When designing assessments for higher order thinking skills including analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking, it is recommended that the instructor design for teacher-student interactions (Bates, 2018). These interactions might take the form of questioning or conversations between the instructor and an individual student or between the instructor and a group of students. The one-on-one guidance can occur through email, web-conferencing, comments or annotations in shared documents, or face-to-face interactions. Interactions among the instructor and a group of students can occur using the methods already mentioned plus discussion forums. These interactions are built-in instances for the instructor to verify the students’ progress and provide feedback that supports attainment of the course learning outcomes. Two examples of approaches to assessment for higher order thinking skills are explored in depth in this section: problem-based learning and goal-based learning. The two types of assessment will be described. A structured series of learning activities will be proposed, and suggestions for face-to-face and online delivery will be provided.

Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning is a learning design model used so that students can develop skills in resolving undefined and complex problems, use creative problem-solving techniques, and develop independence, among other skills. In a problem-based learning approach, students are asked to identify the knowledge they possess related to a problem, identify what kind of knowledge or information is required, and plan for obtaining information that is expected to help them solve the problem. The instructor’s role is to provide guidance and feedback throughout (Bates, 2018).

A process for designing for problem-based learning is proposed by Naidu (2003) and represented in Figure 7.1. The process begins with instructor designing and developing resources for the sequence of activities. When presenting the work, the instructor outlines the problem situation and its characteristics by using a case or vignette, then explains the learning objectives and defines the learning task. Students work individually to analyze the problem and attempt to express their perception or understanding of the problem. This step allows students to identify what they know and do not know about the problem. Next, they plan for individual research for information and conduct the research. In the next step, they share the results of their search with their teammates, they re-evaluate the problem based on their new knowledge, and outline known and unknown information related to the problem. As individuals, they reflect on the process so far. The next step is another iteration of research and problem re-evaluation. There can be multiple attempts at this iteration, depending on the complexity of the problem. The final step consists of the team presenting their solution to the problem along with a record of their reflection on the process and the solution they chose.

Table 1. Proposed structure for problem-based learning

Step Role Actions
Preparation Instructor •       Research, design and develop resources and learning activities
1 Instructor •       Present the problem as a case or vignette

•       Explain the learning objectives and tasks

1 Individual students •       Express the problem (known and unknown info)

•       causes & effects

•       hypotheses

•       Plan research steps

•       Conduct research to find data and evidence

2 Student groups •       Share findings with the group in a collaborative document

•       Re-evaluate the problem

•       Revise perceptions of the problem (known and unknown aspects).

2 Individual students •       Prepare and present a critical reflection on the group discussion from the previous step
3 Student groups •       Identify new or related issues

•       Revise impressions of the problem

•       Plan new research steps to find missing information

•       Conduct further research

4 Student groups •       Present the solution

•       Present a record of critical reflection

The instructor can intervene during multiple steps to advise students on how to interpret problems and extract and identify the maximum amount of known information and gaps. The instructor can also provide ideas of sources of information and efficient ways of finding, analyzing, and reporting information and evidence. Further, the instructor can model the process of performing a critical reflection on the process of problem solving.

Suggestions for designing for problem-based learning in a face-to-face situation or online environment

Preparation by the instructor. Conduct research to develop a problem and present it in the form of a case or vignette. The case should be distributed to the students. In a face-to-face situation, it can be printed out. In an online environment, it can be presented in Avenue or in a shared document.

Week 1. In a face-to-face situation, students can be provided with a printed worksheet to analyze the problem. In an online environment, the student can work on a digital document.

Week 2. In a face-to-face environment, students can place themselves in groups in a classroom to discuss the problem and their findings. They can take notes on a shared digital document so that all members of the group have access to the information. In an online environment, students can either use a group-based discussion forum or web-conferencing tools to discuss the problem and their findings. They should note the meeting’s essential points in a shared document.

Week 2. The individual work can be done on a printed or digital document.

Weeks 3 and 4. The work done in these weeks can be completed using the same options as in week 2 for the respective learning environments. In week 4, when groups present their solution to the rest of the class, they can take turns using usual methods in a face-to-face setting. In an online setting, the presenting group can use a web-conferencing tool and take on presenter roles while sharing a screen to present their work. Whether in face-to-face or online settings, students should rehearse so that they can make the presentation coherent and so that they can troubleshoot with whatever technology they are using.

