Higher Order Thinking Questions for Your Next Lesson

12 Min Read  •  21st Century Skills

Higher order thinking questions help students explore and express rigor in their application of knowledge. There are 5 main areas of higher order thinking that promote rigor:

  1. Higher Level Thinking
  2. Engagement
  3. Deep Inquiry
  4. Demonstration and
  5. Quality Over Quantity

Each of these areas encourage students to move beyond rote knowledge and to expand their thinking process. Let’s explore each in more depth.

Higher Level Thinking

Higher level thinking is simply taking our students to the next level by pushing for more than simple recall or comprehension. There are many resources for higher level thinking.  Costa’s Levels of Questioning, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge are two common references for building higher level thinking. Take a look at this Higher Order Thinking Chart to help you organize these methods and see how to apply them in your own lessons:

Higher Order Thinking Questions Reference


All 3 of these methodologies provide building blocks for increasing the level of thinking.  Creating opportunities for students to work within the recalling and remembering level is relatively simple because we are asking students to identify or recall information. However, moving to the higher levels things become a little more difficult.  Here’s a basic list of higher order thinking questions to get your started. However, let’s take a look at how to do this specifically within the STEAM areas.


Webb (2002) offers some of the following activities for using higher levels in science.

DOK Level 1

Recall or recognize a fact, term, or property. Represent in words or diagrams a scientific concept or relationship. Provide or recognize a standard scientific representation for a simple phenomenon. Perform a routine procedure such as measuring length.

DOK Level 2

Specify and explain the relationship between facts, terms, properties, or variables. Describe and explain examples and non-examples of science concepts. Select a procedure according to specified criteria, and perform it. Formulate a routine problem given data and conditions. Organize, represent and interpret data.

DOK Level 3

Identify research questions and design investigations for a scientific problem. Solve non-routine problems, then develop a scientific model for a complex situation. And finally, form conclusions from experimental data.

DOK Level 4

Based on provided data from a complex experiment that is novel to the student, deduct the fundamental relationship between several controlled variables.  Conduct an investigation, from specifying a problem to designing and carrying out an experiment, to analyzing its data and forming conclusions.


The SBBC Department of Instructional Technology has developed a comprehensive chart of both teacher-directed and student-directed activities pushing students to higher-level thinking skills.  


Engineering standards are embedded within the next generation science standards and are engineered with higher-level thinking in mind.  The objectives of secondary education engineering are already designed with the Depth of Knowledge levels:

  1. Defining and delimiting engineering problems involves stating the problem as clearly as possible in terms of criteria for success, and constraints or limits.
  2. Designing solutions to engineering problems begins with generating a number of different possible solutions, Then, evaluating potential solutions to see which ones best meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  3. Optimizing the design solution involves a process in which solutions are systematically tested, and the final design is improved by trading off less important features for those more important.


Similar to many of the STEAM subjects, the arts push students to higher levels due to the nature of artistic creation.  Gerald Aungst designed a wonderful reference chart providing concrete examples of how each of the arts can utilize the higher levels of Depth of Knowledge.  


The Kentucky Department of Education has a great resource using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge for building higher-level thinking in Mathematics. Examples include:

DOK Level 1

Identify a diagonal in a geometric figure. Multiply two numbers. Find the area of a rectangle. Convert scientific notation to decimal form. Measure an angle.

DOK Level 2

Classify quadrilaterals. Compare two sets of data using the mean, median, and mode of each set. Determine a strategy to estimate the number of jellybeans in a jar. Extend a geometric pattern. Organize a set of data and construct an appropriate display.

DOK Level 3

Write a mathematical rule for a non-routine pattern. Explain how changes in the dimensions affect the area and perimeter/circumference of geometric figures. Determine the equations and solve and interpret a system of equations for a given problem. Provide a mathematical justification when a situation has more than one possible outcome. Interpret information from a series of data displays.

