Instructing & Assessing 21st Century Skills: A Focus on Critical Thinking

Jul 09, 2020

Research and Best Practices: One in a Series on 21st Century Skills

For the full collection of related blog posts and literature reviews, see the Center for Assessment’s toolkit, Assessing 21st Century Skills.

Educational philosophers from Plato and Socrates to John Dewey highlighted the importance of critical thinking and the intrinsic value of instruction that reaches beyond simple factual recall. However there is considerable dispute about how to define critical thinking, let alone instruct and assess students’ critical thinking over time. This post briefly defines critical thinking, explains what we know from the research about how critical thinking develops and is best instructed, and provides an overview of some major assessment issues. Our full literature review on critical thinking can be accessed here.


Overall, findings from the literature suggest that critical thinking involves both cognitive skills and dispositions. These two aspects are captured in a consensus definition reached by a panel of leading critical thinking scholars and researchers and reported in the Delphi Report:

“purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based” (Facione, 1990, p. 3).

Debate continues about the extent to which critical thinking is generic or discipline-specific. If critical thinking is generic, then it arguably could be taught in separate courses, with the sole focus being on the development of critical thinking skills. However, if critical thinking is particular to a discipline, the instruction to develop it must be embedded within disciplinary content. Though debate exists, we argue that what constitutes critical thinking in science likely differs somewhat from what constitutes critical thinking in history or art. Therefore, critical thinking is best understood as discipline-specific with some transferable, generic commonalities.

Critical thinking is also intertwined with other cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies. For example, many researchers have connected creativity and critical thinking. Furthermore, one’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking relies on effective communication, metacognition, self-direction, motivation, and other related competencies.


Adults do not always employ critical thinking when it’s called for. Many find personal experience more compelling than logical thought or empirical evidence. That said, research suggests that even young children can demonstrate aspects of critical thinking.

However, little is known about how critical thinking skills and dispositions develop; there are no empirically-validated learning progressions of critical thinking skills and dispositions. Indeed, the Delphi Report cautioned that its framework for critical thinking should not be interpreted as implying a developmental progression or hierarchical taxonomy.


Empirical research shows that critical thinking can be taught and that some specific instructional approaches and strategies promote more critical thinking. These instructional approaches include explicit teaching of disciplinary content within a course that also teaches critical thinking skills.

Instructional strategies that promote critical thinking include providing…

  1. Opportunities for students to solve problems with multiple solutions,
  2. Structure that allows students to respond to open-ended questions and formulate solutions to problems, and
  3. A variety of learning activities that allow students to choose and engage in solving authentic problems.

Implications of Research for Classroom Assessment Design

Critical thinking is typically assessed within content areas. For example, students analyze evidence, construct arguments, and evaluate the veracity of information and arguments in relation to disciplinary core ideas and content. Assessing students’ level of sophistication with critical thinking skills and dispositions requires close attention to the nature of the task used to elicit students’ critical thinking. Assessments must be thoughtfully designed and structured to (a) prompt complex judgments; (b) include open-ended tasks that allow for multiple, defensible solutions; and (c) make student reasoning visible to teachers. Each is discussed in detail below.

  • Assessment tasks should prompt complex judgments. While some students may exhibit critical thinking without being prompted, most student responses will rise or sink to what the task requires. Therefore, the materials (visual, texts, etc.) used to elicit students’ critical thinking are crucial and have a sizable impact on the extent to which critical thinking is elicited in any given assessment experience. If the task doesn’t ask students to think critically, they likely will not demonstrate evidence of critical thinking. The task, embedded in projects or other curriculum activities, must be designed and structured thoughtfully to elicit students’ critical thinking.
  • Assessment tasks should include open-ended tasks. Open-ended tasks are the opposite of traditional standardized assessments, which rely heavily on selected-response item types that assess limited aspects of critical thinking and other 21st century skills (Ku, 2009Lai & Viering, 2012). Open-ended tasks allow students to decide what information is relevant, how to use the information, and how to demonstrate their understanding of the information; open-ended tasks also allow multiple solution pathways. In contrast, closed tasks typically have one correct solution, and the teacher indicates what information is relevant and how the information is to be presented.
  • Assessment tasks should make student thinking visible to teachers. To provide formative feedback regarding the quality of students’ critical thinking, teachers must administer assessment tasks that render student thinking visible. This can be accomplished in multiple ways, but their commonality is that all approaches likely will require students to provide written or verbal evidence that support their claims, judgments, assertions, and so on.

For a more complete discussion of the topics covered in this post, the full literature review on critical thinking is available here.