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.

Shake things up in your next English class

Engaging students in your English class can get tricky, especially if reading and writing intimidate or overwhelm them. Some students may think they’re just not good writers, and they feel there’s little they can do to improve. Others may assume that they don’t need the skills they learn in English because their field of study is STEM-based. Still others may be so focused on getting a job after graduation that they feel disengaged from the academic life.

How do you break out of the box when it comes to teaching your English course in order to motivate all students to learn? Below are a few ideas to incorporate into your curriculum. Please let us know in the comments other fun projects that have achieved success in your class!

1. Get students engaged with their community. 

One project that gets students more involved with their writing than a traditional research paper or persuasive argument is one that connects students with a local nonprofit organization or charity. Before the term starts, reach out to local community-serving organizations to see if they’d allow students to visit and get involved by researching grants, interviewing employees and volunteers, and helping to apply to grants. You can also provide a list of local institutions and let students choose one to research and create several reports. For example, instructor Jim Wilcox did just that and had students visit the organizations and do their research before they wrote an objective report, an interview, an evaluation essay, an investigative report, and a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.

These kinds of projects get students thinking about how writing can help others and give students a sense of purpose through their work. Plus, these reports and evaluations are something that they’ll continue to create later on in life for other topics and organizations.

2. Have your class explore composition through media other than writing. (Then get them to write about it.)

Multimodal projects help students get a little more creative with their composition processes, especially those who aren’t comfortable with writing traditional academic papers. Giving them the freedom to explore a topic through a different medium—anything from creating a photo essay to shooting a short film to building a website—might just open up their imaginations and spark more creativity than they expected a school project could do.

Once students create their musical composition, video, dance piece, or project in a medium of their choosing, they can exercise their writing skills by writing a reflection of the process, why they decided on the kind of project they created, and the lessons learned along the way. Don’t be surprised if the written reflections mention how much students prefer this kind of project over others!

3. Test students’ abilities to distinguish fake websites from real ones.

“Fake news” seems to be a ubiquitous term these days. Do students understand how to distinguish true news articles and trustworthy sources from those that are false and misleading?

Center activities around analyzing arguments for their truth and effectiveness, as well as understanding what makes a source credible. On EasyBib’s blog, their in-house librarian Michele Kirschenbaum posted seven fake websites to share with students in order to test how well they evaluate a website’s credentials. You might want to give students these websites to look up, along with a few real sites, for a fun in-class activity that asks them to analyze the wording, design, links, and other elements of the websites to determine their authenticity. They can use these analytical skills next time their friend or family member shares a web article from a less-than-credible source.

4. Ask them to create a soundtrack to what they’re reading.

Engage students with the reading material by having them create a music playlist that matches the tone and emotions of the book or passage. Free music streaming services like Spotify allow easy access to millions of songs, and students can take advantage of these to build their own soundtracks to their readings. Doing so helps them pay more attention to the tone of the piece and become more aware of rising tension, foreshadowing, and more. They’ll begin to empathize more with the characters and identify with what they’re reading on a deeper level.

5. Hold a good old-fashioned debate on a current topic.

Anyone who reads the comments on any online post might feel like reasoning and critical thinking are in short supply these days. People seem to be arguing at each other and not making progress instead of discussing something and learning from one another. While the latter can’t happen all the time because we don’t live in a perfect world, we can still make it happen more frequently than it does!

On Inside Higher Ed’s website, John Duffy, an associate professor of English and the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame, asserts that first-year writing programs offer a defense against our current post-truth culture by encouraging students to engage in fact-based discourse. Holding a debate in class gets students to think more critically about their opinions and gives them experience in expressing them through persuasive tactics and research. Maybe even award extra credit to students who take the time to research the opposing side of the argument and those who bring in quality news sources to back up their claims. You’ll be sure that they’ll use these skills throughout the rest of their lives.

What are some other projects that bring a unique spin to English and connect the subject to life post-graduation? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!


FREE download: Foundations of English Textbook

Our Foundations of English textbook puts learning directly into students’ hands. It helps your students gain a thorough understanding of study skills, critical thinking, reading, and writing.

This engaging text, which is a hybrid between a traditional textbook and a workbook, has been designed specifically for students at the foundational English level. The reading level is accessible; the instruction is practical; and the examples are relevant and engaging. The text challenges students to apply the course content to school, work, and everyday life.

Check out the first chapter here.

Pair the Foundations of English text with the accompanying online courseware so students have full access to practice questions, interactive examples, and our user-friendly peer review tool called SmartReview.

Introducing SmartReview: The All-in-One Paper Submission and Review Platform

You and your students have an all-in-one platform for managing, submitting, and reviewing student writing with SmartReview.

This tool, available in the Foundations of English and English Composition online courseware, helps instructors organize all writing submissions across different sections and create a space for effective peer reviewing. For students, it offers a digital writing space that interweaves multi-step assignments with individualized, instructor-directed feedback.

