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Cut to the Chase: Five Steps to Critical Thinking

Dr. Barbara Limbach

Professor - Chadron State College Dr. Wendy Waugh

Professor - Chadron State College

The challenges of the 21st century demand that educators seek out and utilize new methods to enhance the education of students where teachers empower learners to solve problems and think critically. Following is a simplified five-step pedagogical process to transition courses, in any discipline, toward one that develops critical thinking skills in a learner-centered environment.

Step 1: Determine Learning Outcomes and Objectives

The development of well-written outcomes and objectives will greatly accelerate a learner’s movement into higher level thinking (Ball & Garton, 2005). To make critical thinking happen, these learning outcomes and objectives, as well as the linked activities and assessments, must require students to perform and demonstrate higher level thinking. When writing objectives, consider using Bloom’s Taxonomy action verbs for critical thinking. Additional information for writing learning objectives and measurable outcomes can be found at

Step 2: Facilitate Learning Through High-Impact Activities

Activities, experiences, or interventions that are focused around clear objectives develop more engaged learners, with deeper learning, and a greater ability to think critically (Smart & Csapo, 2007). Consider direct activities (direct experience with a concept), indirect activities (simulated experience, apply in a related situation), reflection (“think time”), and questioning (interactive discussion) that foster critical thinking. Some examples of “thinking questions” are:

  • What evidence can you find…?

  • What changes would you recommend…?

  • How would you adapt to…?

Additional examples of asking thinking questions to ensure deeper learning are presented at

For learners to foster understanding and stimulate intellectual growth, they must pose arguments, state opinions, and critique evidence using primary and secondary sources. A “Padagogy” Wheel V4.0 by Carrington is a comprehensive online directory of apps for education which identifies 400 Apps by the Bloom’s cognitive domain categories.

Step 3: Allow Frequent Opportunities to Practice Before Assessment

Practice is necessary to master any skill; learners must have the opportunity to practice the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will be evaluated. Learners become responsible for their own learning when teachers create a supportive environment by providing clear expectations, monitor class activities, and carefully track student participation. Collecting feedback from students about what they have, or have not learned, may expose areas in need of improvement and present the need to offer opportunities for re-learning. Sample student feedback gathering forms are available at Practice improves learning; making the learning more permanent.

Step 4: Continue to Review, Refine, and Improve

Teachers should strive to continually refine their courses to ensure that their instructional techniques are in fact moving learners toward critical thinking. Feedback, like assessment, compares criteria and standards to student performance in an effort to evaluate the quality of work (Ko, 2004). When assessing a course, and prior to providing opportunities to practice what is to be assessed, learners must first understand the standards by which they will be assessed. Next, learners should be provided with constructive and relevant feedback by the teacher and peers, as well as assessing their own performance. Learner feedback can then be used to improve instruction and learner performance. Stenger (2014) provides five research-based tips for providing meaningful, timely student feedback.

  1. Be as specific as possible

  2. The sooner the better

  3. Address the learner’s advancement toward a goal

  4. Present feedback carefully

  5. Involve learners in the process

Step 5: Assess Learning Outcomes and Objectives

Learner achievement should be measured based on learning objectives, course and program outcomes, and specific discipline knowledge. This measurement can provide an immediate and significant source of information for the outcomes-based assessment process in evaluating a particular course, departmental program, curriculum, instructional techniques, specific learning activities, and learner achievement. This step facilitates the continuous review of the course outcomes and learning objectives to ensure they are still relevant. When reviewing the course, teachers should pay particular attention to alignment. For some practical assessment strategies (summative and formative) see


The successful implementation of the Process for the Development of Higher Level Thinking Skills in any learning environment requires the thoughtful consideration of current instructional techniques and the commitment to embrace changes and differences so as to flourish in an active, high-impact, learner-centered learning environment.


Ball, A. L., & Garton, B. L. (2005). Modeling higher order thinking: The alignment between objectives, classroom discourse, and assessments. Journal of Agricultural Education 46(2).

Ko, S. (November-December, 2004). Assessment, feedback and rubrics. Retrieved from PHPSESSID=752c9504781f3ef2b8df4ecdad8ce589

Limbach, B., Waugh, W. (2012). Practice before assessment: Active learning strategies. Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (CHEP), Blacksburg, VA.

Smart, K. L, & Csapo, N. (2007, December). Learning by doing: Engaging students through learner-centered activities. Business Communications Quarterly: Focus on Teaching, 451-457.

Stenger, M. (2014). 5 Research-based tips for providing students with meaningful feedback. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from

This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2016 Lilly Conference – Newport Beach, CA.

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