Tips on Teaching

Assessing Higher-Order Thinking

assessment-toolsby Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

The tendency for students to become consumed with grades at the expense of learning is all too common. It is evidenced in certain questions students ask, such as “do we need to know this?” or “will this be on the exam?” Whatever the response, it then influences students’ level of investment in the learning exchange. This reality can be frustrating for teachers who invest much time and energy into developing lesson plans that draw upon higher-order thinking skills but are respectively less amenable to traditional testing methods. One technique for getting students to recognize and then appreciate the value of these class activities is to align them with assessments that emphasize the kinds of higher-order thinking skills which they promote.

McKeachie (2013) recommends a variety of methods, all of which incorporate reflection, offer feedback, and emphasize the importance of learning. These methods address a range of skills and objectives. They include the following:

Authentic assessment: This method involves real-life contexts or situations that require students to apply knowledge. Importantly, when students perceive authentic assessment as true-to-life, they are more likely to value it.

Concept mapping: This method requires students to synthesize knowledge and involves a connect-the-dots sort of logic in which students draw lines between concepts to explore their relationships (for more information on concept mapping see an earlier blog post entitled “Concept Mapping and the Constructive Learning Process”).

Journaling: This method encourages critical reflection and self-awareness.

Portfolios: This method allows students to document and analyze progress over time. Students frequently observe evidence of their learning that they report would otherwise have overlooked (McKeachie, 2013).

Peer assessment: This method encourages students to analyze the work of a peer using a set of criteria. This method helps students become intimately familiar with the criteria, which they can also use to reflect on and assess their own work.

Group work: This method may involve two different forms of assessment, one geared towards the content of the project and the other geared towards the interpersonal dynamics, such as collaboration and teamwork. This form of assessment is authentic in the sense that it prepares students for future careers, which typically involve some sort of group work.

While these methods do not altogether replace traditional methods of testing – research suggests that frequent quizzing (more than two per semester) positively impacts achievement when paired with feedback and opportunities for self-assessment (e.g., Basol & Johanson, 2009; Kuo & Simon, 2009), they can enhance learning by encouraging higher-order thinking skills that might otherwise be difficult to measure.

Most importantly, McKeachie (2013) recommends prioritizing the learning experience over grades in the assessment of learning. Feedback (whether graded or not) supports students’ achievement of learning objectives. Moreover, teachers should aim to evaluate all learning objectives, a pursuit that requires them to think outside the box of conventional assessment methods.


Başol, Gülşah, and George Johanson. “Effectiveness of frequent testing over achievement: A meta analysis study.” International Journal of Human Sciences6.2 (2009): 99-121.

Kuo, Trudy, and Albert Simon. “How many Tests do we Really Need?.” College Teaching 57.3 (2009): 156-160.

McKeachie, Wilbert, and Marilla Svinicki. McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning, 2013.