3 Ways to Strengthen Your Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his now widely spread document in education, “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,” in 1956. In it, he and his team specify three domains of learning: affective, psychomotor, and cognitive. While the affective domain refers to the emotions, motivations, and attitudes of students, the psychomotor domain focuses on their motor skills.

The cognitive domain—arguably the most influential in a student’s success—covers six categories (according to the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy by Anderson & Krathwohl, et al (2001)):

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating
  • Creating

These categories start with memorizing and defining what’s learned in class, build toward drawing connections among different ideas and applying them outside of class, then lead to creating your own work by using what you’ve learned (Armstrong). Building upon these processes develops students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills, which are more important today than ever before. (Pssst! Check out key definitions and verbs to describe each category here from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.)

So, how can you help students strengthen their critical thinking and reasoning? Below are three ways to incorporate these skills into any curriculum.

1. Allow time within class to brainstorm after asking an open-ended question.

Students need time on their own to think about how to solve a problem, as well as time to talk out their strategies with other students. Problem solving is a key component to critical thinking, and brainstorming gives students the opportunity to explore different perspectives and possible solutions in a low-pressure environment. According to Lee Crockett Watanabe from Global Digital Citizen Foundation, asking a question that can’t simply be answered with a yes or no encourages students to seek out the necessary knowledge on their own (“12 Strong Strategies for Effectively Teaching Critical Thinking Skills.”). Students must use the skills associated with the cognitive domain, such as recalling what they already know about the problem, analyzing different strategies to solve it, and evaluating the quality of each solution.

2. Compare and contrast different ideas. 

Once students learn and understand different approaches to solving a problem, they can evaluate the qualities of each approach. Which one is easier? Which is the most thorough? Which makes the most sense to use in this context? Students need to judge the strengths and weaknesses of varying solutions in order to decide their next steps in solving the problem. Creating a pro/con chart can help, as well as a pro/pro chart, according to instructor Jason Watt. In a pro/pro chart, students see the positives of different perspectives by listing out only the good traits of each, bringing a fresh take to an old decision-making strategy. Watt explains that a pro/pro chart can help students try to find the positives in what they originally thought of as a weakness, allowing them to get creative with their thinking and less intimated to do so (Schwartz).

3. Get them thinking about thinking.

In the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy, metacognitive knowledge includes strategy, self-knowledge, and contextual and conditional knowledge (Armstrong). To increase their critical thinking skills, students need to think about how they think. If they pause to reflect upon how they’re studying and learning the class content, they may just improve their grades. Dr. Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, conducted a study in which she asked a group of her students several prompts asking them to think about how they’re studying for an upcoming test and how they could improve their studying. She only reminded a second student group that the test was coming up. The first group outperformed the students who did not reflect on their studying by 1/3 of a letter grade on average (Anderson). Check out more information on the study.

When students analyze their own thinking techniques and visualize how they want to perform on assessments, they develop critical strategies to set goals and determine which resources work best for their unique learning processes. These skills can help students improve their grades, and they’ll transfer over when students are learning in other classes, navigating the workplace, and facing the challenges of daily life.


Have other ways to help improve students’ cognitive domains and critical thinking skills? Please share them in the comments below!


Anderson, Jenny. “A Stanford researcher’s 15-minute study hack lifts B+ students into the As.” Quartz, 9 May 2017, https://qz.com/978273/a-stanford-professors-15-minute-study-hack-improves-test-grades-by-a-third-of-a-grade/. Accessed 5 June 2017.

Armstrong, Patricia. “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/. Accessed 12 June 2017.

Schwartz, Katrina. “Three Tools for Teaching Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills.” KQED News, 6 Nov. 2016, https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/11/06/three-tools-for-teaching-critical-thinking-and-problem-solving-skills/. Accessed 13 June 2017.

Watanabe Crockett, Lee. “12 Strong Strategies for Effectively Teaching Critical Thinking Skills.” Global Digital Citizen Foundation, 13 March 2017, https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/12-strategies-teaching-critical-thinking-skills. Accessed 12 June 2017.

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