Help Students Learn Better: Develop Their Critical Thinking Skills, Problem Solving and Decision Making

Peer learning platform

The following is an excerpt from our eBook: The Definitive Guide to Peer Assessment

When University of Chicago professor Benjamin Bloom and his collaborators penned the inaugural Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in 1956, the team presciently identified the orders of learning best suited to succeed in the modern world, and placed them atop an iconic six-level pyramid of educational attainment.

From basic knowledge to comprehension, application and analysis of ideas, Bloom’s six orders of learning positioned critical thinking skills at the summit of learning. Meanwhile, the qualities that describe the lowest orders of learning—remembering and understanding—form the backbone of most summative, high-stakes assessment.

Originally created as an assessment aid to help classify educational goals, in higher education, Bloom’s has become a foundational pedagogical model used for curriculum design, setting learning objectives and designing classroom activities, helping to increase the problem solving and decision making in college students, rather than simply taking things they have learned at face value, helping them become critical thinkers.

Building Critical Thinking Skills With Bloom's Taxonomy

“Bloom’s has always been important,” says Numer. “But now I think there's a higher standard for us out there. I think professors today want to come in and deliver a good course and know that they've set out to do what they were trying to do. That isn't always what necessarily happens, but if you're purposeful about it, Bloom’s can help you understand whether the material is getting into students’ brains in a way that is changing their perspectives. If you get to that level, then they've done critical thinking.”

Bloom’s can also help both students elevate metacognition—the process of thinking about one’s own thinking when trying to build critical thinking skills. When students start thinking about metacognition, they’re better able to transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts and situations, such as everyday life, a skill that’s increasingly in demand in today’s knowledge economy. A good critical thinker within job candidates is ultimately one that employers value.

At the University of Connecticut, educators like John Redden, an assistant professor in the department of physiology and neurobiology, uses Bloom’s taxonomy in class to show his students what they need to know to succeed and build critical thinking abilities. “I tell them that they all know what a hammer is, what lumber is, what nails are—but that doesn’t mean they know how to build a house,” he told education writer Philip Preville in a 2018 interview. “And I tell them that by the end of this course, they ought to be able to build a house. That’s the goal they need to set for themselves: to be able to explain how all the parts come together and work together.”

Let's understand what critical thinking is and how university and college students can become good critical thinkers with this definition of critical thinking:

"“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”


Becoming Better Critical Thinkers

This in itself helps college students in higher education in a number of ways, developing problem solving skills, it sets a foundation for critical thinking abilities that educators can use to help students understand more complex problems and building a more critical thought process.

Practically speaking, many educators use Bloom’s in three ways: to set learning outcomes, structure classroom activities and to assess progress. These are the important skills that help build critical thinking process into everyday higher education.

Critical thinking abilities also matter in everyday life because it allows us to have higher order thinking. We don't often think why we breathe per se, but having the understanding of the 'why', can allow us to question and use deductive reasoning in order to come to conclusions, remove biases, and ultimately become better critical thinkers. At some points in your life for example In job descriptions we might see must have's like:

  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • critical thinking skills
  • Good at finding solutions to complex problems.  

In terms of setting learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy helps educators think clearly about what, exactly, students will learn in their class and which higher orders of learning they will use to help their students in their development of critical thinking, and conceptualization, remove any preconceived biases and how they will get there. When professors communicate those objectives upfront, students are given a clearer view of the path to their ultimate destination, making the incremental assignments along the way more meaningful. In Redden’s case, establishing weekly learning objectives “makes the conversations go better when the students are struggling. I can point to the objectives and identify the things they should be able to do. It helps students focus their studies and become better critical thinkers.” With clear learning outcomes set and established with students, Bloom’s can then be used to plan homework and in-class or remote assignments that line up with whichever higher order of learning an instructor is trying to achieve. Finally, Bloom’s can be used to help faculty create assessment questions or assignments that reveal a student’s overall comprehension and mastery of a subject, tailored to the learning outcomes that have been established for the course.

How an educator opts to execute on their course objectives is another matter entirely, and something that will continue to evolve, especially as higher ed wrestles with learning tactics post-pandemic. For many, traditional summative assessments are no longer really possible in a remote environment where timed, monitored exams may be next to impossible to administer. Some possible solutions In its place, some faculty have turned to open-book online exams, asynchronous assignments, research projects and ‘epic finales’ that allow students to apply knowledge gleaned throughout the semester in a creative way.

For university and college students, the shift away from high-stakes summative assessment could very well be a positive consequence of the global pandemic. Beyond forcing faculty to rethink how they’re assessing students in general, an increasingly remote learning environment is well-suited to the types of ongoing formative assessments that have been proven to help students access Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills.

As collaborative, low-stakes assignments become more commonplace, techniques like peer assessment may very well become the most impactful way to deliver the return on an education investment that today’s students require.

Chris Palazzo
Marketer & Educator. Blending the two here at Kritik