DOK Level 4

Collect data over time taking into consideration a number of variables and analyze the results. Model a social studies situation with many alternatives and select one approach to solve with a mathematical model. Develop a rule for a complex pattern and find a phenomenon that exhibits that behavior. Complete a unit of formal geometric constructions, such as nine-point circles or the Euler line. Construct a non-Euclidean geometry.


Often confused with fun, engagement is the presence of all student minds hard at work.   Ensuring that all student voices are heard and all students are a part of the learning process.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines engagement as: “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”  The words that stand out most to me are curiosity and interest.  If we foster curiosity, then attention, optimism, and passion will follow.

STEAM content areas inherently encourage engagement, and below is a compilation of resources that build Rigor through Engagement in the STEAM classrooms.


Science provides many opportunities for engagement through experimentation and labs. But, remember to use focused notes strategies for engagement while presenting information prior to the hands on experiments.  Life Sciences Education offers Biology-specific strategies for student engagement in Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity


Technology in, and of itself fosters engagement.  There are so many tools available for our students and teachers.  Thomas Murray presents this list of ways to use technology as a tool of engagement in the classroom.


Teach Engineering has a great chart of engagement activities to use in the engineering classroom. Nova Teachers also provides a long list of engaging, student centered activities for engineering in Classroom Activities.   


The Perpich Professional Development and Resource Center has documented engaging activities for six arts disciplines spanning kindergarten to high school.  


Edutopia provides insight on motivating our students in mathematics in 9 Strategies for Motivating Students in MathematicsThe ASCD provides a quick start guide to Common Core math in Unlocking Engagement through Mathematical Discourse.

Deep Inquiry

Inquiry and curiosity, the original purpose of education, is often pushed aside for test prep through breadth not depth.  Rigor encourages curiosity, and curiosity spawns inquiry, allowing for a more in-depth look at topics and content.

Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as: a request for information. An official effort to collect and examine information about something, and the act of asking questions in order to collect information.  Translating this into the classroom may seem easy, but there is more to inquiry than simply getting students to ask questions.  Thirteen.org offers comprehensive overviews of bringing the inquiry process into the classroom.

One key piece of the inquiry process is in asking effective questions. How do you do that? 

1. Identify your essential question

First, we must identify the “big idea.” What is the larger question around the piece of art your students are engaging with? It’s time to think beyond your lesson plan! Is the true, essential objective of your lesson that students demonstrate that they know that Georges Seurat painted “A Sunday on La Grande Jette” using a technique called pointillism through identification and the development of a matching product. Or, is there something bigger? The essential questions for National Core Visual Arts Standard 1.2 read:

“How does knowing the context histories, and traditions of art forms help us create works of art and design? Why do artists follow or break from established tradition? How do artists determine what resources are needed to formulate artistic investigation?”

Outline some big ideas and essential questions for your content area that encourage creative, artful thinking can serve to guide you this year.

2. Build an effective questioning toolkit.

This is a great time to look at the essential questions built right into the National Core Arts Standards. And, begin developing some lines of effective questioning helping students meet those standards. What kinds of questions will you ask to encourage inquiry around a piece of art, music, theatre, or dance? How will you guide students to the big idea with smaller questions?

3. Give wait time.

When time is at a premium, it’s easy to forget to do this. However, giving students moments of thoughtful silence to formulate their own observation, ideas, hypotheses, and opinions is crucial to developing artistic minds. Every student should have time to think individually before discussion, so that they all have something to share. Challenge yourself to give your students just a little bit longer this year!

4. Allow opportunities for all students to engage.

This might mean giving students time to turn and talk with a partner. It might mean instituting a “no hands up” policy allowing you to choose, who will respond. This gives students the opportunity to continue thinking while responses are made. Encouraging discussion among all students is difficult to do within time constraints, but it is vitally important to ensure that every child is thinking critically and artfully.

5. Dig deeper.

Follow up student responses in a way that encourages deeper thinking. Ask students to explain their thinking using support and evidence from the piece of art. This is a standard and a skill that crosses all curricular lines, so encouraging this, we are achieving standards in every content area. What better use of time is there than this?


Actions speak louder than words in all areas of life, and education is no different.  Being able to recall and regurgitate rote information was helpful in the pre-google era, but now we need our students to show us they understand, not just tell us.

