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Cognitive Skills In Critical Thinking Issue At Hand

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a higher-order cognitive skill that is indispensable to students, readying them to respond to a variety of complex problems that are sure to arise in their personal and professional lives. The  cognitive skills at the foundation of critical thinking are  analysis, interpretation, evaluation, explanation, inference, and self-regulation. Below is an image that represents each of these skills (Facione, 2010, Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts).


*Image retrieved from Rasmussen College

When students think critically, they actively engage in these processes:

  • Communication
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Problem-solving
  • Evaluation
  • Reflection

*Adapted from Saint Petersburg College

To create environments that engage students in these processes, instructors need to ask questions, encourage the expression of diverse opinions, and involve students in a variety of hands-on activities that force them to be involved in their learning.

Types of Critical Thinking Skills

Instructors should select activities based on the level of thinking they want students to do and the learning objectives for the course or assignment. The chart below describes questions to ask in order to show that students can demonstrate different levels of critical thinking.

Level of critical thinking Skills students demonstrateQuestions to ask
Lower levels
Rememberingrecognize, describe, list, identify, retrieve
  • What do we already know about…?
  • What are the principles of … ?
  • How does … tie in with what we learned before?
Understandingexplain, generalize, estimate, predict, describe
  • Summarize…or explain…
  • What will happen if?
  • What does….mean?
Higher levels
Applyingcarry out, use, implement, show, solve
  • What would happen if…?
  • How could…be used to…?
  • What is the counterargument for..?
Analyzingcompare, organize, deconstruct
  • Why is…important?
  • What are the implications of…?
  • Explain why/Explain how…
Evaluatingcheck, judge, critique, conclude, explain
  • Why is…happening?
  • What is the best..and why?
  • How does…affect?
Creatingconstruct, plan, design, produce
  • What is the solution to the problem?
  • What do you think causes..? Why?
  • What is another way to look at?

*Adapted from Brown University’s Harriet W Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

Using Online Tools to Teach Critical Thinking Skills

Online instructors can use technology tools to create activities that help students develop both lower-level and higher-level critical thinking skills.

  • Reflection activities. Reflection activities provide students with opportunities to track their learning and demonstrate their progress throughout the semester. To enhance the level of critical thinking students do through reflective activities, tell students to cite course materials that have helped them advance their knowledge and thinking.
    • Example: Use Google Doc, a collaboration feature in Canvas, and tell students to keep a journal in which they reflect on what they are learning, describe the progress they are making in the class, and cite course materials that have been most relevant to their progress. Students can share the Google Doc with you, and instructors can comment on their work.
  • Peer review activities. Peer review activities enable students to demonstrate communication skills by giving feedback on each other’s work, expose students to alternative perspectives, and allow students to question what they are reading. Doing peer review activities online can protects students’ anonymity, making students more likely to be honest in their feedback (Lin, S. S., Liu, E. Z. F., & Yuan, S. M., 2001,  Web‐based peer assessment: feedback for students with various thinking‐styles).
    • Example: Use the peer review assignment feature in Canvas and manually or automatically form peer review groups. These groups can be anonymous or display students’ names. Tell students to give feedback to two of their peers on the first draft of a research paper. Use the rubric feature in Canvas to create a rubric for students to use. Show students the rubric along with the assignment instructions so that students know what they will be evaluated on and how to evaluate their peers.
  • Discussion forums. Discussion forums allow students to communicate with their peers, answer questions that require them to demonstrate both lower-level and higher-level critical thinking skills, and analyze course content. When instructors set clear guidelines for participation and model critical thinking skills through their participation in discussion forums, students can also demonstrate how they are engaging in the critical thinking process.
    • Example: Use the discussions feature in Canvas and tell students to have a debate about a video they watched. Pose the debate questions in the discussion forum, and give students instructions to take a side of the debate and cite course readings to support their arguments.  
  • Small group activities. Small group activities allow students to communicate, problem solve, hear different perspectives, and collaborate to analyze and synthesize course content. By assigning small group activities, instructors can engage students in multiple levels of critical thinking.
    • Example: Use goreact, a tool for creating and commenting on online presentations, and tell students to design a presentation that summarizes and raises questions about a reading. Tell students to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument. Students can post the links to their goreact presentations in a discussion forum or an assignment using the insert link feature in Canvas.
  • Digital Storytelling Activities. Telling digital stories allows students to use multimedia (images, audio, video) to present information. Digital stories can include 1) personal narratives, 2) stories that document events, and 3) stories that inform and instruct. Creating digital stories allows students to evaluate, reflect on, or analyze course content (Robin, 2006, Digital storytelling: A powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom).
    • Example:  Use goreact, a narrated Powerpoint, or a Google Doc and instruct students to tell a story that informs readers and listeners about how the course content they are learning is useful in their professional lives. In the story, tell students to offer specific examples of readings and class activities that they are finding most relevant to their professional work. Links to the goreact presentation and Google doc can be submitted via a discussion forum or an assignment in Canvas. The Powerpoint file can be submitted via a discussion or submitted in an assignment.

