Christina Cavage is Professor of English as a Second Language (ESL) and an expert in blended learning. She has authored several textbooks and articles, and hosted a series of webinars on critical thinking and assessment in the ESL classroom.

In this series of Blog postsChristina explores how we can incorporate critical thinking into our language classrooms to help our learners develop their academic skills alongside their language skills.

There are some common myths related to critical thinking and judgment. Many people believe that it is impossible to assess critical thinking, especially in classes where language is limited. However, it can be done! The key to success here lies in creating tasks and rubrics that allow you to separate language skills and cognitive skills. After all, a low level of proficiency does not necessarily reflect your students’ ability to think critically.

So how can we measure? as a student knows rather than just what they know?

How to Measure Critical Thinking

Well, we need to look at two types of assessment first – formal and informal. Formal assessments usually take place at the end of a task, class, or skill building activity and usually focus on the work the student has done. Then we have informal reviews. These are the reviews that involve on-site interactions. These types of assessments play a vital role in measuring critical thinking.

Formal evaluation

There is a common misconception that assessment should only focus on the final work your students produce. The final “product” is undeniably important and is often an ideal measure of language proficiency. However, as you create the final work, you can see your students’ critical thinking skills in action.

When designing rubrics to measure language and critical thinking, make sure you focus on only one at a time – either language or critical thinking. If you take these different skills into account, you can distinguish language skills and critical thinking skills and evaluate them separately in the formal assessment.

When measuring language proficiency, use Bloom’s early or basic cognitive domains as a model:

Critical thinking skills 1-3 explanations

When we measure these elements, we are really measuring language proficiency. For example, during a reading activity, we can ask the following questions:

  • Who is the story about?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • What is the main idea of ​​the story?

Can you understand the overall organization and key vocabulary? These type of questions assess a student’s language skills.

When it comes to critical thinking, Bloom’s more advanced levels of cognitive domains provide a useful guide:

Critical Thinking 4-6 examples

These types of questions assess a student’s metacognition, or critical thinking:

  • Which character is most important to the story?
  • Why?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the character’s actions?
  • Why or why not?

The clear separation of language and critical thinking in the assessment helps you measure each student’s progress in both skills.

Informal evaluation

What about these informal reviews? It can be more difficult to clearly delineate critical thinking and language skills in an on-site assessment.

For example, if you’ve assigned group work, you should keep a checklist of how students interact with each other. Some checklist items can be:

  • Who Drew a Conclusion?
  • Who started another student’s idea?
  • Who made a comparison?
  • Who Drew a Conclusion?

You can also ask your students to keep a checklist and post these questions on an electronic bulletin board. As with self-assessment, these peer-to-peer assessments can make students think and perceive.

Rubrics can also be helpful in informal evaluation. Suppose you asked students to prepare or write an essay. To measure critical thinking, you can look at each student’s brainstorming process once they have worked on their essays:

  • Is a student looking at all sorts of topics?
  • What factors cause a student to choose which option they choose?
  • Are you aware of other ideas?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether or not your students are critical.

As with all other skills, the assessment of critical thinking must be both formal and informal. We need to consider both the process and the end product. We have to carefully design rubrics that distinguish language skills and metacognition.

Learn more

With Christina you can learn more about critical thinking Webinar series. Listen to her interview on the importance of critical thinking in the ELT classroom in our podcast. And for some hands-on activities to try in your classroom, check out Christina’s blog entry about how to teach critical thinking.


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