How to Get Students to Engage in Higher-Order Thinking

February 15, 2017

Seven proven strategies to teaching higher-order thinking skills.

This post is a follow up to my post, 10 Skills All Students Need to be Successful, as I’m not confident our education system is successfully helping students to attain these skills. Most curricula places too much emphasis on lower-level thinking skills such as memorization and fails to address the higher-order thinking skills illustrated in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  

Over the past few years I’ve spoken with thousands of educators, searching for ways we can help students develop these skills. The purpose of this post is to share some of the strategies and concepts I’ve discovered along the way. The good news is that these strategies can be used as vehicles to teach the required content for your course.

This list only includes a handful of the strategies I’ve come across, and each of these topics deserves more attention. This is simply an introduction!

1. Projects

Obviously this is a broad topic, but it’s a concept we can’t afford to overlook. Too often students are assessed with standardized tests that ask them to regurgitate information they’ve memorized. This is the lowest form of learning!  

We need to find ways for our students to take their learning to the next level by having them apply content they’ve learned. There are a ton of ways you can assess student learning through projects, such as having them create a:

  • 5-minute documentary

  • Podcast

  • Simple website

  • Flipped class (& share it with younger students)

  • TED-style talk


  • Etc…

Empower students to create! Engaging students in these projects helps them develop critical-thinking skills and learn other technical skills that many of them will need in their futures. Buzzwords exist such as project-based learning and project-based schools, but incorporating projects in our classes shouldn’t be reserved for special programs. Projects belong in every classroom.

2. Authentic Audiences

Providing students with authentic audiences for their work is perhaps the biggest game changer I’ve seen in education. Students typically submit all work to one person; the instructor. In this system, students determine what the instructor is looking for and abide. Also, many students feel that once an instructor has formed an opinion of them, it’s hard to change it.

This is where the power of the authentic audience comes in. This could be students from another class, parents, community partners or to share it online with the world. When students know they’re creating a final project for others outside the classroom, it’s incredible how motivated and involved they become. It’s a great opportunity to provide students with valuable feedback from multiple perspectives.

Reach out to others to see if they’re willing to give feedback to student work. You’ll likely find that most people are willing – and often excited – to help out.

3. Inquiry

Most school assessment revolves around having students give correct answers. Rarely do we assess how good they are at asking questions. For this reason, we rarely teach them inquiry skills. This needs to change. We need more people who can ask the right questions.

Start by placing more emphasis on the importance of questions. Foster this with class discussions, online forums and assignments asking students to generate questions. I recommend the book Make Just One Change.  It shows how to teach students different types of questions (open vs. close-ended), qualities of good questions and how to consider which questions are most important.

4. Have the Students Assess

Students are constantly being assessed in schools, but how often do we teach them how to assess?  Find ways for your students to evaluate the work of others, including how to develop the criteria for what makes something “good”.  Have them develop rubrics and assess TED talks, instructional videos, websites and more.

When I began having students assess TED talks and the quality of the presentation, I was amazed at how much more self-aware and better they became at presenting.

5. Peer Feedback

Increase the amount of feedback that students receive from classmates. This concept is similar to the previous one, but serves a couple additional purposes.  One of these is the exposure to other students’ work. It’s difficult for students to realize how well they write, design or create, until they have the opportunity to see work done by their peers.

Another benefit is that it gives students more feedback from people other than the teacher.

Start out by making this anonymous so students are more willing to be honest. Give students 5 digit numbers to use as their identity.  As the instructor, take the opportunity to read feedback students are providing one another. You’ll learn a lot.

6. Student-Led Workshops

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of EdCamps, I recommend checking them out. They’re a powerful form of professional development in which attendees determine the topics and facilitate the sessions. I highly suggest implementing a similar concept in your class with students.

Allow students to select a technology tool, mobile app, book, club or study skill they’re willing to share with other students. Run a couple at the same time and allow students to choose which session they attend. Your students have a ton of knowledge about tech tools, resources and strategies. Empower them to share these.

7. Implement "20 Time"

The term “20 time” refers to a practice implemented by Google, in which they give employees 20 percent of their time to work on what they think would most benefit the company. This concept has been incorporated into classrooms with great success.

It’s an effective way to inspire learning, teach students how to learn and how to apply this learning by creating something.  If you want to keep it relevant to your content, you can determine the topic, and give students the autonomy and time to learn about it in a way that works best for them. In the end, have them create a project demonstrating their understanding of the topic.

For more info on 20 time, along with a plethora of other great ideas to implement in your classroom, check out the course Teaching Future Ready Students by Kevin Brookhouser.

Other strategies

Other strategies to consider include engaging students in the community with people of all ages, teaching students the art of debate, more focus on teaching communication and collaboration processes, helping students develop empathy and perspective, interdisciplinary learning and a stronger emphasis on creativity and innovation.

In my next post, I plan to share some of the different tools and technologies which can help you to incorporate these strategies into your class, including blogging sites, video and audio-editing software, and more.

*Image from Tulane Public Relations, Wikipedia Commons

Oliver Schinkten is an expert in learning and teaching, specializing in supporting educators as they work to empower their students. He’s taught more than 20 LinkedIn Learning courses, check them out here.