Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Higher order thinking skills include critical, logical, reflective, metacognitive, and creative thinking. They are activated when individuals encounter unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions, or dilemmas. Successful applications of the skills result in explanations, decisions, performances, and products that are valid within the context of available knowledge and experience and that promote continued growth in these and other intellectual skills. Higher order thinking skills are grounded in lower order skills such as discrimination, simple application and analysis, and cognitive strategies and are linked to prior knowledge of subject matter content. Appropriate teaching strategies and learning environments facilitate their growth as do student persistence, self-monitoring, and open-minded, flexible attitudes.

How to Develop Learner’s Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Most teachers have in common when writing lesson plan’s objectives. They have a cognitive objective which focuses on what learners should learn; a psychomotor objective which shows how learners do the given task or assignment and an application or valuing objective which allows learners to apply based on what they had learned or what moral values they acquired after the lesson. On the other hand, whether we have good lesson plan and execute it in the classroom effectively, are you sure that we develop learners’ higher-order thinking skills?

Thinking skills sometimes are called science process skills. Basic science process skills such as observing, measuring, classifying, communicating, predicting and so forth are commonly associated with thinking skills because you are using your five senses plus your functional brain to form ideas. However, let us not stop on these stages, learners should be able to develop higher-order thinking skills in school or out of school. 

A particular higher-order thinking skill does not apply only one science process skill but rather a combination of all of these processes to develop a very unique of learning which may retain on the learner forever. Here are some higher-order thinking skills that every teacher should apply on his teaching.

  1. Interpreting data is a thinking skill wherein learner can be able to interpret the data. Of course, a learner can observe, measure and record his data, but can he able to interpret these obtained data? The learner shall tabulate his data in a table with columns and rows or put it in a graph for easy interpretation. Graph is classified into several types such as line graph, bar graph, and pictograph and pie graph. Most learners prefer to use a table than a graph. However, you can use both of them in presenting your data.
  2. Making hypothesisis a thinking skill wherein learner can be able to formulate his own hypothesis based on what he observed or inferred. Again, learner observes and infers, but can he hypothesize correctly using all scientific theories learned and based on his previous knowledge or experience? Most learners state their hypothesis in a negative form whether he accepts or rejects it after experimentation.
  3. Investigating is a thinking skill wherein learner has skills and abilities to investigate things. The learner can do an activity or experiment, but can he investigate properly? Any problem that needs a possible solution also needs a thorough investigation. He can make an experimental study to come up with a valid conclusion.
  4. Designing a project or making model is a thinking skill wherein learner can make a project or model based on the theories, principles and laws learned in his entire period of education. Some learners know the concepts but cannot able to make even one project or model due to lack of skills in doing it. He may use low cost or recycled materials such scratch papers, used tin cans and bottles, plastics, plant parts or even waste of animals in order to produce a valuable project or model.
  5. Defining terms operationally is a thinking skill wherein learner can give the meaning of certain terms in his own words and how he understands it. Learners can read, speak, listen and write well, but can he define familiar and unfamiliar things in his own understanding and words? Most learners memorize some terms given in the textbooks, magazine articles, web contents and other printed materials. Learners can develop this thinking skill by reading the text first then avoid looking the text for a while instead use you own words to tell something about what you had read.
  6. Making comic strips is a thinking skill which applies to all subject areas wherein learner can draw something using any kind of medium based on what he had learned then color them and finally, put typical conversations over the fictitious characters that you had just created. A clear narration on every chapter of the comics is very important to lead the reader on the real story. Using this technique, most learners can develop their interest to arts and enhance effective writing skills.
  7. Demonstrating or role playing is a thinking skill wherein each learner demonstrates or plays his corresponding role in a particular individual or group activity. This technique utilizes the learner’s understanding on certain concepts based on what he shows in front of the class.

These are some thinking skills which every teacher should take into consideration in their daily teaching and learning situations. If you want well-presented lessons and can be retained on learner’s mind forever, try to apply these thinking skills in your classroom teaching.

