Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) in Education

The concept involves teaching students to think critically

Children in school writing on blackboard
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Higher-order thinking skills is a concept popular in American education. It distinguishes critical thinking skills from low-order learning outcomes, such as those attained by rote memorization. HOTS include synthesizing, analyzing, reasoning, comprehending, application, and evaluation.

HOTS is based on various taxonomies of learning, particularly the one created by Benjamin Bloom in his 1956 book, "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals." Higher-order thinking skills are reflected by the top three levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy: analyzing, evaluating, and creating, notes The University of Rhode Island.

Bloom's Taxonomy and HOTS

Bloom's taxonomy is taught in a majority of teacher-education programs in the United States. As such, it may be among the most well-known educational theories among teachers nationally. As the Curriculum & Leadership Journal notes:

"While Bloom’s Taxonomy is not the only framework for teaching thinking, it is the most widely used, and subsequent frameworks tend to be closely linked to Bloom’s work.... Bloom’s aim was to promote higher forms of thinking in education, such as analyzing and evaluating, rather than just teaching students to remember facts (rote learning)."

Bloom’s taxonomy was designed with six levels to promote higher-order thinking. The six levels were: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, notes Tech Learning. (The taxonomy's levels were later revised as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, revising, and creating.) Tech Learning adds that lower-order thinking skills (LOTS) involve memorization, while the higher-order thinking requires understanding and applying that knowledge.

The top three levels of Bloom's taxonomy—which is often displayed as a pyramid, with ascending levels of thinking at the top of the structure—are analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These levels of the taxonomy all involve critical, or higher-order, thinking. As Susan Broookhart notes in her book, "How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills," "Being able to think means students can apply the knowledge and skills they developed during their learning to new contexts." Looking at each level demonstrates how higher-order thinking is applied in education.


Analysis, the fourth level of Bloom's pyramid, is where students use their own judgment to begin analyzing the knowledge they have learned. At this point, they begin understanding the underlying structure of knowledge and also are able to distinguish between fact and opinion. Some examples of analysis would be:

  • Analyze each statement to decide whether it is fact or opinion.
  • Compare and contrast the beliefs of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.
  • Apply the rule of 70 to determine how quickly your money will double at 6 percent interest.
  • Illustrate the differences between the American alligator and the Nile crocodile.


Synthesis, the fifth level of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, requires students to infer relationships among sources. The high-level thinking of synthesis is evident when students put the parts or information they have reviewed together to create new meaning or a new structure.

At the synthesis level, students move beyond relying on previously learned information or analyzing items that the teacher is giving to them. Some questions in the educational setting that would involve the synthesis level of higher-order thinking might include:

  • What alternative would you suggest for ___?
  • What changes would you make to revise___? 
  • What could you invent___?  


Evaluation, the top level of Bloom's taxonomy, is where students make judgments about the value of ideas, items, and materials. Evaluation is the top level of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid because it is at this level that students are expected to mentally assemble all they have learned to make informed and sound evaluations of the material. Some questions involving evaluation might be:

  • Evaluate the Bill of Rights and determine which is the least necessary for a free society.
  • Attend a local play and write a critique of the actor’s performance.
  • Visit an art museum and offer suggestions on ways to improve a specific exhibit.

HOTS in Special Education and Reform

Children with learning disabilities can benefit from educational programming that includes HOTS. Historically, their disabilities engendered lowered expectations from teachers and other professionals and led to more low-order thinking goals enforced by drill and repetition activities. However, children with learning disabilities can develop the higher-level thinking skills that teach them how to be problem solvers.

Traditional education has favored the acquisition of knowledge, especially among elementary school-age children, over the application of knowledge and critical thinking. Advocates believe that without a basis in fundamental concepts, students cannot learn the skills they will need to survive in the work world.

Reform-minded educators, meanwhile, see the acquisition of problem-solving skills—higher-order thinking—to be essential to this very outcome. Reform-minded curricula, such as the Common Core, have been adopted by a number of states, often amid controversy from traditional education advocates. At heart, these curricula emphasize HOTs, over strict rote memorization, as the means to help students achieve their highest potential.