Posted on

Higher-order thinking skills vs critical thinking skills

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.

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)
  • from application (making use of knowledge) to analysis (taking information apart)
  • from evaluation (judging the outcome) to synthesis (putting information together) and creative generation

This provides 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 critical thinking into my course?

The place to begin, and most obvious space to embed critical thinking in a syllabus, is with student-learning objectives/outcomes. A well-designed course aligns everything else—all the activities, assignments, and assessments—with those core learning outcomes.

Learning outcomes contain an action (verb) and an object (noun), and often start with, “Student’s will. ” Bloom’s taxonomy can help you to choose appropriate verbs to clearly state what you want students to exit the course doing, and at what level.


  • Students will define the principle components of the water cycle. (This is an example of a lower-order thinking skill.)
  • Students will 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 outcomes 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?

Consider designing class activities, assignments, and assessments—as well as student-learning outcomes—using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide.

The Socratic style of questioning 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)

How do I assess the development of critical thinking in my students?

If the course is carefully designed around student-learning outcomes, and some of those outcomes have a strong critical-thinking component, then final assessment of your students’ success at achieving the outcomes will be evidence of their ability to think critically. Thus, a multiple-choice exam might suffice to assess lower-order levels of “knowing,” while a project or demonstration might be required to evaluate synthesis of knowledge or creation of new understanding.

Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Definition and Examples

Creativity, innovation and problem-solving are thought processes that are sometimes referred to as “higher-order thinking skills” In this article, we discuss higher-order thinking skills, why they’re important and how to use higher-order thinking skills in class plans.

What are higher-order thinking skills?

Higher-order thinking skills are thought processes that help you connect information in meaningful ways and use those connections to solve problems. These thought processes are sometimes innovative in that they apply knowledge in new ways. Critical thinking is one example of higher-order thinking skills, as well as synthesis and metacognition.

Why are higher-order thinking skills important?

Higher-order thinking skills can help you solve problems efficiently by anticipating connections between different ideas. Some cognitive researchers organize the ways they understand thought processes using taxonomies, another word for categories of ideas. One of these ways of organizing thinking, Bloom’s Taxonomy, identifies skills such as making connections as more challenging but potentially more rewarding than skills like memorization by repetition. This is why they are called “higher-order” thinking skills.

Using higher-order thinking skills may help you address complex problems with creative solutions. Consider making connections between pieces of information when you are trying to solve a complicated or nuanced problem.

Why are higher-order thinking skills important for education?

Teachers, school leaders and education researchers often discuss the role of higher-order thinking skills in learning and development. Some educators believe that students must master lower-level thinking skills, such as memorization, before they can connect those ideas using higher-order thinking skills.

Others think that higher-order thinking can happen at any stage of learning and growth. However, many professional educators agree that higher-order thinking skills are important to consider when developing lesson plans, providing instruction and assessing student growth.

7 types of higher-order thinking skills

If you want to learn more about higher-order thinking skills, here is a list of seven types to help you get you started:

1. Critical thinking

Critical thinking means using your own best judgment to understand and evaluate other people’s ideas. For example, if you are reading an article in a business journal, you might ask yourself who wrote the article, what their credentials are, what other writing they have done in the past and other questions that can help you assess their ideas. You may want to encourage your students to apply critical-thinking skills when they’re reading industry periodicals or online resources to help evaluate what they’ve just read.

2. Metacognition

Metacognition involves an awareness of how you think. When students engage in metacognition, they closely examine the processes they are using in order to learn and retain new information. This involves understanding their own strengths (such as note-taking) and weaknesses (such as procrastination) as students.

For example, you may have a student who excels at memorizing grammar rules but doesn’t always understand how to correctly apply the rules. In this instance, the student may wish to supplement their learning process to include a wide variety of examples so that they understand what they are memorizing.

3. Comprehension

Comprehension refers to the process of internalizing material and understanding the importance of content. Comprehension is a necessary first step for many other higher-order thinking skills because it ensures that you are making connections between ideas you have mastered. For instance, a student in law school needs to understand not only which laws exist for certain situations but how those laws can be applied to new situations.

4. Application

Application as a higher-order thinking skill happens when you apply a piece of information you have attained to a similar issue or project. For example, if a student learns the woodworking techniques necessary to craft a bench, they might also be able to apply those same woodworking techniques to craft a similarly-designed coffee table.

5. Evaluation

Evaluation and critical thinking often overlap because they both have to do with assessing new information based on ideas or concepts you already know. Evaluation allows you to place a relative value on a piece of information, which can help you make decisions based on reasoning and evidence. Students in law school and in the medical field often need to use evaluation to apply the knowledge they are learning in new ways.

6. Synthesis

Synthesis involves combining two or more ideas to generate a new idea that is more meaningful and productive than any of the original ideas were on their own. For example, if your student gathers relevant information about every way to study for a big exam and then develops a new study plan, they are engaging in a kind of synthesis. This skill can help you identify overall themes in a wide array of circumstances. Synthesis can take the form of metaphors, analogies, visualizations and other creative forms.

7. Inference

Inference is a higher-order thinking skill in which you use available information to make a reasonable estimate of information that is unknown. You might use inference to determine the context of an email message from a colleague or anticipate an expected response from a student during finals week. You can use inference skills to understand and anticipate classroom dynamics and reevaluate as more information becomes available.

How to use higher-order thinking skills in class plans

If you are planning a class, consider using higher-order thinking skills to guide your planning process and build coherence into your lessons. The following steps might help you plan a class using higher-order thinking skills:

1. Think about your learners

Consider what you know about your students. You may be teaching a preschool swim class, an after-school science program or even training for adults in the workplace. Your students can help inform your application of higher-order thinking skills in planning your class.

Think about what information they probably already know and the information they have yet to learn. Be mindful of their age and experience and try to anticipate the degree to which your students are ready to make connections between ideas.

If you already know your students, you may have the information you need about them in mind as you begin the planning process. If you are meeting your students for the first time, you can use a survey or introductory activity to find out more about their background and experiences.

2. Identify objectives

Higher-order thinking is usually easier to encourage in class plans based on clearly identified learning objectives. Decide exactly what you want your students to understand and think about ways they can make connections between the information they already know and the information you will provide them. Consider using specific types of higher-order thinking in your class objectives.

3. Choose content and activities

When you plan material and activities to reach the learning objectives you set for your class, consider ways that your students can make connections and think deeply about the content you provide.

For example, if you are leading a class on sales, you may wish to invite the class to participate in a role-play activity that allows them to apply the information you have presented. If you are leading a class on communication in professional settings, you might brainstorm different kinds of business communications and help your students look for patterns to develop their own set of best practices.

4. Assess and reflect

You can maximize the benefit of higher-order thinking by incorporating time for assessment and reflection when you plan your class. This might be a quick evaluation in which you ask your students to explain the connections between ideas discussed in your class, or it might be a metacognitive activity in which students reflect on their own learning and thought processes. Accommodating assessment and reflection in your current class plan may also provide a basis for your next class plan.