What does thinking look like?

It’s so simple to test students and grade them based on the facts they’ve memorized, but the whole point of education isn’t to memorize facts, but to develop students who can think critically and solve problems. If the classroom focuses on facts and rote memorization, students are only going to learn how to take tests and regurgitate information.

So how do we evaluate students based on their thinking?

We can see when students do or do not know facts in the classroom through their answers to simple worksheets or book questions, but it’s much harder to evaluate their thinking. Thinking isn’t inherently visible, so how do we make thinking visible?

Just as we need tools to enable us to view atoms, we need tools to be able to view thinking! In his book Making Thinking Visible Ron Ritchhart provides educators with many tools for observing students’ thinking. Some sample strategies include Claim… Support… Question, CSI, and Headlines.

Claim… Support… Question

This strategy is particularly useful for developing students’ ability to make scientific arguments. In science, opinions aren’t used for reporting findings and supporting hypotheses. It can be difficult for students to be able to separate their opinions to make a subjective statement, but this strategy helps to make this process visible.

  • Students make a claim related to a topic.
  • Students must find observable support, or evidence, for their claim. They must be able to communicate the support they have to their audiences.
  • Students develop questions related to their claim, perhaps defining points which need more information or support, or questions related to where they want to go with a topic. This step is my personal favorite, because it shows students that investigation is never-ending! We are always finding more information to support or change our current claims or arguments.

Lesson Plan

GMOs: Friend or Foe?

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, have been the source of quite some controversy since the beginning of their use. Divide students into two teams, one in support of GMOs, and one against GMOs. Have each develop a claim to specify their view. Then, allow the teams time to do some research on GMOs.
After their research, what did students find that supported their claim? Did they find anything that made them question their claim? What other questions did they think of while doing their research? Have students write down their findings and share with one another. After extensive research, the class may have a debate to decide what they think: Are GMOs a friend, or foe?


This strategy makes students’ thinking visible by giving them the opportunity to visualize their own thoughts. This CSI is not related to crime scenes, but stands instead for Color, Symbol, and Image. CSI may be helpful before introducing students to a topic to see what prior knowledge they have, or it may be useful post lesson to see what they have learned.

  • The teacher provides the students with a word or phrase on which to focus for this activity.
  • Students pick a color that they associate with the topic.
  • Students then pick a symbol that they associate with the topic.
  • Finally, students choose an image that they associate with the topic.
  • Students may also be asked to provide a short explanation for why they picked each of the three things.

Here, you can see an example of CSI in action.

Lesson Plan

CSI: Electronegativity

When teaching concepts on the molecular or atomic level, it can be hard for students to visualize not only what is happening, but why it happens. After teaching students about such concepts, such as electronegativity, have students complete a CSI to help make it more concrete. Students may share with the class, or in small teams.

CSI is a great way to help learners who are more visual, and allows students to be creative!


Just like the headlines you read in the daily paper, this strategy allows students to pick out important points to develop a short summary of a topic or concept. Headlines can be a great study tool, as they help students decide what concepts are really important in a chapter or unit. It helps students to see the big picture, as well as why the topic s important.

  • At the end of a lesson or activity, have students each write a short headline over the topic.
  • When the students have written their headline, have them share in small teams.
  • Have the students discuss the headlines in their teams. Were their any commonalities? Did one student think something was important, but someone else thought something else was more important?
  • Students can then share their team’s findings with the class.

Lesson Plan

At the end of the unit, give students a chance to review their materials. Review can be done with a game or other activity.

After the review activity, place students in teams. Assign each team a particular section or concept on which to focus. In a unit on cell structure and function, for example, each team may focus on a particular organelle or cellular process. Individually, have students come up with headlines for their topic, and then give team members time to debrief and discuss their headlines. As a team, students can either choose a headline they believe best recapitulates their topic, or develop a new headline that better captures their concept.

When teams have finished, have them share their headline with the class by posting it on a bulletin board or writing it on the white board. Students may jot these headlines down to help them study topics before they are assessed.

These strategies are only a few of many available to teachers to help them visualize their students’ thinking. The best thing about these strategies is that students have to think to do them. These strategies are not something students can copy from their neighbor or Google- they involve deep thinking, which leads to deeper learning.


  1. Meghan,

    I love your blog post this week! I think it is well organized and flows well. Your explanation of how we should evaluate students thinking was spot on. I think it is an important aspect of learning. I also liked how you talked about a few routines from the book and had a lesson plan for each one. Your pictures and social media graphics helped readers understand the topics you highlighted. Overall, great job!


    • Katin
      Thank you so much! The great thing about the strategies is that they can work with almost any lesson/content area.

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