June 8th, 2010

Tapping Into Higher-Level Thinking in Online Courses


One of the most important responsibilities online instructors face is teaching students how to think critically. Successful achievement of this task requires that instructors provide the right setting and the appropriate activities that will prompt a student on to higher-level thinking. Though this mission is not exclusive to online instruction, the online environment presents some unique challenges and opportunities that distinguish this type of learning environment from traditional face-to-face classroom instruction.

Educators are continually reminded that successful demonstration of higher-level thinking by students is an essential objective of their classes. Thus, faculty members are well aware of their responsibility to provide critical-thinking learning opportunities. What may be less clear, however, is what exactly “critical thinking” means and just how students may practice and accomplish it.

Teachers are very familiar with the illustrious taxonomy Benjamin Bloom and a group of educational psychologists created in 1956. Bloom’s taxonomy classified intellectual behavior on a hierarchy from the most basic level (knowledge) to increasingly complex classes including comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Overbaugh and Schultz 2008). Critical thinking involves all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, as the higher levels cannot be obtained without achieving the more basic levels.

The constructivist aspect of higher-level thinking seen in the more advanced classes of Bloom’s taxonomy is especially noteworthy: critical thinking requires students to not only analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information and problems, but also to examine their own thinking. Students must be permitted to construct their own knowledge by monitoring, directing, and correcting how and what they think (Paul and Elder 2006). Research shows that meaningful learning results when students are empowered to self-direct their learning. When educators change their role from givers of information to collaborators and instigators (” Murchú 2005), and when students are engaged in critical thinking via stimulating and supporting activities, then faculty assist students in becoming self-directed learners and critical thinkers.

Even when instructors clearly understand what critical thinking is and what it entails, implementing activities that promote higher-level thinking may still present a challenge. Any number of assignments that fit the criteria/definition for critical thinking described above may be appropriate. Each educator’s specific discipline and subject matter will determine the exact critical-thinking elements that should be stressed. Nevertheless, there is at least one tool that online instructors from every discipline may use to support critical inquiry: online discussions, particularly those that promote collaborative learning and that are problem-based in nature.

Establishing guidelines for online discussions
In order for online discussions to successfully generate critical thinking among students, faculty must first set and clearly communicate preestablished discussion guidelines. Examples of guidelines include the instructor’s expectations, e.g., deadlines, proper netiquette, how discussions will be graded. It is also important that students are aware of the goal of the discussion activity and why it is relevant to their learning, as this knowledge tends to motivate students and generate enthusiasm for the discussion.

Faculty support focused and disciplined discussions by clearly stating information for learners to critically reflect upon and review at their own pace in advance of the discussion. Good class discussions start with problem-based springboard focus questions. Critical-thinking questions require students to go beyond facts and discuss problems to work out. Problem-based focus questions require students to provide evidence, evaluate assumptions, describe implications and potential consequences, and/or propose solutions. Examples of questioning techniques that promote critical thinking include convergent, divergent, evaluative, and Socratic-questioning strategies.

Convergent questions require students to demonstrate understanding of content by interpreting information in a new way. These questions utilize verbs such as judge, explain, demonstrate, and support. Divergent questions seek to stimulate creativity by asking for alternative outcomes or variations to a scenario. Evaluative questions afford learners reflective opportunities through questions that call for justifying beliefs and gathering resources to defend and support one’s opinions. Socratic-questions ask learners to examine reasons, assumptions, and perspectives and to provide justification and evidence for them (Walker 2005). Use of these question types is most effective for promoting critical interaction when implemented in asynchronous online discussions.

After the focus question is asked and students are given the opportunity to reflect, it then becomes the instructor’s job to facilitate the discussion. Once discussion begins, faculty must encourage participation whereby students demonstrate respect for each other’s ideas and where they build upon each other’s ideas. Instructors are responsible for keeping the discussion focused and asking probing questions that require students to reason through their thinking and construct their own understanding, e.g., by asking for elaboration or clarification (MacKnight 2000).

Examples of clarification questions include:

  • “What do you mean when you say ___?”
  • “How could you rephrase that statement?” and
  • “Would you please explain that point further?”

When online class discussions require student collaboration, the opportunities for practicing critical thinking are further enhanced. The instructor may instruct the class to engage in discussion using an online expanded group format in which the springboard question is discussed by both instructor and students. For example, groups may be assigned to analyze a real or simulated complex problem and offer a solution or decision. Another collaborative approach includes dividing the class into debating teams in which students are required to argue a position and defend it against a counter-position. A third approach includes breaking students into subgroups to discuss specific parts of a topic and then teach the other students that information (MacKnight 2000).

Opportunities for tapping into higher-level thinking in online classes abound. Discussions are a unique tool of the online environment in that they provide students with occasions for careful reflection and review before participation is required. Instructors play a critical role in online class discussions if they are to generate higher-level thinking among students. The educator’s responsibility is twofold: 1) instructors initiate productive and stimulating online discussion by formulating questions that prompt analysis, synthesis, reasoning, and/or evaluation and 2) faculty continue to support online discussion by monitoring the discussion and keeping it focused through their participation and through clarifying questions. Instructors cultivate learning and problem solving in discussions by modeling critical thinking and questioning techniques. By using these methods, educators enable students to gradually accept more responsibility for their ideas and to practice higher-level thinking.

MacKnight, C. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly, Number 4. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EQM0048.pdf.

” Murchú, D. and Muirhead, B. (2005). Insights into Promoting Critical Thinking in Online Classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 (No. 6). Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://itdl.org/Journal/Jun_05/article01.htm.

Overbaugh, R. and Schultz, L. (2008). Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2006). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.criticalthinking.org/files/Concepts_Tools.pdf.

Walker, G. (2005). Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 (No. 6). Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://itdl.org/Journal/Jun_05/article02.htm.

Anne Saxe is a geography instructor at Saddleback College.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, January 2009.