Activities to Promote Higher-Order Thinking in Virtual Asynchronous Chemistry Learning

The 2020 global pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 forced millions of teachers to switch from in-person to online instruction. With minimal training in online teaching, many substandard learning environments (including my own online chemistry class) were quickly rolled out. After realizing that my asynchronous virtual chemistry course did not offer an optimal learning experience, I sought out activities and methods to incorporate higher-order thinking.

In this post,

  1. I will explain asynchronous learning and some of its challenges

  2. Describe why higher-order thinking may be the key to this type of learning environment

  3. Detail two high-order thinking activities that are easy to embed in an online course


What is Asynchronous Learning?

An asynchronous learning environment offers students the opportunity to learn anytime and anywhere. In general, students access information, participate in discussion forums, and complete assignments according to their own schedule. With popular online learning management platforms like Canvas and Blackboard, instructors can easily manage content and facilitate conversations. The method is especially suited for the virtual learning environments necessary to restrict in-person gatherings due to COVID-19 since students can learn at home on schedules that work within all the complications that arise during life in a global pandemic.


What are Challenges Associated with Asynchronous Learning?

Online asynchronous learning has numerous advantages. For example, it is convenient, it can be more cost-effective than in-person classes, and it can promote a rich collaborative environment; however, successful students must also possess specialized learning skills and learn autonomously. In a 2015 review of research exploring the relationship between autonomous learning and academic achievement, specific higher-order thinking skills positively correlated with academic success during online learning, including metacognition, critical thinking, time management, and effort regulation. On the other hand, lower-level skills, like learning by repetition (repeatedly listening to the same lecture or reading the same textbook section) do not seem beneficial for self-regulated learning.1


What is higher-order thinking?

Higher-order thinking is a reference to the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom's taxonomy is traditionally represented with a pyramid; the bottom of the pyramid are lower cognitive functions, and the top are the higher functions. In 2001, the taxonomy was revised to include additional dimensions of knowledge for each order (Figure 1).2 The revision suggests that the lower orders are still essential and necessary -- students should learn how to remember and understand -- but those lower-orders are engaged with varying degrees of rigor. Ideally, students participate in metacognition at each of the orders.


Figure 1: 2001 revised Bloom's taxonomy - adapted from Foreman, 20052


For the proceeding activities, we'll simplify the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy to focus on two attributes of higher-order thinkers that are key to success in an asynchronous learning environment: (1) they are aware of their cognition (metacognition), and (2) they can reflect on their learning progress (self-regulation).3,4 These skills are complicated, and students are often deficient; however, as with any difficult skill, higher-order thinking skills are easier to learn with adequate support. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal development implies that learners require developmentally appropriate assistance when encountering uncomfortable tasks, and without help, they will tend towards lower-level skills.5 So, enriching an online learning environment with higher-order thinking activities should result in a superior educational experience.

The following three activities are modifications of "normal" chemistry teaching strategies designed to encourage higher-order thinking, mainly metacognition.

Video Think Alouds

Problem-solving, a fundamental skill in chemistry, can be enhanced with metacognitive activities like The Think Aloud. The Think Aloud method, where students verbalize problem-solving steps, has long been used to support science and math learning. Think aloud activities are social endeavors, where all involved parties benefit when students share their thinking with their instructor and peers. The individual performing the thinking aloud benefits from the enhanced metacognition prompted by the activity. Additionally, peers benefit from listening to and evaluating the problem-solving method, and finally, the instructor is more aware of the student's internal knowledge, and misconceptions are more easily rectified.6

Although cooperative activities seem tailored for in-person learning, they are increasingly suited for virtual learning environments with the development of new educational apps. FlipGrid, a video-based educational, social networking app, is a fantastic tool for virtual think alouds. Students in my virtual chemistry course use FlipGrid to post a video of themselves describing their thinking as they solve a chemistry problem. With FlipGrid, other students can watch and react to the videos by liking it or recording another video response. Additionally, as the instructor, I can assign a points value to their performance and provide feedback via text or a video response. The video responses are stored in sequence so that it is easy to trace and participate in the dialogue. This metacognitive activity is described in more depth in a previous ChemEd X post.