Access SmartReview directly from your online Hawkes Grade Book, then create a new writing assignment and include peer and/or instructor review, customized point values, and an optional rubric. You can set up assignments for as many sections as you’d like:

A tab called Assign is opened with two sections listed and buttons underneath the Actions column.

With just one login, students access their writing assignments you’ve created through SmartReview from their online Hawkes courseware. They have a user-friendly writing space where they can type their papers directly or copy and paste from any word processor. This space saves student work every few minutes in order to assure work will not get lost.

Once a writing assignment is submitted, it’s ready for instructor review.

Three rows are shown with different essays submitted. One column explains the type of essay (peer-to-peer upload, peer-to-peer review, and peer-to-instructor review). The next row shows a number of submissions, then the status of approved or graded. The row actions, all the way on the right, has buttons to open the paper.

That’s right—no need to rummage through your folders to track down the last page that ripped off a student’s paper. Take a break from refreshing your email inbox in the hopes that those last few students really did submit their papers before the 12-o’clock deadline. With SmartReview, you can just log into your online Hawkes Grade Book and see who submitted what and when, and you can easily read their edits and suggestions.

A student's paper is displayed with some text highlighted. A panel on the left shows two student names. Below the paper, a rubric is filled out grading focus and clarity, word choice, organization, and grammar and mechanics.

If you’ve created a peer review assignment, take advantage of the comments and tags! The comments give students space to provide more in-depth explanations of their feedback.

Dual panel shows comments and tags like "description," "evidence," and "wordy sentence" on the left and a student paper's text on the right. Some of the text is highlighted.

Tags help guide students’ assessment of writing. Students highlight a word, phrase, or sentence and select a tag—such as Topic Sentences or Punctuation—to classify their feedback. These tags help both the reviewers and writers understand key concepts in grammar that you’ve gone over in class by applying them to another’s work and seeing how often they make these grammatical errors in their own papers.

You can approve a paper that is submitted for peer review. Once a student submits a peer review, you also have the ability to approve the feedback before it is available to the writer.

As you read through the comments and tags, both you and your students can filter by category—like Grammar and Mechanics—to pinpoint areas needing improvement and areas of strength. Students will then be able to revise their assignments before submitting final drafts. They can always keep track of where they are in submitting their assignments with the progress bar:

The progress bar shows the peer-to-peer upload is past due, as are the peer-to-peer review and the peer-to-instructor review.

While using SmartReview, students show themselves that writing isn’t about cobbling together a paper at 2 a.m. the night before it’s due. Writing involves planning, creating drafts, sharing thoughts, revising, and continuously working toward becoming a better writer.

Instructors can schedule a virtual demonstration here.

Two iPads are shown. One screen says Foundations of English, and the other screen says English Composition.
In collaboration with English instructors across the country, Hawkes offers Foundations of English and English Composition covering reading, writing, and critical thinking.

The courseware allows you to individualize assessment and remediation, automate homework, and add to the multimedia-rich content.


If you’d like to learn more, contact your Courseware Specialist at 1-800-426-9538.

You beta believe Foundations of English is no longer in beta!

Last year, we were thrilled to announce the beta release of our first English course, Foundations of English. Now, we’re even more excited to announce that it’s no longer in its beta version!

Ready for the fall term, this courseware has even more questions, images, diverse examples, and interactive exercises to help students engage with your learning goals.

What have we added? We now have over 100 interactive examples so students have a more hands-on approach to their learning — check out one below!

The question example is called On Your Own, and the directions state the following: Use the following table to think about significant experiences in your own life. In the "Moment" column, write short descriptions of personal experiences or moments. In the "Outcome" column, write about how your life or someone else's was changed by that experience. Below the directions is a table with two rows: the first is labeled Moment with space below to type in, and the second is titled Outcome with space below to write in. Below the table is a button that says Print Table.

We have a wider range of question types as well, such as click-to-select questions. Instead of only having multiple choice questions to assign, you can mix things up in your curriculum by adding more of what you see below in this example:

Instructions read: Click to select. Read the paragraph below and click on the sentence that contains the climactic point. Below that are two paragraphs. First paragraph: I walked through the cold, crowded streets, hands shoved in my pockets, hoping to make it home before dark. Strangers passed by, shoving, shoving, but never looking me in the eye. I turned right on Helm Street, and was greeted with an angry specimen of a man. His frustration over our near-collision didn't seem to match the crime itself. I bumbled a pathetic apology and picked up the pace to my apartment. Almost there, almost there. Almost avoid... Second paragraph reads: And then, with one quick turn, I'm hit with the image crowding my nightmares: my grim, fading face staring back at me in the mirror, mercilessly exposing my sickness and decay through the store windows. It's unavoidable, I realize, as I throw myself down on the couch and prepare for the evening's practiced routine of medication and loneliness. Directions below that paragraph state the following: Click a sentence to highlight, then check your answer. Below is a button that says Check me.

