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19 tips for teaching students to engage in higher-order thinking

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Teaching our students the skills they need to get ahead isn't a job; it's a mission.
As a teacher, you know the importance of encouraging students to think critically, but what does higher-order thinking look like? This post will provide you with nineteen practical tips on how to encourage students to think in new and more sophisticated ways.

Higher order thinking is...

Higher-order thinking is the culmination of students using their creative and critical thinking skills. While the definition of "higher-order" thinking varies, most definitions include:

  • synthesizing information,

  • analyzing data,

  • interpreting information and making inferences,

  • creating something new (synthesizing),

  • and application (making use of what is learned).

Though higher-order thinking is important for students to develop, it can be a challenge to implement successfully in your classroom. As a teacher, it's important to define your own expectations for higher-order thinking with your students.

These nineteen tips are not a guarantee that higher-order thinking will happen in your classroom — they make the likelihood much greater.

The importance of teaching higher-order thinking

It is important to help your students learn not only the content of each lesson but also how to apply the skills learned. In other words, you want to teach students how to think critically.

Critical thinking involves the ability to analyze and evaluate information and recognize situations where different approaches or solutions are necessary. Without this skill, it becomes hard for students to handle the complex situations that occur in the world around them.

Achieving higher-order thinking skills takes time and patience.

As crucial as higher-order thinking skills are to a child's development, they're not always easy to identify. To answer questions or solve problems that require abstract thinking and analytical reasoning, it often requires these skills.

The higher-order thinking skills that your students will need to gain in school include:

  • Applying concepts — When students are able to apply concepts and information in new situations, they're using higher-order thinking skills. This can be applied to everything from math to history and reading.

  • Analysis — Analyzing information, data, situations, or events requires a student to evaluate and understand the different pieces of a whole; this is also considered a higher-order thinking skill.

  • Creating alternatives — Engaging in imaginative or creative thought is an important part of problem solving. Students can use this skill when they're asked to come up with alternative solutions for the same problem.

  • Evaluating alternatives — Asking students to think about the pros and cons of different scenarios is an exercise in evaluating alternatives and making decisions based on the results. This can include making predictions about outcomes or understanding what would happen if certain things occurred.

  • Information processing — The ability to take large amounts of information and break it down into smaller bits is essential for comprehending new information and remembering it.

19 tips for teaching students to engage in higher-order thinking

You don't have to have a degree in early childhood education to know that children need to be able to think critically, solve problems, and think creatively. Those skills are crucial to a child's development and success throughout their lives.

Regardless of where your students are in their learning, you can help them build those critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills.

In teaching higher-order thinking skills, it's important to remember that the process is not always obvious. Teaching students how to think critically and creatively is far more than just a matter of presenting an assignment and hoping they will figure it out.

There are several ways that teachers can help students develop these important skills, even if they don't have a lot of experience or training in the field.

Here are nineteen tips for developing higher-order thinking skills in young learners:

Infographic with 19 ideas for teaching higher-order thinking skills

  1. Encourage students to ask questions and engage in conversation about what they're learning throughout the day.

  2. Model thinking strategies for students in your class and ask them to model their own thinking strategies for you.

  3. Challenge students to come up with unique answers when solving problems rather than just giving the first answer that comes to mind.

  4. Require students to explain their reasoning or provide evidence of their responses rather than just stating the answer or solution to a problem.

  5. Ask students what they would do if they couldn't solve a problem using the information available; this is to encourage creative thinking and thoughtful solutions.

  6. Let the student figure things out on his or her own before jumping in with the answer or solution so he or she can learn from mistakes and create new pathways.

  7. Encourage students to make connections between different concepts or ideas. This can be as simple as asking them to compare and contrast two different topics of study, but explaining how these concepts relate is an important part of developing critical thinking skills in children.

  8. Teaching students how to challenge existing beliefs is another key part of helping them develop critical thinking skills. Asking children who have formed strong opinions about a subject or issue to consider information from another perspective contributes to higher-order thinking, too.

  9. Encourage debate about controversial topics by posing questions that require students to support their answers with reasons and evidence.

  10. Use examples from current events to spark interest and facilitate discussions of how the material being covered relates to true-to-life issues.

  11. Encourage students to speculate and offer theories about a topic before they begin their learning activities.

  12. Ask students to predict how well they think they will do on an assessment or at a future test before doing the assessment or test; then evaluate their predictions after they complete the assessment or test.

  13. Give students several sets of facts and ask them to draw conclusions based on those facts.

  14. Encourage peer instruction and peer learning. Students who teach each other and learn from one another develop stronger conceptual understanding than those who only receive information from the teacher or textbook.

  15. Have students study video clips in which experts disagree (for example, clips from a sports commentators debate) and have them identify reasons why they might disagree with each point of view.

  16. Ask students to identify the bias or purpose behind an article so they can determine its reliability.

  17. Have students create their own newspaper or magazine articles about issues that affect them personally, then have other students critique those articles by identifying any biases or faulty reasoning in them.

  18. Make sure students understand how to express their thinking in written form by having them write a summary, an explanation, or a response to a question after they complete an important task or complete a significant amount of learning.

  19. Have your students create their own rubrics that summarize the levels of performance they should strive for when completing tasks, so they can self-assess their work easily while they perform tasks and projects in class.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to allowing students to think higher-order thoughts is the fact that many teachers simply don’t know where to begin.

From high-level questions to learning activities that push your students’ abilities, using these tips will take you on a path to more intellectually stimulating things in your classroom.

Although there are many other tips to teach students to engage in higher-order thinking successfully, these nineteen tips can provide a good foundation. As stated before, this is not a guarantee that higher-order thinking will happen in your classroom; these tips just put you in the best position to have successful students engaging in this way of thinking.


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