Pulling it All Together

Critical thinking is an invaluable skill that students need to be successful in their professional and personal lives. Instructors can be thoughtful and purposeful about creating learning objectives that promote lower and higher-level critical thinking skills, and about using technology to implement activities that support these learning objectives. Below are some additional resources about critical thinking.

Additional Resources


Carmichael, E., & Farrell, H. (2012). Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Online Resources in Developing Student Critical Thinking: Review of Literature and Case Study of a Critical Thinking Online Site. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice9(1), 4.

Lai, E. R. (2011). Critical thinking: A literature review. Pearson’s Research Reports6, 40-41.

Landers, H (n.d.). Using Peer Teaching In The Classroom. Retrieved electronically from

Lynch, C. L., & Wolcott, S. K. (2001). Helping your students develop critical thinking skills (IDEA Paper# 37. In Manhattan, KS: The IDEA Center.

Mandernach, B. J. (2006). Thinking critically about critical thinking: Integrating online tools to Promote Critical Thinking. Insight: A collection of faculty scholarship, 1, 41-50.

Yang, Y. T. C., & Wu, W. C. I. (2012). Digital storytelling for enhancing student academic achievement, critical thinking, and learning motivation: A year-long experimental study. Computers & Education, 59(2), 339-352.


Insight Assessment: Measuring Thinking Worldwide

Michigan State University’s Office of Faculty  & Organizational Development, Critical Thinking:

The Critical Thinking Community



In this post we'll explore cognitive presence and roles we play on the critical inquiry path leading toward higher levels of learning.

Fostering Critical Thinking Skills with Cognitive Presence

In the previous blog post, The Pedagogy of Learning Design: Crafting Optimal E-Learning Spaces with Teaching Presence, we explored teaching presence - the design, development, management, facilitation, and direction within the learning space. This installment will focus on cognitive presence and a practical inquiry approach to helping our learners acquire knowledge and confirm understanding.

Practical Inquiry Model

The practical inquiry model reflects four phases of critical thinking and cognitive presence: (a) the initiation phase with a triggering event that begins the dialogue about a particular issue; (b) the exploration phase in which learners move between private reflection and social exploration, exchanging information about the issue at hand; (c) the integration phase in which participants begin to "construct meanings" or solutions to the issue from the ideas explored in the previous phase; and (d) the resolution phase in which the proposed solution is "vicariously tested" (Garrison et al., 2001, p. 11).


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-23.

When we talk about critical thinking skills, we are touching on cognitive presence. Perhaps the most difficult of the three presences to grasp, cognitive presence relates to how we move through the learning process - approaching problems, seeking out new knowledge, gaining new levels of understanding, and sharing that understanding with the learning community. The goal is to have our learners integrate key concepts into their own worlds, explore associated resources, and bring new knowledge and new ideas into the learning process.

