January 17, 2019

Dennis Wesley

How to Encourage Higher-Order Thinking Among Students

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Using Bloom’s Verbs, Wikipedia, and Bartleby, you can help develop a student's higher-order thinking!

The Problem with Rote Learning

Parents and teachers often regard students’ compulsive tendency to memorize academic content as a problem, and rightly so. However, memorizing, or rote learning, is not a problem in itself; it is a basic and necessary mental capacity. At the same time, we must recognize that it is not the ultimate end of learning or education. Despite concerted effort, the idea that memorizing study material counts as serious learning still runs strong. Moreover, the proliferation of standardized testing has also given rise to a harmful practice: “teaching to the test.” Teachers who employ this practice focus solely on standardized tests and encourage—sometimes coerce—students to pledge their learning efforts toward these tests alone. In essence, this practice is number- and result-driven, and teachers tend to encourage students to actively limit themselves to memorizing academic content. Even a number of freethinking private schools encourage students to memorize (as opposed to understand) material they may find too difficult. Good memory is an invaluable asset, but it is also rudimentary. In other words, memorization must necessarily be accompanied by higher cognitive tasks. It must be a stepping stone to better, more serious learning, not an end in itself.


To elaborate, memorization must be followed by understanding, application, synthesis/analysis, and active evaluation. This article throws light on two very simple methods to encourage students to perform these higher cognitive tasks. Here's how.

First, teachers can do so by relying on Bloom's Taxonomy to create realistic, yet challenging, learning objectives. Second, teachers can use online learning resources such as Wikipedia and Bartleby to develop students’ capacity for conscious, higher-order thinking. Let's first take a brief look at Bloom's Taxonomy and why it is especially useful in this context.


1. Bloom’s Taxonomy and Learning Objectives

Named after Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, the taxonomy allows teachers and learners to classify educational tasks and goals into different degrees of complexity. It is divided into three hierarchical models: the cognitive domain, the affective domain, and the psychomotor domain. For the purpose of this article, let's limit our focus to the cognitive domain. The cognitive domain involves five distinct and specific cognitive tasks. These tasks are always expressed as verbs (they are also called Bloom’s verbs) and in the following order: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, and Evaluate. This order implies a hierarchy: “Remember” being the most basic cognitive task, and “Evaluate” being the highest. Memorization only involves recollection and is, therefore, a basic cognitive task. It is also the least complex or difficult. More importantly, memorization does not necessarily lead to understanding. To facilitate higher-order thinking, teachers can create learning objectives using verbs directly associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Let us examine these two learning objectives:

(i) “List the different types of clouds,” and

(ii) “Explain the differences between the three types of clouds”

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The first objective is fairly straightforward. It only requires students to know and remember the different types of clouds. The second objective, on the other hand, is more advanced; it requires students to understand the basis of the classification as opposed to just naming the different types of clouds. The key, therefore, is to use Bloom’s verbs to analyze what kind of task you’re asking students to perform. Alternatively, you can use this list of sample verbs directly associated with the taxonomy. Be inventive; use higher-order verbs to challenge your students to do more. At the same time, monitor students’ performance carefully. Don’t be afraid to use a lower-order verb if students are struggling with a particular concept. Because higher-order thinking also involves knowing what one is doing while one is doing it. That is, students must also be aware of the kind of cognitive task they are performing, or are required to perform. So, if students recognize that they can’t analyze something because they don’t understand it well enough, they are still on the right path; they are exhibiting traits of higher-order thinking.


2. Getting the Best Out of Wikipedia and Bartleby

These sites are especially good because they rank high on the taxonomy, and that’s because they typically address the “What,” “Why,” and “How” of a given concept. Too often, resources only focus on the “What” aspect of a concept. So, if a resource addresses all three aspects, it is highly likely to be credible, too. Bartleby, for instance, provides explanatory solutions to textbook problems. An explanatory solution necessarily addresses these three aspects. In effect, good explanations enable students to understand concepts better. But how do you know if students understand what they’re reading? You can simply ask students to write short summaries of these explanations. To up the challenge, you can also set a word limit. This not only improves students’ writing skills but also requires them to perform different cognitive tasks at the same time. Moreover, encourage your students to find more educational resources that focus on these three aspects.


Remember: there is nothing more accessible and educative than good old Wikipedia. Most good entries not only focus on the the “What,” “Why,” and “How” of things but are also well-substantiated: they include a number of citations and references. Students, therefore, could be asked to follow these hyperlinked references. This will build or improve their capacity to differentiate between credible and poor content online. You could also ask students to examine and substantiate whether a particular reference actually states what an entry claims it does. However, do not expect students to get it right the very first time. As far as this task is concerned, whether or not students understand concepts correctly is secondary. The primary purpose of this task is to get students to detail what it is they find difficult to understand, or what it is they misunderstand. Too often, students are unable to say whether or not they understand a given concept. Therefore, the challenge is to get them to articulate the difficulties they may be facing in their attempts to understand concepts, and this is not just an academic skill but also an essential life skill.

Bottomline: These sites are especially good for intensive learning, so dive deep, and draw as much as you can. Use verbs associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy to get the best out of these sites by creating challenging learning objectives.

Dennis Wesley is an independent educational researcher and budding blogger, whose interests include STEM and Humanities education, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. You can follow his personal blog here.


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