Critical Thinking and other Higher-Order Thinking Skills


Critical thinking is a higher-order thinking skill. Higher-order thinking skills go beyond basic observation of facts and memorization. They are what we are talking about when we want our students to be evaluative, creative and innovative.

When most people think of critical thinking, they think that their words (or the words of others) are supposed to get “criticized” and torn apart in argument, when in fact all it means is that they are criteria-based. These criteria require that we distinguish fact from fiction; synthesize and evaluate information; and clearly communicate, solve problems and discover truths.

Consider incorporating these techniques into your course design and implementation to help engage students in critical thinking.

Why is Critical Thinking important in teaching?  According to Paul and Elder (2007), “Much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced.  Yet the quality of our life and that of which we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.”  Critical thinking is therefore the foundation of a strong education.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking Skills, the goal is to move students

  • from lower- to higher-order thinking
  • from knowledge (information gathering)
  • to comprehension (confirming)
  • to application (making use of knowledge)
  • to analysis (taking information apart)
  • to evaluation (judging the outcome)
  • to synthesis (putting information together) and creative generation

thus providing students with the skills and motivation to become innovative producers of goods, services, and ideas.  This does not have to be a linear process, but can move back and forth, and skip steps.

How do I incorporate them into my syllabus?  The most obvious space to embed critical thinking in a Syllabus is in the Student-Learning Outcomes section.  Learning objectives contain an action (verb) and an object (noun), and often start with, “Student’s will be able to…” Bloom’s taxonomy (link) can help you to choose appropriate verbs to clearly state what you want students to exit the course doing, and at what level.


  1. Students will be able to define the principle components of the water cycle. (This is an example of a lower-order thinking skill.)
  2. Students will be able to evaluate how increased/decreased global temperatures will affect the components of the water cycle. (This is an example of a higher-order thinking skill.)

Both of the above examples are about the water cycle, and both require the foundational knowledge that form the “facts” of what makes up the water cycle, but the second objective goes beyond facts to an actual understanding, application and evaluation of the water cycle.

Using a tool such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to set learning objectives helps to prevent vague, non-evaluative expectations. It forces us to think about what we mean when we say, “Students will learn…”:  What is learning; how do we know they are learning?  When we say, “Students will understand…,” what does understanding look like; how will we evaluate it?

How do I incorporate critical thinking into my course overall and into my daily classes?  Getting students to think critically about material requires you to develop habits of repeatedly demonstrating your own processes in class, and perhaps giving them time to practice similar processes.

Start with your syllabus and then develop bigger-questions based on each learning objective. What is it that you find interesting or important or exciting about the material encompassed in each objective? Then look at your course schedule and try to come up with a big question for each day/topic. Make your questions open-ended (not yes or no) so that students will have opportunities to discuss their own ideas and where those ideas come from.

Bloom’s Taxonomy can help you develop your questions too and should also be a part of a routine process of your daily classes; see The Best Resources For Helping Teachers Use Bloom’s Taxonomy In The Classroom by Larry Ferlazzo.

The Socratic style of questioning also encourages critical thinking.  Socratic questioning  “is systematic method of disciplined questioning that can be used to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know, and to follow out logical implications of thought” (Paul and Elder 2007).

Socratic questioning is most frequently employed in the form of scheduled discussions about assigned material, but it can be used on a daily basis by incorporating the questioning process into your daily interactions with students.

In teaching, Paul and Elder (2007) give at least two fundamental purposes to Socratic questioning:

  • To deeply explore student thinking, helping students begin to distinguish what they do and do not know or understand, and to develop intellectual humility in the process
  • To foster students’ abilities to ask probing questions, helping students acquire the powerful tools of dialog, so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others)

Please see the detailed excerpts from Paul and Elder (2007) on how to use unplanned Socratic questioning (link), and on how to conduct a planned Socratic discussion (link). For more information about the Socratic style of questioning, see The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching, and Learning, from The Critical Thinking Community, is a brief but detailed publication with practical examples.  Other methods to engage students in critical thinking include using dilemma case studies such as the ones provided by The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science and using classroom response systems (clickers).

How do I assess the development of critical thinking in my students?  Developing assessments of critical thinking flows from your Student-Learning Objectives in your Syllabus. A multiple-choice exam might suffice to assess lower-order levels of “knowing,” while a project, demonstration, or product might be required to evaluated synthesis of knowledge or creation of new understanding.

Leave a Reply