Thinking aloud may be an unfamiliar process for students, so I record a sample Think Aloud following a template (Image 1) based on the metacognitive knowledge and skillfulness described by Cooper and Sandi-Urena. Metacognitive knowledge includes "three different levels: declarative (knowing about things), procedural (knowing about how to do things), and conditional (knowing when and why to do things)" Metacognitive skillfulness, on the other hand, refers to regulatory steps in problem-solving that include: planning, monitoring, and evaluating.7


Image 1: Think Aloud Template


Video think alouds have allowed me to connect on a more personal level with each student. Struggling students become apparent, and I can quickly correct misconceptions with individualized video responses. Moreover, by watching the other videos, struggling students are continually exposed to problem-solving skills and techniques.

Self Quizzing When Learning New Content

In virtual learning environments, teachers usually provide instruction via short video tutorials; however, there are a couple of challenges associated with this type of instruction. For one, since students watch videos remotely, teachers cannot easily assess the initial level of understanding of the material. Furthermore, teachers can't help students regulate their learning and reinforce areas of weakness. 

Learning from videos in this fashion requires higher-order thinking skills, particularly metacognition, but students don't engage in metacognitive practices on their own. For instance, self-quizzing is one of the best metacognitive strategies for remote learning; however, a 2009 study found that self-quizzing is pretty rare among students. On the other hand, trivial strategies, like re-reading notes, are more common in these learning situations.8 With this in mind, I embed short 5-question quizzes into new content so that students can check their understanding before moving to a new topic.

Self-assessments can look like quizzes; however, they should be low-stakes, possibly even ungraded, so that students don't confuse them with a traditional test. In my virtual chemistry course on Canvas, I insert short 5-question quizzes after short video tutorials that test students' understanding of new content. Although I record the scores in the grade book, I keep them low stakes by allowing multiple attempts and only recording the highest score.

Self-quizzing is a higher-order metacognitive skill that may be unfamiliar for students. Ideally, individuals know to revisit concepts if they fail their self-test; however, few students practice this behavior. For this reason, after an incorrect answer, I prompt students to explore the content again before making another attempt (image 2). With this activity, students learn the material more thoroughly, but they also practice and experience the benefit of the indispensable study skill of self-quizzing.


Image 2: Prompt to review content after an incorrect response.


By embedding these two activities into an online course, students develop more transferable knowledge and discover valuable self-regulation and metacognition learning strategies in the process.



  1. Broadbent, J., & Poon, W. L. (2015). Self-regulated learning strategies & academic achievement in online higher education learning environments: A systematic review. The Internet and Higher Education, 27, 1-13.

  2. Forehand, M. (2005). Bloom's taxonomy: Original and revised. Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology, 8.

  3. Dinsmore, D. L., Alexander, P. A., & Loughlin, S. M. (2008). Focusing the conceptual lens on metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review, 20(4), 391-409.

  4. Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.

  5. Vygotsky, L. (1933). Play and its role in the mental development of the child.

  6. Van Someren, M. W., Barnard, Y. F., & Sandberg, J. A. C. (1994). The think aloud method: a practical approach to modelling cognitive. London: AcademicPress.

  7. Cooper, M. M., & Sandi-Urena, S. (2009). Design and validation of an instrument to assess metacognitive skillfulness in chemistry problem solving. Journal of Chemical Education, 86(2), 240.

  8. Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471-479.

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Comments 1

Michael Farabaugh's picture
Michael Farabaugh | Thu, 07/23/2020 - 10:46


Thanks for sharing this. It's a great reminder for teachers that even in a virtual or asynchronous learning environment, it is possible to build relationships with students and give them (ungraded) feedback that can help to strengthen understanding and critical thinking. I also like the idea of having students get directly involved with evaluating their own performance, so that it's not always about the student asking the teacher, "Did I do this right?" or "Is this the correct answer?"