Goal-based learning (simulation)

In goal-based learning, the instructor prepares a scenario where students develop skills and gain knowledge as they complete a contrived though authentic task. Ideally, the goal matches the students’ interests, and the scenario emphasizes opportunities for students to fully perform the required skills. Students are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes, which requires a learning environment where it is safe to be challenged. To make the most of the learning opportunities, students must benefit from timely and meaningful feedback (Naidu, 2003).

The goal-based learning scenario begins with the instructor explaining the context and the students’ goal within it (see Table 1 for a summary of these steps). The goal is aligned with the learning outcomes, but not necessarily identical to any of them. Just as in a story, a precipitating event occurs, and the students must use professional skills relevant to the subject area to accomplish the goal in the simulation. Students should begin by making sense of the problem at the heart of the precipitating event. Various sources of information relevant to the professional field are made available for consultation, such as procedural guides, protocols, policies. There should also be relevant stories provided by people who are experienced in the field, where the stories contain advice about steps that are recommended and those that should be avoided. Students must make informed decisions and work their way through the scenario.

Afterwards, they participate in a case conference where they share a reflection (self-assessment) on their management of the scenario. Following the completion of the goal-based activity or simulation, each student will have the opportunity to answer classmates’ questions, critique their choices, negotiate the meaning of various aspects of the scenario, explain how they may have performed alternative techniques, etc.

Table 2. Proposed structure for goal-based learning

Step Role Actions
Preparation Instructor •       Prepare and present an authentic task that is aligned with the course’s learning outcomes

•       Takes care to create an environment where students are safe to take risks, make mistakes, and obtain timely and meaningful feedback

1 Individual students •       Examine the scenario

•       Encounter the precipitating event

•       Apply professional skills and procedures to manage the scenario

•       Consult with simulated or video-recorded experts within the scenario who tell relevant stories with guidance on actions to take or avoid in similar situations

•       Consult guides, protocols, and other documents provided within the scenario

•       Receive feedback after making decisions

2 Individual students •       Reflect on the decisions made in the scenario

•       Critique decisions made in the scenario

•       Refer to resources in the scenario, including the professionals’ stories to extract additional clues or information

•       Propose alternative solutions based on the feedback received in the scenario

3 Group or class conference •       The learning environment remains one where students feel safe to be challenged

•       Students share their reflection (self-assessment) which contains critiques and references to sources found in the scenario

•       Classmates ask questions, offer critiques (tactfully), pose hypothetical questions, ask for interpretations of components of the scenario, etc.


Suggestions for designing for goal-based learning in a face-to-face situation or online environment

Preparation by the instructor. The preparation process would be the same for face-to-face or online delivery. It requires research to determine a problem that is suited to the course. It also requires research to find professionals to recount relevant stories that provide advice required for the situation. It may be useful to ask these professionals to make audio or video recordings (with transcripts for accessibility).

Step 1. In a face-to-face situation, individual students might work through a print-out or numbered cue cards. Each page can include instructions such as “If you choose Option A, turn to page (card) 6. If you choose Option B, turn to page (card) 7”. The transcribed stories told by the professionals can be provided on a separate set of numbered cards that are referred to at relevant times in the scenario. Relevant documents can be provided and referred to in a similar way. In an online setting, students can be provided with a Word document containing the scenario and its components in different sections. The sections can be connected using in-document hyperlinks. Audio or video recordings of professionals’ stories can be provided through links at suitable locations in the scenario. Relevant reference documents can also be linked in suitable locations.

Step 2. Students can be provided with a worksheet containing all the instructions required to complete a meaningful reflection. This sheet can be printed out in face-to-face settings or provided as a digital document.

Step 3. The group or class conference can occur as a discussion in a face-to-face setting. In an online setting, the conference can occur through web-conferencing accompanied by note-taking in a shared document such as a wiki page or a Google Doc.


Bates, A. T. (2018). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning.

Naidu, S. (2003). Designing instruction for e-learning environments. In M. G. Moore (Ed.) Handbook of distance education, (pp. 349-365). Routledge


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Blended Teaching: A Guide for Applying Flexible Practices during COVID-19 by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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