Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Thinking about thinking: Giving students the HOTS for learning

Catherine McLoughlin
Library and Information Science
Edith Cowan University

Background to the study

Emerging expectations of undergraduate courses are now clearly articulated in reports such as Mayer, (1992) Candy, Crebert and O'Leary (1994). In highlighting the purpose of higher education, these reports have listed the characteristics and attributes that graduates should attain. More recently, the NBEET report on Education and Technology Convergence (NBEET, 1996) has outlined the eight defining principles that education services and products will need to meet in order to respond to the demands of the "knowledge economy". Among those listed are: The increased focus on information literacy has brought with it a new and major focus on critical evaluation of information, including the use of systems thinking to explore the interconnectedness of different fields of knowledge in a context dependent manner. These analytical skills and general principles of lifelong learning are now espoused by many universities (Nunn, Else, Pitt and Carroll, 1995) and written into undergraduate curricula (Bullen, Neufield and Uegama, 1992).

It is argued here that the cultivation of critical thinking and higher order thinking skills (HOTS) is crucial to the realisation of educational goals and success at university. It is therefore important that such goals are clearly articulated and stated as outcomes in undergraduate courses.

What are higher order thinking skills? (HOTS)

The first hurdle to cross in teaching students HOTS is to gain an understanding of what "higher order" and "thinking" and "skills" mean. There appears to be no substantive consensus in the literature about the nature of critical thinking. Nevertheless, McCarthy (1996) concludes:
Whatever their differences, most theorists take critical thinking to have two components - first, that of cognitive skills and abilities, the 'reasons assessment component', and second, that of attitude, the 'spirit component'.
'Reasons assessment' refers to the ability to demonstrate accountability, to reason, judge and generalise. The 'spirit component' is the process of questioning how we think, a disposition which manifests itself in questioning the content and practices of a discipline, and of having the disposition to approach tasks with a critical and enquiring mind.

The equation of higher order thinking skills with reflection is mistaken, as much reflection may in fact be idle daydreaming or mere speculation (Slade, 1995).

Resnick (1987) states that while it is difficult to provide as exact definition, most teachers know what HOTS is when they encounter it. In discussing higher order learning, various theorists have sought to establish criteria to help identify instances of critical thinking (Resnick, 1878; Lipman, 1991). This would appear to one aspect in the provision of a functional definition of critical thinking: if behaviours are to be categorised as critical thinking, there should be criteria established against which such behaviours can be judged. What are the criteria for higher order learning?

Resnick claims that higher order learning is non-algorithmic. There is no one pattern or procedure that must be followed, and no specific heuristic or algorithm can be applied to all situations. Lipman (1991) supports this definition, but adds that higher order learning may utilise heuristics but is not bound by such procedures. Others agree that higher order learning is complex and multi-faceted and that there is no fixed sequence of steps to be followed (French and Fodor, 1992). A further dimension of higher order thinking is that it produces multiple solutions, rather than one fixed answer. Problems may require different definitions, procedures and perspectives. In trying to arrive at a judgement, the learners will have to search for and consider alternatives. There may be many such alternatives to be considered and evaluated. This is supported by Tishman et al. (1993) who state that the quality of open mindedness, the ability to explore alternative solutions is essential to thinking effectively.

In higher order learning, there is substantial agreement that judgement and interpretation are brought to bear on the question. While Lipman (1991) and Resnick (1987) are in accord on his aspect, neither provides exact details of this aspect. Judgement, according to Lipman rests on sound understanding, and can be arrived at by systematic inquiry and deliberation.

For the present study, without entering then polemics of the debate on higher order thinking (Weinstein, 1993), I will adopt the view that higher order thinking skills are meta-level skills. In other words those which involve reflection upon skills of a lower order. This implies that they are not merely thinking skills, but thinking about the thinking process itself, including questioning the procedures and justifying approaches to problem solving. Such a definition is quite different from Sternberg's (1985) view that higher level thinking comprises the mental processes, strategies and representations that people use to solve problems, make decisions and learn new concepts. The researcher's view of higher order thinking skills is similar to that of Paul (1994) who regarded the ability to apply reasoning skills and judgement in areas where there might be a tendency towards egocentric or sociocentric bias as a strong form of critical thinking.

A final point here is that higher order thinking skills are regarded as skills, in the sense that they are teachable and learnable abilities. In addition, higher order thinking skills both the ability to think well and to recognise and evaluate good thinking in oneself and in others.

How do undergraduate students perceive their studies?

According to the reports cited ( NBEET, 1996, Candy et al. 1994) it is an expectation that universities should be teaching undergraduates to be lifelong learners, creative and critical thinkers, with the ability to analyse, infer, evaluate and reflet on their own thinking approaches. Nevertheless, there is evidence that direct teaching of thinking skills is absent from many undergraduate programs, and while it may be an expectation that students develop such skills they are often not made specific in curriculum documents.

Examinations test the products, but not the processes of learning, and thinking skills tend to be regarded as secondary to assessments on which grades are valued. Moreover, teachers and students tend to value those skills which are assessed.

