation.
When these factors present barriers, teachers either revert to the status quo or adopt a more rebellious approach to meet their students’ needs and ‘just do it anyway’.
This study identified student engagement and their preparation and expectations around innovations as key factors.
Much of the literature, however, reports on students as recipients of innovation and evaluations of success or failure are based on student performance and feedback (Boden, 2019).
The project from which this study is drawn also explored students’ perceptions of pedagogical innovations and this is the focus of a future publication.
Although the teachers they interviewed had been identified as innovative, their intention is not to suggest that innovation is within the grasp of a select few.
Teachers should consider pedagogical innovation even if it is only something other than lecturing (Walder, 2014).
Attending to students’ needs and reflecting on experience, observation and the literature can inspire change.
Support from the institution, your colleagues and an understanding of your students helps to make that change possible.

Boden, K. E. (2019). Pedagogical innovation among University faculty. Creative Education, 10, 848–861.
Smith, K. (2011). Cultivating innovative learning and teaching cultures: A question of garden design. Teaching in Higher Education, 16, 427–438.
Walder, A. M. (2014). The concept of pedagogical innovation in higher education. Education Journal, 3, 195–202.

Updated: Jul. 15, 2021