Plus, we have a whole new lesson! That’s right—we’ve created Lesson 2.4: “Deconstructing Topics, Ideas, and Details” based on contributors’ feedback this past year. This lesson breaks down the components of a paragraph to provide students with direction as they practice reading on their own.

Speaking of contributors’ feedback, we compiled it all and let it guide our restructuring of the table of contents. We reordered a few lessons and changed the wording of some from the beta version. Check out the full release’s table of contents for Foundations of English below:

Chapter 1: Study Skills
1.1 Understanding Different Learning Styles
1.2 Determining Your Personal Learning Styles
1.3 Understanding and Reducing Stress
1.4 Keeping Yourself Organized
1.5 Managing Your Time Effectively
1.6 Taking Notes and Annotating Texts
1.7 Using Effective Study Strategies
1.8 Reducing Test Anxiety
1.9 Taking Advantage of Campus Resources
Chapter 2: Reading Skills
2.1 Preparing Yourself to Read
2.2 Using Visual Clues
2.3 Reading Actively and Purposefully
2.4 Deconstructing Topics, Ideas, and Details
2.5 Identifying Organizational Patterns
2.6 Using Context for Unfamiliar Words or Phrases
2.7 Using Word Parts for Unfamiliar Words
2.8 Making Inferences About a Text
2.9 Recognizing Types of Main Ideas and Evidence
Chapter 3: Critical Thinking
3.1 Identifying Purpose and Tone
3.2 Analyzing Argumentation Strategies
3.3 Identifying Bias
3.4 Evaluating Evidence
3.5 Understanding the Basics of Logic
3.6 Recognizing Logical Fallacies
3.7 Analyzing and Evaluating Visuals
Chapter 4: Grammar and Mechanics
4.1 Understanding Nouns
4.2 Understanding Pronouns
4.3 Understanding Verbs
4.4 Understanding Adjectives and Adverbs
4.5 Understanding Prepositions
4.6 Understanding Conjunctions and Interjections
4.7 Identifying the Characteristics of Sentences
4.8 Identifying Common Sentence Errors
4.9 Using Consistent Subjects and Verbs
4.10 Using Consistent Pronouns and Antecedents
4.11 Using Correct Pronoun Reference and Case
4.12 Using Commas
4.13 Using Semicolons and Colons
4.14 Using Apostrophes
4.15 Using Quotation Marks, Parentheses, and Brackets
4.16 Using Ellipses, Hyphens, and Dashes
4.17 Using Capitalization and Italics
4.18 Using Abbreviations and Numbers
4.19 Using Basic Spelling Rules
4.20 Spelling Commonly Confused Words
4.21 Proofreading Sentences for Grammar
Chapter 5: Style
5.1 Determining a Writing Style
5.2 Using an Appropriate Tone
5.3 Maintaining Consistency in Tense and Person
5.4 Correcting Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
5.5 Using Word and Sentence Variety
5.6 Using Parallelism, Coordination, and Subordination
5.7 Using Active and Passive Voice
5.8 Emphasizing Words or Phrases
5.9 Choosing Clear, Concise, and Vivid Words
5.10 Using Inclusive Language
5.11 Proofreading Sentences for Style
Chapter 6: Writing Paragraphs
6.1 The Writing Process for Paragraphs
6.2 Choosing a Topic and Scope for a Paragraph
6.3 Writing a Topic Sentence
6.4 Choosing an Organizational Pattern
6.5 Drafting a Paragraph
6.6 Revising and Editing a Paragraph
6.7 Submitting a Paragraph
Chapter 7: Writing Longer Texts
7.1 Preparing to Write a Longer Text
7.2 Understanding Genre and Purpose
7.3 Choosing a Topic and Scope for a Longer Text
7.4 Writing a Thesis or Purpose Statement
7.5 Organizing and Outlining a Longer Paper
7.6 Writing with Technology
7.7 Writing a First Draft
7.8 Using Paragraphs Effectively
7.9 Revising a Longer Text
7.10 Participating in Peer Review
7.11 Submitting a Longer Text
Chapter 8: Research
8.1 Researching and Writing Responsibly
8.2 Making a Research Plan
8.3 Organizing the Research Process
8.4 Identifying Types of Sources
8.5 Evaluating the Credibility of Sources
8.6 Applying MLA Styles and Formatting

This short video will get students interested in language

This quick TED-Ed Talk taught us about language using fun animation and easy-to-follow explanations. It breaks down the following:

Prescriptivism – the linguistic approach that says language should follow consistent rules and informs others of common, established patterns in language

Descriptivism – the linguistic approach that strives to learn and map the differences in languages without pushing for a set, “correct” standard

The video is just over four minutes and will teach your students a bit of the history and thinking behind language!

Ted-Ed. “Does Grammar Matter?” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 April 2016.