Strategies for Developing Higher Level Thinking

Using questions is only one way to increase higher level thinking skills. Literature is a great springboard for expanding children's thinking. The following is a list of skills and concepts that help children develop their higher-level thinking. With each skill or concept is an activity suggestion you can use to expand and extend thinking. Expanded thinking enhances comprehension.

Making Inferences
Inferring what hasn't been said is a difficult task for young children, but it adds greatly to comprehension and provides practice for noticing details.

Read Who is the Beast? by Keith Baker. Ask children if they determine the beast's feelings by looking at his face and body. [This book is also available in Spanish]

Read Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins. Ask children if they can determine what is going to happen next by looking at the pictures.

Patterning / Sequencing

Read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. Ask children to identify the pattern in the story. [This book is also available in Spanish.]

Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Ask children to identify the sequence of the story. Is there more than one? [This book is also available inSpanish.]

Drawing Conclusions

Read The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. Ask the children their opinion about who was telling the truth. [This book is also available in Spanish.]

Read Who's in the Shed? by Brenda Parks. Can children guess who's in the shed by watching for clues while you read the story?

Comparing and Contrasting
Read two versions of The Mitten, one by Jan Brett and one by Alvin Tresselt. Invite children to compare the stories.
Read two stories with similar characters like The Princess and the Pea (traditional) Harriet Ziefert and The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. Encourage children to compare the personalities of the two princesses.


Read Look Book by Tana Hoban. Invite children to guess the whole by looking at the parts.
Establishing Cause and Effect
Read Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema. Ask children to identify the chain of events, telling how each caused the next. [This book is also available in Spanish.]
Read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. Encourage children to identify the cause and effect relationships. [This book is also available in Spanish.]

Read Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen. Stop along the way in the story and ask children to predict what might happen next.
Read David's Father by Robert Munsch. Ask children to describe their image of David's grandmother based on what they know about David's father and the limited view they get of his grandmother. [This book is also available in Spanish.]

Read The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins. Let children think of a way to solve the problem each time before you turn the page and determine how the characters solve the problem. [This book is also available in Spanish.]
Read Thomas' Snowsuit by Robert Munsch. See if the children can brainstorm a list of possible solutions that could have been used in the story.

Read It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles Shaw. Take children outside to lookat the clouds. What images do they see? Encourage them to rewrite or retell the story with their images.

Show the children Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola. Invite children to dictate words to accompany the pictures.
Read Imogene's Antlers by David Small. Challenge children to finish the story.

Read or tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears(traditional). Ask children their opinion as to whether is was okay or not okay for Goldilocks to go into the house when no one was home. [This story is also available in Spanish
Read The Little Red Hen (traditional). Ask children how they feel about the Little Red Hen not sharing her bread. Was it okay?

How to Answer Children’s Questions In a Way that Promotes Higher Order Thinking

Parents and teachers can do a lot to encourage higher order thinking, even when they are answering children’s questions. According to Robert Sternberg, answers to children’s questions can be categorized into seven levels, from low to high, in terms of encouraging higher levels of thinking. While we wouldn’t want to answer every question on level seven, we wouldn’t want to answer every question on levels one and two, either. Here are the different levels and examples of each.

Level 1. Reject the question.
Example: “Why do I have to eat my vegetables?”
 “Don’t ask me any more questions.” “Because I said so.”
Level 2. Restate or almost restate the question as a response.
Example: “Why do I have to eat my vegetables?” “Because you have to eat your vegetables.”
"Why is that man acting so crazy?” “Because he’s insane.”
"Why is it so cold?” “Because it’s 15° outside.”
Level 3. Admit ignorance or present information.
Example: “I don’t know, but that’s a good question.”
Or, give a factual answer to the question.
Level 4. Voice encouragement to seek response through authority.
Example: “Let’s look that up on the internet.”
"Let’s look that up in the encyclopedia.”
"Who do we know that might know the answer to that?”
Level 5. Encourage brainstorming, or consideration of alternative explanations.
Example: “Why are all the people in Holland so tall?” “Let’s brainstorm some possible answers.”
"Maybe it’s genetics, or maybe it’s diet, or maybe everybody in Holland wears elevator shoes, or” ... etc.
When brainstorming, it is important to remember all ideas are put out on the table. Which ones are “keepers” and which ones are tossed in the trashcan is decided later.