The foundation of Demonstration is the age-old mantra: don’t tell me…show me.  Beyond showing, if we have students demonstrate through real-world application we can engage them even more. We can then provide a rigorous platform for their knowledge.


Through experiments, science naturally promotes demonstration.  However, if we involve real-world applications, it becomes exciting and engaging.  Have students solve realistic problems with limited resources, or propose solutions to issues on a global scale.


Technology offers many opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge through real-life application.  Using Project-Based Learning in the technology classroom creates engaging lessons with rigorous application of demonstration.  The following sites offer ideas for demonstration through technology projects:

Bringing Real-World Project Management into Technology Lessons

Top 10 Innovative Projects

20 Ideas for Engaging Projects


Engineering uses the design process to build and create, which is innately demonstration.  However, if you have students determine their own projects they will be engaged and excited about demonstrating their knowledge.  Have students journal issues they encounter for one week.  Then, have them choose one to solve by building/creating a product that helps solve the issue.  Check out these sites for engaging engineering projects:

100 Engineering Projects for Kids

Purdue EPICS High School Projects

Hands-On Engineering STEM Projects


The arts are built on creation, but often it is the teacher demonstrating, and the students mimicking the process.  We teach a dance, or a piece of music and the students copy.  Have students demonstrate their knowledge of skills by actually having them do the creation:

High School Art Lessons

Arts Integration Lessons

Artsonia Art Lessons


Math is an area where it is difficult to step away from the traditional methods of instruction.  The teacher demonstrates, the class practices as a whole, and then practices individually.  What would happen if we taught math through projects and allowed students to demonstrate what they know? Here are a couple of sites that bring demonstration into the math classroom:

NASA’s Exploring Math

Authentic Assessment Examples

Demonstration is a great way to bring engagement through rigor into the classroom.  Don’t be afraid to share objectives, standards, and goals with students to have them determine how best they can demonstrate their knowledge.

Quality Over Quantity

Rigor does not mean more – it means better.  Students don’t need more work they need better work.  Furthermore, they need exciting work that makes them want to work.

When teachers are asked why we provide curriculum, units, lesson plans, and homework, the answers that come back are often “I’m not sure.” 

Here are some helpful ways to focus on the quality of instruction, rather than simply the quantity of what’s provided:


When mapping out your semester, or yearly curriculum, work backwards.  Take a look at the standards you plan to cover, and think project-based when you ask yourself how students should demonstrate the standard(s).  Keep the big picture in mind when you finally create the project. As you design the major units needed in order to accomplish the big picture, continue to ask why.


Continue working backward as you move into the larger units of your curriculum.  What important information do students need to know or understand in order to achieve the big picture?  How and what will students do in order to prove they have learned?


As you begin designing the day-to-day lessons, keep asking why.  Everything from the opening activity to the exit slip, make sure you are asking why.  Don’t do something because you think you are supposed to, be sure each and every activity/task has a purpose.  Not only you, but also your students, should know why the activities are being completed and the overall purpose.


Homework is probably the largest area where quality over quantity needs to be investigated.  Why do we give homework: because we are supposed to, because our teachers gave us homework, because it helps. But, does it really?  Alfie Kohn provided 8 conclusions in his 2006 book The Homework Myth:

  1. At best, most homework studies show only an association, not a causal relationship.
  2. Do we really know how much homework kids do?
  3. Homework studies confuse grades and test scores with learning.
  4. Homework matters less the longer you look.
  5. Even where they do exist, positive effects are often quite small.
  6. There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school.
  7. The results of national and international exams raise further doubts about homework’s role.
  8. Incidental research raises further doubts about homework.

So as you assign homework, keep asking yourself Why?  If you are assigning it because you think you have to, then stop.

As you continue to work through lesson planning, curriculum design, and providing high-quality instruction, keep in mind these examples of higher-order thinking questions and examples. The more we engage students in rigorous and purposeful content that encourages inquiry and critical thinking, the more they will be prepared for the 21st century.