Critical Thinking

Your students need to develop awareness of the elements of critical thinking, so that they can demonstrate them in their assignments. To begin with, students may be confused when asked to think more critically, or may be uncertain of the difference between descriptive and critical writing.

Critical thinking is often described (e.g. in Bloom's taxonomy) as having 6 stages, from lower order to higher order thinking:

  1. Knowledge—the ability to recall what you have learned
  2. Comprehension—understanding what you have learned
  3. Application—putting to use the knowledge you have gained
  4. Analysis—breaking down ideas into various parts
  5. Synthesis—reconstructing the analysis in new ways
  6. Evaluation—making judgments from what has been learned

Many students can demonstrate knowledge and comprehension, but are not clear how to apply their knowledge, or how to analyse, synthesise or evaluate. Most university assignments require them to perform these higher order tasks.

(Source: Student Learning Unit, UWS, Unistep: Academic skills guide.)

Biggs's SOLO taxonomy is useful for considering critical thinking. The following hierarchy of competencies is taken from an article about using the taxonomy to analyse students' competence.

Examples of verbs within the SOLO taxonomy, levels 2 to 5

Quantitative Qualitative
SOLO 2— uni-structural (student can use terminology and follow simple instructions) SOLO 3—multi-structural (student can apply methods, but may not yet see relations between aspects) SOLO 4—relational (student can understand relations between aspects, and apply theory) SOLO 5—extended abstract (student can perceive structure from different perspectives, and transfer ideas to new areas)







follow (simple) instructions







do algorithm

apply method






explain causes

apply theory (to its domain)







transfer theory (to new domain)

When you set assignments, be explicit about what you expect students to do. Identify the level of complexity students need to achieve in their approach. For example, point out that learning activities early in the session will require students to paraphrase texts or define concepts, or to classify things according to newly learned systems or apply a new method, whereas the later assignments will ask them to engage in more complex activities.

Design activities to encourage critical thinking

When designing assignments, focus on the specific cognitive skills you would like them to develop. Are they to only memorise and recite information, or will you require more complex skills, such as interpretation, analysis, inference and evaluation?

For example, you might construct your learning activities so that they require your students to:

  • differentiate valid from invalid premises or models
  • infer something accurately from incomplete evidence
  • predict where a line of inquiry or a pattern is going
  • locate the cause of an effect
  • make a precise distinction
  • select the right model
  • argue the opposite viewpoint
  • question received opinion
  • see beyond the obvious
  • review the literature
  • identify weaknesses in the data
  • represent statistical information graphically.

(Source: Georgia State University, Writing Across the Curriculum.)

An example of an assignment that encourages critical thinking:

ENGG1000 Design and Innovation

Instructions for Impromptu Design Activity S2 2008

'Innovative Water Glass Engineering Design'

Why this task is included

Here is a chance to design something early in the course so that you have experience of the design process, get to know some of your colleagues and have some fun.

Design brief

We need to deliver sparkling Australian white wine (or other beverage of your choice), already poured into open glasses, to people waiting below.

Your task

Using (part or all of) the kit provided design and build a device that will deliver 50ml of test fluid (water), which is to be held in a plastic glass (or glasses) and dropped from a 2.5m height to a plywood baseboard below.

Your objectives

1. Provide a design that

  • has interesting operating principles
  • shows innovation
  • looks good (will attract the eye of the assessors)

2. Deliver as much of the 50mL load in the glass(es) as you can.

Grading and awards

The five (5) marks for this project are all allocated to a short report that you will write on what you did. Whether or not your device works will not affect your grade in this course.

But so we can make awards you will get a score for the design and innovation of your device and for its performance. Awards categories are:

  • Best Design
  • Best Performance
  • Best All-Rounder (design and performance)

You may win an award in one category only.


Technical reports have particular requirements in terms of presentation and details. See this suggested report marking scheme for ideas about how to ensure that students become familiar with writing to these requirements.

Critical reviews

A common task that encourages higher order thinking is the writing of a critical review or critique. This Learning Centre resource is a useful guide to the essential aspects of critical reviews, and it includes a sample extract that highlights some of the typical language features.

Case Studies

  • This case study from the UNSW Business faculty will be of interest to you if you are looking for ways to incorporate the development of critical and analytical skills into your course.
  • This UNSW case study investigates the role of an impromptu design task in the development of group-work and problem-solving skills in design for a large class of first-year Mechanical Engineering students.