Level 6. Encourage consideration of alternative explanations and a means of evaluating them.
Example: “Now how are we going to evaluate the possible answer of genetics? Where would we find that information? Information on diet? The number of elevator shoes sold in Holland?”
Level 7. Encourage consideration of alternative explanations plus a means of evaluating them, and follow-through on evaluations.
Example: “Okay, let’s go find the information for a few days – we’ll search through the encyclopedia and the Internet, make telephone calls, conduct interviews, and other things. Then we will get back together next week and evaluate our findings.”
This method can be equally effective with schoolwork and with everyday matters such as how late an adolescent can stay out on Saturday night or who is getting to go to a concert. For example, polling several families that are randomly or mutually chosen may produce more objective results than either parent or child “skewing” the results by picking persons whose answers will support their way of thinking.

Strategies for Enhancing Higher Order Thinking

These following strategies are offered for enhancing higher order thinking skills. This listing should not be seen as exhaustive, but rather as a place to begin.

Take the Mystery Away.
Teach students about higher order thinking and higher order thinking strategies. Help students understand their own higher order thinking strengths and challenges.

Teach the Concept of Concepts.
Explicitly teach the concept of concepts. Concepts in particular content areas should be identified and taught. Teachers should make sure students understand the critical features that define a particular concept and distinguish it from other concepts.

Name Key Concepts.
In any subject area, students should be alerted when a key concept is being introduced. Students may need help and practice in highlighting key concepts. Further, students should be guided to identify which type(s) of concept each one is – concrete, abstract, verbal, nonverbal or process.

Categorize Concepts.
Students should be guided to identify important concepts and decide which type of concept each one is (concrete, abstract, verbal, nonverbal, or process).

Tell and Show.
Often students who perform poorly in math have difficulty with nonverbal concepts. When these students have adequate ability to form verbal concepts, particular attention should be given to providing them with verbal explanations of the math problems and procedures. Simply working problems again and again with no verbal explanation of the problem will do little to help these students. Conversely, students who have difficulty with verbal concept formation need multiple examples with relatively less language, which may confuse them. Some students are “tell me” while others are “show me.”

Move from concrete to abstract and back.
It can be helpful to move from concrete to abstract and back to concrete. When teaching abstract concepts, the use of concrete materials can reinforce learning for both young and old alike. If a person is able to state an abstract concept in terms of everyday practical applications, then that person has gotten the concept.

Teach Steps for Learning Concepts.
A multi-step process for teaching and learning concepts may include (a) name the critical (main) features of the concept, (b) name some additional features of the concept, (c) name some false features of the concept, (d) give the best examples or prototypes of the concept (what it is), (e) give some non-examples or non-prototypes (what the concept isn’t), and (f) identify other similar or connected concepts.

Go From Basic to Sophisticated.
Teachers should be sure that students have mastered basic concepts before proceeding to more sophisticated concepts. If students have not mastered basic concepts, they may attempt to memorize rather than understand. This can lead to difficulty in content areas such as math and physics. A tenuous grasp of basic concepts can be the reason for misunderstanding and the inability to apply knowledge flexibly.

Expand Discussions at Home.
Parents may include discussions based on concepts in everyday life at home. The subject matter need not relate directly to what she is studying at school. Ideas from reading or issues in local or national news can provide conceptual material (for example, “Do you think a dress code in school is a good idea?”).

Connect Concepts.
Teachers should lead students through the process of connecting one concept to another, and also putting concepts into a hierarchy from small to large. For example, if the concept is “Thanksgiving,” a larger concept to which Thanksgiving belongs may be “Holidays,” and an even larger (more inclusive) concept could be “Celebrations.” By doing this level of thinking, students learn to see how many connections are possible, to connect to what they already know, and to create a web of concepts that helps them gain more clarity and understanding.