It is obvious therefore that students will have a narrow and limited view of the validity of thinking skills and will tend to regard them as subsidiary to written tasks or assignments which are graded.

Levels of awareness of HOTS

The participants in this study were part of a group of TAFE teachers undertaking first year units towards a BA. All had experience of teaching and held diplomas and certificates in various trades and skills, ie hairdressing, horticulture, drafting. The students had a strong vocational orientation and were in full time employment seeking to upgrade their qualifications through part-time evening study. At the commencement of the course they had specific and narrowly focused goals which they declared to be passing exams, completing assignments, marrying the demands of study with full time work.

The course taken by these students was an introduction to educational technology and its application in teaching. The stated aim of the course was as follows:

Identify and make use of design considerations in making decisions about the selection, use and design of educational media. Understand and describe the characteristics of instructional media.
As these objectives do not mention any aspect of thinking skills or higher level reflective skills, the first discussion with students revolved around an analysis of the course outcomes and the kinds of approaches and thinking that would be required. Students were able to distinguish clearly these meta level questions from those of course content and assessment. They responded with range of ideas on the sorts of thinking skills they would need to be demonstrate during the course. These were: The students regarded these as skills which they could exercise in isolation, through private study, and they were skills which they were expected to apply rather than develop as a result of studying the unit. The objective in teaching the unit was then made clear to students: to extend their critical thinking skills through engagement with the course content. This was achieved through negotiation and setting tasks which engaged students in higher level skills and reflection.

Extending students notion of HOTS

The operational definition adopted for the present study was derived from the work of Vygotsky (1978) and Lipman (1985) who have emphasised the link between critical thinking and social theories of reasoning. This is based on the view that knowledge is a social construct rather than an individual private world. Thinking skills must be developed and applied in a social context, fundamentally through discourse and conversation. For Laurillard (1993) the framework for learning is interactionist and communicative, with students and teachers participating in an interchange involving discussion, adaptation of ideas, and reflection. The social interactionist perspective on thinking skills is well established in the literature, and in metaphors used to describe rational argumentation. For example, several metaphors describe argument as defending, destroying a position (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) and carry with them the notion that thinking skills are exercised by discourse and in social contexts. This leads to an operational definition HOTS as the development reflective thinking demonstrated in rational, valid judgements and relevance of premises. The basis for excising these skills is discussion and cooperative work, which fosters exchange of ideas, revision, multiple perspectives and consideration of evidence for views expressed. The course was therefore built around the core content, but the focus changed to the development of process skills to enable the educational objectives to be attained. The process skills were: As the course progressed, each student undertook an analysis of the higher order thinking skills that were embedded in the course, which were discussed and made explicit in tutorials and discussions. The following list was the result of a team effort orchestrated to identify and practice skills demanded in the course. Students listed the following examples of reflective practice:


The development and explicit articulation of thinking skills should be given greater attention in undergraduate education. An understanding of higher order thinking as reflective, communicative rationality should take priority over narrowly define objectives. However, student's ability to demonstrate cognitive accountability and talk reflectively has never been a significant part of the assessment universities. Until such practices are changed, the development of higher order thinking skills (HOTS for learning will depend on the pedagogies of individual teachers.


Bullen, M., Neufiled, G.R., and Uegama, W. (1992). The cultivation of thinking and independent learning in the undergraduate curriculum. In B. Scriven, R. Lundin, & Y. Ryan (Ed.), Distance Education for the 21st Century, (pp. 68-72). 16th World Conference on Distance Education, Thailand.

Candy, P., Crebert, G., & O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. Commissioned Report No. 28. NBEET. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

French, J. N., & Foder, C. (1992). Teaching Thinking Skills. New York: Garland Publishing.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. London: Routledge.

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking In Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, C. L. (1996). What is "critical thinking"? is it generalisable? Educational Theory, 46(2), 217-239.

National Board of Employment, Education and.Training. (1996). Education and Technology Convergence. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Nunn, J; Else, D., Pitt, J. (1995). Computing, communicating and contracting: A first year experience in lifelong learning. In J. M. Pearce and A. Ellis (Eds), Learning With Technology. University of Melbourne, pp. 432-440.

Paul, R. (1993). Critical Thinking. Melbourne: Hawker Brownlow.

Resnick, L. B. (1987). Education and Learning to Think. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slade, C. (1995) Higher order thinking in institutions of higher learning. Unicorn, 21(1), 37-47.

Tishman, S., Jay, E., & Perkins, D. N. (1993). Teaching thinking dispositions: from transmission to enculturation. Theory into Practice, 32(3), 147-153.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Weinstein, M. (1993). Critical thinking: the great debate. Educational Theory, 43(1), 99-117.

Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1997). Thinking about thinking: Giving students the HOTS for learning. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p217-221. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/mcloughlin.html

[ TL Forum 1997 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/mcloughlin.html
Last revision: 3 Apr 2002. Murdoch University
Previous URL 15 Jan 1997 to 3 Apr 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/mclo217.html