Integrating Higher-Order Thinking Skills in the Classroom

by Elizabeth A. Gordon, CPA, PhD, and Cory Ng, CPA, DBA, CGMA | Dec 20, 2019
Pennsylvania CPA Journal

Higher-order thinking skills are essential for success in today’s workplace. According to a survey in The Wall Street Journal,1 more than half of college recruiters responded that a combination of critical thinking, problem-solving, and independent thinking were skills that college graduates needed to improve the most. The purpose of this column is to assist accounting educators in preparing students to succeed as accounting professionals by integrating higher-order thinking skills in the classroom.

The AICPA Core Competency Framework identifies critical-thinking skills as necessary for success in the accounting profession. Recently, the Pathways Commission on Accounting Higher Education made recommendations as part of its effort to bridge the gap between academic instruction and professional practice. One was to strengthen higher-order skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving by integrating information technologies (IT) that better reflect business trends.

The revised CPA Exam, launching in April 2017, provides additional evidence regarding the importance of higher-order skills. The new exam will place less emphasis on memorization and understanding (lower-order thinking skills), and will instead focus on increased use of task-based simulations (TBSs) in all four sections of the exam. The shift from testing lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills on the new exam follows the progression of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework based on six hierarchical levels of cognition. These levels, arranged from lowest to highest, are remembering, understanding, application, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Lectures supplemented by problem-solving on a board are a common method of instruction. However, a research study suggests that undergraduate students in a traditional lecture format are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use active-learning methods.2 The lecture format is a passive method that often emphasizes the lower-level cognition skills of memorization and understanding. Applying information to new situations, analyzing evidence through comparison, and evaluating knowledge to defend a decision are more reflective of higher-order skill sets. Experts recommend a variety of active-learning techniques to develop these thinking skills.

Classroom Integration

The first step to integrating higher-order thinking skills in the classroom is to clearly establish its importance as a primary learning objective.3 This can be communicated formally through the syllabus. Next, specific assessment activities using active learning methods should be designed to test the desired skills. Ideally, students should have multiple opportunities to practice these skills over the course of the semester.

Several forms of active and collaborative learning techniques are associated with developing higher-order skills, including the Challenge Problem approach,4 case studies, peer learning groups, simulations, service learning, and others. This column focuses on the first three, but depending on the type of accounting class, some or all of the above strategies can be integrated.

The Challenge Problem approach provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate the application of accounting principles to solve various business scenarios. This approach is suitable for an introductory class, and can be incorporated on an exam with traditional multiple-choice questions. As an example, students are provided with financial data on a business deciding between two alternatives, such as leasing or buying. Based on analysis of the data, students should then determine the best course of action and be able to justify their decision in writing.

The case method is a technique that is easily integrated in an auditing class. Instructors can construct a case by obtaining facts on a specific company using publicly available financial statements and news reports. Even simpler, certain textbooks focus exclusively on auditing cases that can serve as a supplementary resource. Once the case is assigned, students answer a series of questions that require critical-thinking skills and judgment.

Another active-learning method that can foster higher-order thinking skills is forming small groups to foster peer-to-peer learning. Students will develop communication and interpersonal skills. Note that both the Challenge Problem approach and case studies can be done in a small group format.

Integrating higher-order thinking activities in the classroom must be complemented with effective assessments and student feedback. Instructors should apply specific criteria linked to the quality of higher-order thinking when providing feedback.5 As the demand for higher-order thinking skills continues to grow, it is incumbent upon accounting educators to assist their students in developing these important skills.  
1 B. M. Taylor, “Paths to Profession: Schools, Businesses Focus on Critical Thinking,” The Wall Street Journal, 1-5 (2010).
2 S. Freeman, S. L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth, “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics,”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415 (2014).
3 M. Young and D. L. Warren, “Encouraging the Development of Critical Thinking Skills in the Introductory Accounting Courses Using the Challenge Problem Approach,”
Issues in Accounting Education, 26(4), 859-881 (2011).
4 Ibid.
5 S. M. Brookhart, How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom (2010).

Elizabeth A. Gordon, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor of accounting and Merves Fellow at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. She can be reached at
Cory Ng, CPA, DBA, CGMA, is an assistant professor of instruction in accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at
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