Compare the new to the already known. Students should be asked to stop and compare and connect new information to things they already know. For example, if they are about to read a chapter on electricity, they might think about what they already know about electricity. They will then be in a better position to absorb new information on electricity.

Teach Inference.
Students should be explicitly taught at a young age how to infer or make inferences. Start with “real life” examples. For example, when a teacher or parent tells a child to put on his coat and mittens or to get the umbrella before going outside, the adult may ask the child what that might mean about the weather outside. When students are a little older, a teacher may use bumper stickers or well-known slogans and have the class brainstorm the inferences that can be drawn from them.

Teach Question-Answer Relationships (QARs).
The Question-Answer Relationships (QARs) technique (Raphael 1986) teaches children to label the type of questions being asked and then to use this information to assist them in formulating the answers. Two major categories of question-answer relationships are taught: (1) whether the answer can be found in the text – “In the Book” questions, or (2) whether the reader must rely on his or her own knowledge – “In My Head” questions.
In the Book QARs
Right There: The answer is in the text, usually easy to find; the words used to make up the questions and words used to answer the questions are Right There in the same sentence.
Think and Search (Putting It Together): The answer is in the story, but the student needs to put together different parts to find it; words for the questions and words for the answers are not found in the same sentences; they come from different parts of the text.
In My Head QARs
Author and You: The answer is not in the story; the student needs to think about what he/she already knows, what the author tells him/her in the text, and how it fits together.
On My Own: The answer is not in the story; the student can even answer the question without reading the story; the student needs to use his/her own experience.
The QAR technique helps students become more aware of the relationship between textual information and prior knowledge and enable them to make appropriate decisions about which strategies to use as they seek answers to questions. This technique has proven to be especially beneficial for low-achieving students and those with learning differences in the elementary grades (Raphael 1984; Simmonds 1992).

Clarify the Difference Between Understanding and Memorizing.
When a student is studying, his parents can make sure that he is not just memorizing, but rather attempting to understand the conceptual content of the subject matter. Parents can encourage the student to talk about concepts in his own words. His parents can also play concept games with him. For example, they can list some critical features and let him try to name the concept.

Elaborate and Explain.
The student should be encouraged to engage in elaboration and explanation of facts and ideas rather than rote repetition. His teachers and parents could have him relate new information to prior experience, make use of analogies and talk about various future applications of what he is learning.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.
Students should be encouraged to make a visual representation of what they are learning. They should try to associate a simple picture with a single concept.

Make Mind Movies.
When concepts are complex and detailed, such as those that may be found in a classic novel, students should be actively encouraged to picture the action like a “movie” in their minds.

Teach Concept Mapping and Graphic Organizers.
A specific strategy for teaching concepts is conceptual mapping by drawing diagrams of the concept and its critical features as well as its relationships to other concepts. Graphic organizers may provide a nice beginning framework for conceptual mapping. Students should develop the habit of mapping all the key concepts after completing a passage or chapter. Some students may enjoy using the computer software Inspiration for this task.

Make Methods and Answers Count.
To develop problem-solving strategies, teachers should stress both the correct method of accomplishing a task and the correct answer. In this way, students can learn to identify whether they need to select an alternative method if the first method has proven unsuccessful.

Methods Matter.
To develop problem-solving strategies, teachers should give credit to students for using a step-wise method of accomplishing a task in addition to arriving at the correct answer. Teachers should also teach students different methods for solving a problem and encourage students to consider alternative problem-solving methods if a particular strategy proves unrewarding. It is helpful for teachers and parents to model different problem-solving methods for every day problems that arise from time to time.

Identify the Problem.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg states that precise problem identification is the first step in problem solving. According t o Sternberg, problem identification consists of (1) knowing a problem when you see a problem and (2) stating the problem in its entirety. Teachers should have students practice problem identification, and let them defend their responses. Using cooperative learning groups for this process will aid the student who is having difficulty with problem identification as he/she will have a heightened opportunity to listen and learn from the discussion of his/her group members.

