The Upgraders Blog: Getting critical (but only if it’s assessed)!

15 August 2018

I’ve just returned from a trip to Japan, where we have been delivering INSET for public high school teachers. We have been focusing on Critical Thinking and how to begin integrating it into classroom practice. The teachers were receptive to the training and when asked to write down questions they still have about critical thinking these three were among the most common of responses:

  1. How to assess Critical Thinking?
  2. How to guide learners in pair work?
  3. How to evaluate pair work in Critical Thinking activities?

This has led me to do a little research into these areas of assessing critical thinking. It makes sense that if we are being asked to integrate critical thinking activities into our teaching practice that we should have some form of assessment – like any other skill right?

Here is a simple 4 step process to try out to get you started. Remember try it out, reflect on it and improve as you fit.

Step 1: Designing a critical thinking syllabus

What do I want to assess? – based on your experience of your learners, what are they good at, what aren’t they good at when it comes to critical thinking? What sub-skills of critical thinking are they going to need to do certain tasks in both their academic and professional lives? Write a list of sub-skills and then prioritize. Create a syllabus of topics.

Some example areas may include:

  1. Weighing up the positive and negative sides of a situation in order to reach a decision
  2. Ranking and evaluating ideas against a specific criterion
  3. Reading between the lines
  4. Applying existing knowledge
  5. Lateral thinking
  6. Supporting an argument
  7. Countering an argument
  8. Evaluating sources
  9. Justifying decisions
  10. Justifying answers


Set Clear Expectations – The single best strategy for creating a successful syllabus is for the instructor to be clear and explicit about expectations. Research on teaching and learning indicates that communicating clearly about course details at the beginning of the course helps students succeed and avoid misunderstandings and grade challenges later. With this in mind make the syllabus explicit to learners at the start of the course.

Step 2: Setting critical thinking objectives with learners

How will I assess the syllabus? – Decide on what assessment options you have and then choose which assessment you can use with which sub-skill.

For example, if we take the sub-skill of ranking. A simple assessment may look this.

Task: Learners need to rank activities from 1 (most extreme) to 4 (least extreme). Then they join a group and try and justify and agree on a ranking.

Basic Assessment (self, peer, group or teacher assessment)

Can do statements Yes Needs more work Action Points
Can explore the criterion
Can evaluate each activity against the criterion
Can compare each activity against one another based on the evaluation
Can justify decisions clearly

More detailed Assessment (self, peer, group or teacher assessment)

Can do statements Advanced Proficient Basic Novice
Can explore the criterion
Can evaluate each activity against the criterion
Can compare each activity against one another based on the evaluation
Can justify your decisions clearly


If you want to make this more learner-centered you could enhance students’ learning experience by involving them in the rubric development process. Either as a class or in small groups, students decide upon criteria for grading the assignment. It would be helpful to provide students with samples of exemplary work so they could identify the criteria with greater ease. In such an activity, the instructor functions as facilitator, guiding the students toward the final goal of a rubric that can be used on their assignment. This activity not only results in a greater learning experience, it also enables students to feel a greater sense of ownership and inclusion in the decision making process.

Step 3: Guiding learners through the tasks (in alignment with objectives)

Making the assessment clear to learners before they take part in the ranking activity is crucial to creating a successful outcome in terms of assessment. Make the assessment explicit by telling them that they are going to do a critical thinking task and then after we will assess how it went. Give learners steps to go through to complete the task i.e. scaffold the activity as you would with any other skills-based lesson.

Step 4: Assessing outcomes and communicating areas to work on

Choose your assessment option – You could do a self-assessment, group assessment or a teacher led-assessment. You can use similar rubrics above to guide this. A simple checklist and action points for improvement and skill development is a good starting point. You could even ask learners to keep a critical thinking reflective journal or portfolio to record these tasks and assessments.

It is a good idea to repeat similar type activities to see if there is improvement or progress after an interval of reflection.


Example Critical Thinking Lesson

For an example of the type of activities you could use to teach a sub-skill of critical thinking check out the examples on page 20 of the PDF here. This is taken from Skillful Second Edition by Macmillan Education.


Have fun getting critical!

John Cruft is the Regional Professional Development Senior Manager for Macmillan Education, Asia and MENA. He has been working in Asia for over 16 years as both a teacher and teacher trainer. John has taught in both the public and private sectors. He has also designed and delivered professional development workshops across the Asian region in many different contexts, including government INSETT projects in Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

John holds a Master’s degree in Education and International Development from the Institute of Education in London, where the focus of his study was on education systems across Asia. He also holds a PGDip TESOL from the University of Nottingham, UK.