Climbing the Learning Ladder

Cognitive presence supports scaffolded learning – the sequential progress of learning through content review and activities, leading to an understanding of content and context. The scaffolding process includes instructor and peer support leading up the so-called “learning ladder” until learners can apply new skills and concepts independently.

Think about a time when you were learning a new skill or concept. The sense of puzzlement, followed by inquiry – questions you needed to ask in order to grasp that new skill or concept. You asked questions, received responses, had a dialogue, and perhaps even asked more questions. You engaged with concepts in order to synthesize their meaning, so that you could shape new meaning and apply those new skills or concepts. Cognitive presence supports learner engagement with new skills and concepts, and helps them to progress through the scaffolded learning process.

Establishing cognitive presence means focusing on knowledge acquisition, synthesis, and application. Here are some strategies in support of cognitive presence, following a practical inquiry model.


Assessing Prior Knowledge


Past experience and prior knowledge play a key role in the critical thinking process. As designers, instructors and facilitators, we work to enable our learners to reach established learning goals, and to support their acquisition of new knowledge and ideas. Knowing where our learners are starting from is integral to designing pathways to learner success.

Creating Triggering Events

Triggering events are the problems and challenges that you suggest throughout the learning experience, such as assignments and questions integrated into communication and interaction exercises. This is the first phase in a practical inquiry process, which relies on a structured activity focusing the learners on seeking a solution to a problem. As a learning facilitator, integrating standard terms such as “analyze," “evaluate," and “synthesize” in your own dialogue will assist learners with expressing and defending their points of view in the forums.

Guiding Contextual Exploration

When learners are faced with a problem to address, they should also be provided with a means to explore possible solutions. Associated readings and related resources provide context and meaning within our learning environments, and provide the framework for inquiry and exploration. If you provide associated resources, give learners a list of key questions to keep in mind when they are reviewing content. That will guide their exploration, and provide the "stem" for them to branch out on with divergent ideas.

Feedback also plays a role in the practical inquiry process, especially when additional direction is provided to learners along with remedial assessment. If someone is having trouble understanding a concept – and you can usually deduce this from simple interactions – do more than simply direct them to the reading material. Provide avenues for them to explore concepts further, along with instructions on why these concepts matter in the learning and work that they’re doing.

Integrating Concepts

Integrating concepts is the process by which the learners reflect individually on learning activities, communicate their thoughts with others in the group, collectively connect ideas, and establish relationships between existing knowledge and new information.

Supporting Resolution

Success in learning comes when we come to resolution, and can defend that resolution with the application of new ideas. Keeping a careful watch on learner progress is important here – from an individual and group perspective. As instructors and facilitators, we need to stay involved as learning events progress, guide the subject and substance of conversation so that learners are able to make sense of complex information, and provide input to help them represent their resolutions.

Wrapping Things Up

At the end of each learning event, provide guidance as to what resolution should look like with a wrap-up related to the content, context, and learning activities. This allows learners to assess what they have accomplished, and understand why they were tasked to accomplish it. Wrapping up closes the practical inquiry loop, and provides that closure we need to settle our brains before we jump back into a new practical inquiry cycle.

Aha! (Again)

The work we all do in support of eLearning events allows us to journey alongside our learners through the critical inquiry process, all in support of cognitive presence leading to repeated “aha!” moments. We design, develop, and deliver environments where our learners can grow, evolve, connect, and share -- integrating key concepts from learning events into their own worlds, and returning to the discourse with new ideas and new knowledge.

Throughout this series we have explored social, teaching, and cognitive presence – the key elements within the Community of Inquiry framework. In the next (and last) installment of this series, we will take a look at the indicators and assessment tools associated with this framework, and how we can measure our effectiveness in each of these presence areas related to the work we do in the design, development, and delivery of eLearning.

Interested in learning more about instructional design in the virtual classroom? Click on the graphic below to read about our Virtual Classroom Instructional Designer Certificate and how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Instructional Designer Badge.