Encourage Questioning.
Divergent questions asked by students should not be discounted. When students realize that they can ask about what they want to know without negative reactions from teachers, their creative behavior tends to generalize to other areas. If time will not allow discussion at that time, the teacher can incorporate the use of a “Parking Lot” board where ideas are “parked” on post-it notes until a later time that day or the following day.

Cooperative Learning.
Many students who exhibit language challenges may benefit from cooperative learning. Cooperative learning provides oral language and listening practice and results in increases in the pragmatic speaking and listening skills of group members. Additionally, the National Reading Panel reported that cooperative learning increases students’ reading comprehension and the learning of reading strategies. Cooperative learning requires that teachers carefully plan, structure, monitor, and evaluate for positive interdependence, individual accountability, group processing, face to face interaction, and social skills.

Use Collaborative Strategic Reading.
Collaoborative Strategic Reading - CSR (Klinger, Vaughn, Dimino, Schumm & Bryant, 2001) is another way to engage students in reading and at the same time improve oral language skills. CSR is an ideal tactic for increasing reading comprehension of expository text in mixed-level classrooms across disciplines. Using this tactic, students are placed into cooperative learning groups of four to six students of mixed abilities. The students work together to accomplish four main tasks: (1) preview (skim over the material, determine what they know and what they want to learn), (2) identify clicks and clunks (clicks = we get it; clunks = we don’t understand this concept, idea or word), (3) get the gist (main idea) and (4) wrap up (summarize important ideas and generate questions (think of questions the teacher might ask on a test). Each student in the group is assigned a role such as the leader/involver/taskmaster, the clunk expert, the gist expert, and the timekeeper/pacer (positive interdependence). Each student should be prepared to report the on the group’s conclusions (individual accountability).

Think with Analogies, Similes and Metaphors.
Teach students to use analogies, similes and metaphors to explain a concept. Start by modeling (“I do”), then by doing several as a whole class (“We do”) before finally asking the students to try one on their own (“You do”). Model both verbal and nonverbal metaphors.

Reward Creative Thinking.
Most students will benefit from ample opportunity to develop their creative tendencies and divergent thinking skills. They should be rewarded for original, even “out of the box” thinking.

Include Analytical, Practical and Creative Thinking.
Teachers should provide lesson plans that include analytical, practical and creative thinking activities. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has developed a framework of higher order thinking called “Successful Intelligence.” After analyzing successful adults from many different occupations, Sternberg discovered that successful adults utilize three kinds of higher order thinking: (1) analytical (for example, compare and contrast, evaluate, analyze, critique), (2) practical (for example, show how to use something, demonstrate how in the real world, utilize, apply, implement), and (3) creative (for example, invent, imagine, design, show how, what would happen if). Data show that using all three increases student understanding.

Teach Components of the Learning Process.
To build metacognition, students need to become consciously aware of the learning process. This changes students from passive recipients of information to active, productive, creative, generators of information. It is important, then for teachers to talk about and teach the components of the learning process: attention, memory, language, graphomotor, processing and organization, and higher order thinking.

Actively Teach Metacognition.
Actively teach metacognition to facilitate acquisition of skills and knowledge. It is important for students to know how they think and learn. Teach students about what Robert Sternberg calls successful intelligence or mental self-management. Successful intelligence is a great way to explain metacognition.

In his book entitled Successful Intelligence, Sternberg lists six components of successful intelligence:

          1. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
          2. Capitalize on your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
          3. Defy negative expectations.
          4. Believe in yourself. This is called self-efficacy.
          5. Seek out role models – people from whom you can learn.
          6. Seek out an environment where you can make a difference.

Use Resources.
Several resource books by Robert Sternberg are available on higher order thinking. The following books should be helpful and are available at local bookstores or online.
Sternberg, R. J. (1996). Successful Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Sternberg, R. J. and Grigorenko, E. L. (2007). Teaching for successful intelligence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Sternberg, R. J. and Spear-Swerling, L. (1996). Teaching for thinking. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Consider Individual Evaluation.
Many students with higher order thinking challenges benefit from individual evaluation and remediation by highly qualified professionals.

