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How to Encourage Higher Order Thinking for All Students

As teachers, we know how important it is that our students are able to apply what they are learning to new problems and situations.  As helpful as it is to memorize math facts, the goal is for students to be able to use their knowledge to engage in higher order thinking. In this post, I wanted to share some tips for how to encourage higher order thinking among all of the students in your classroom.

How to Encourage Higher Order Thinking for All Students

What is Higher Order Thinking?

Higher order thinking skills allow students to think more deeply and critically about concepts.  Rather than memorize basic facts and repeat them in the same context that they were taught, students with higher order thinking skills will be able to apply their basic knowledge to new situations and problems. 

Benefits of Higher Order Thinking Tasks

Higher order thinking tasks can benefit all of the students in your classroom! 

  • Improve Communication Skills: Asking students to talk about their reasoning can give them an opportunity to improve their critical thinking and communication skills.
  • Make Connections:  When students use higher order thinking skills, they are more likely to make connections with prior knowledge.  This deepens their understanding of what they are learning.
  • Transfer Learning: Higher order thinking tasks often require students to transfer their learning to new situations. This is the goal of education – that students can use their knowledge in their everyday lives.

How to Encourage Higher Order Thinking for All Students

Now that we’ve talked about the benefits of using higher order thinking tasks in your classroom, let’s see what that might look like in a classroom of diverse learners.

Step One: Use a Variety of Problem Types

For higher order thinking tasks, it’s important for students to experience a variety of different problem types.  Here are four of my favorites:

Which Is Right? – In problems like this, students are asked to choose the correct answer from two or more choices and explain their reasoning.

Who Is Right? – These problems feature two people who have different viewpoints of a situation or different solutions to a problem.  Students will need to decide who is correct and explain why. Sometimes these problems can have more than one correct answer!

Four different types of problems for higher order thinking worksheets

Would You Rather… – After reviewing two scenarios, students have to choose which they would rather have.  Most of these problems do not have a right or wrong answer.  The goal is for students to practice justifying their answers.

Think It Through – These problems require students to think more deeply about a situation.  Students often need to complete multiple steps in order to come up with a solution.  

Step Two: Think About It

Our students are living in a time where everything moves so quickly!  Practice wait time as you give students plenty of time to think about the problem before diving into a solution. This supports English Language Learners as well as your students who could use more processing time.  

While there might be some students who quickly come up with the answer, it’s still beneficial for them to think about the “why” behind the solution. This might also mean that they are ready for more challenging work.

Two different "Which is Right?" activities

Step Three: Talk About It

Students learn more deeply about concepts when they are engaged in tasks that involve collaboration.  Not only does this expose them to other thought processes, but it also allows them to talk through challenging problems.  Student-to-student interactions are also a great way to support all learners in your classroom. 

Step Four: Write About It

After students have had plenty of time to come up with a solution to the problem, it’s time for them to communicate their thinking!  Remind students that if they can think about something and talk about something, they can write about it as well.  The more students write, the better they will get at explaining their reasoning.  

A Which is Right? worksheet

Students can write about their thought process to solve the problem, their reasons for selecting the answer they did, or even things that are challenging them. To support all of the learners in your classroom, you can also encourage students to draw pictures as part of this writing step.

Step Five: Challenge

When it comes to higher order thinking skills, it’s important to challenge students who are ready for it!  This might be adding another task that builds on your whole-class discussion, or encouraging students to come up with another way to solve a problem. Find ways to help them stretch their thinking!

A completed "Write About It" section of a higher order thinking activity

For some students, higher order thinking tasks will come more naturally.  It’s important that they continue to be challenged so that they can continue to grow and improve their critical thinking skills.

Step Six: Embrace Growth Mindset

For many of the students in your classroom, higher order thinking tasks will be challenging.  Be sure to embrace growth mindset concepts so your students can see the benefit of these more difficult problems. As your class works on challenging problems together, you might encourage students to share their mistakes with the class.  You can work through them together, offering ideas and solutions.  

A Think It Through worksheet

As part of creating a growth mindset classroom, you might also need to step out of your comfort zone and allow your students to struggle.  It’s okay to leave problems posted and come back to them the next day.  Your students will learn so much from struggling and not being handed the answer. By clearing your classroom of the stigma of making mistakes, you are creating a safe environment where being wrong is simply part of learning.

Higher Order Thinking in Math

If you would like to bring some higher order thinking skills to your math practice, I have the perfect resource for you! I have created a collection of higher order thinking tasks that help students apply their knowledge of place value to real-life scenarios. This resource uses a variety of problem types and walks students through the process of thinking about it, talking about it, and writing about it. 

Three completed higher order thinking tasks

You can find this resource in my Teachers Pay Teachers store if you’d like to take a look at everything included!

Save These Tips for Higher Order Thinking

If you’d like to find this post later, be sure to add the pin below to your favorite teaching board on Pinterest! You’ll be able to quickly find these tips and resources whenever you need them.

6 Simple Ways to Encourage Higher Order Thinking

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