Make Students Your Partners.
A teacher should let the student with higher order thinking challenges know that they will work together as partners to achieve increases in the student’s skills. With this type of relationship, often the student will bring very practical and effective strategies to the table that the teacher may not have otherwise considered.


If consistent use of some of the above strategies does not seem to help a student, it may be worthwhile to consider having a comprehensive neurodevelopmental evaluation conducted by a qualified professional. Problem identification is the first step in problem solution; thus, if the problem is not accurately identified, the solutions that are attempted often will not reap rewards for the student and those working with him.

A comprehensive neurodevelopmental evaluation performed by a licensed psychologist should serve as the roadmap for parents, students and professionals working with the student. It should provide a complete picture of his attention, memory, oral language, organization, graphomotor/handwriting skills and higher order thinking. It should also include an assessment of the student’s academic skills (reading, written language and math) and his social and emotional functioning. The evaluation should not only provide an accurate diagnosis but also descriptive information regarding the areas of functioning noted above.

When seeking professional services for an evaluation, it is important to understand what constitutes a good evaluation and also the purpose of the evaluation. Evaluations conducted by public school systems are generally for the purpose of determining whether a student meets criteria for a special education classification. Evaluations conducted by many private professionals are performed for the purpose of determining whether the student meets diagnostic criteria according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. While both of these types of evaluations are helpful in their own ways, they are generally not sufficient for providing the best roadmap. Therefore, parents should be informed consumers and ask questions about what kind of information they will walk away with after the evaluation has been completed.

The focus of an evaluation should be to address concerns and provide answers to specific questions asked by the parents and the student, and to identify the underlying causes of problems. For example, if the student has problems with reading comprehension, is it because she cannot decode the words, she has insufficient fluency or vocabulary, or she cannot understand discourse because of difficulty with attention or memory? It should also identify the student’s strengths as well as challenges and specific strategies for managing these challenges.

A good evaluation should glean information from multiple sources such as interviews, questionnaires, rating scales and standardized tests. Contact CDL for more information about neurodevelopmental evaluations at (504) 840-9786 or learn@cdl.org.

Encouraging students to use critical thinking is more than an extension activity in science and math lessons, it is the basis of true learning.
Teaching students how to think critically helps them move beyond basic comprehension and rote memorization. They shift to a new level of increased awareness when calculating, analyzing, problem solving, and evaluating.
Another way to view the power of critical thinking – as students learn how to apply and use higher order thinking skills, they learn how to question the accuracy of their solutions and findings.
Students wonder why they got the results they did and not another outcome. This in turn leads to internalization of concepts, along with all important point of making connections with related concepts.
Teaching Critical Thinking
Some students have the natural ability to ask higher cognitive questions. Specifically when evaluating experimental findings in science or solving math problems. However, many students do not have this innate skill and need to learn how to ask higher order questions.
An important point for encouraging students to use critical thinking is by modeling these skills for your students. Students will inherently follow their teacher’s lead; this is why it is important to practice what we preach.
The following are examples of questions to ask your students to encourage them to think critically (Richard Paul).
  • What additional information do you need to solve the problem?
  • How does the data relate to your findings?
  • How does the evidence support your conclusions?
  • What would you need to do to determine if the solution is true?
  • How can you compare this with other problems?
  • Are their alternative solutions to the problem? If so, what are they?
  • What else may be true if this is correct?
  • What effect would _______ have?
  • What do you mean by that statement?
  • How could you ask that question differently?
  • What did you learn from solving this problem?
  • Is this the most important question to ask when solving the problem?
  • What questions need to be answered before answering this question?
  • What does this presume?
These questions all have one purpose – keeping the train on the track by guiding students through the critical thinking process. When you ask these and similar questions, you are encouraging your students to move from passive to active learning.