Online Experience 8 Minute Read

Ensuring Students Are Thinking and Understanding in the Online Classroom

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Humans are born with the capacity and inclination to think. Nobody teaches us how to think. We do it effortlessly every day. Because thinking plays a prominent role in our actions, speech, and writing, we often forget what it is we’re doing. Although our brains can easily reflect on our own thoughts, generally we aren’t very aware of how we are thinking.

This article brings “thinking” front and center. Although thinking is innate and spontaneous, skillful, visible thinking must be cultivated. We don’t just receive ideas; we make them! Thinking is an active process. Metacognition—the ability to stand back and examine our own thoughts while we engage in them—can help us tap into our thinking ability.

As an instructor, you have an excellent opportunity to help students deepen their learning by helping them develop better patterns of thinking. However, doing this in the online classroom can be challenging when you can’t “see” your students, much less what’s going on in their heads. This article will show you how to encourage students to “show” their thinking so that you can be sure their thought patterns are leading to true understanding of course material. You can encourage better thinking in your class by making space for thinking, asking questions, listening, and having students document their thought processes.

Making Space for Thinking

When it comes to students, we need to support their thinking as much as their learning. You can spur thinking by directing students to make their thoughts “visible,” such as having them explain their thinking on a discussion forum, create a video talking about their experience with the learning material, or draw and scan a picture demonstrating their thought processes. This allows you to monitor students’ progress and strategies and to pose new questions to direct their thinking in new ways.

To help students engage, struggle, question, explore, and then ultimately build knowledge, you first need to establish a place for students to express their ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Don’t just assign learning materials and assessments and expect students to have the proper thinking processes to absorb and understand everything. Instead, take time to address how students are thinking about a topic rather than jumping straight to whether they’re meeting the expected learning outcomes.

To create opportunities for thinking, you must treat it like any routine, practice, or ritual you want to implement. Here are some techniques you can use to help create a culture of thinking in your classroom:

  • Set expectations. Let students know that you’ll be pushing them to “show” their thinking and what requirements you might put in place to that end.
  • Set a time. Build time into discussions and assignments for when students can provide insights, connections, and ideas.
  • Model learning. Show students how you approach new concepts and ideas.
  • Use positive language. Support and build up students with positive word choices.
  • Create a hospitable environment. Dedicate a specific space (e.g., discussion forum, self-reflection, peer work, social media app) for where thinking will take place.
  • Facilitate positive interactions. Shape positive student-to-student and student-to-instructor conversations.

Once you create time and routines for thinking, you can start to teach students how to process their thoughts through questioning and documenting.

Questioning and Listening

One of the most important techniques you can use to flesh out students’ thinking is to simply ask questions. But make sure not to ask leading questions that tempt students to just try to guess what you want to hear. You don’t want to do the thinking for them or set them up to think there’s only one “right” answer; instead, you want to lead them to arrive at answers on their own.

To model intellectual engagement, help students clarify their own understanding through open-ended questions. Below is a list of prompts you can use to ask good questions:

Question Type Examples
Seek clarification.
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Why do you believe that?
Probe assumptions.
  • What are you assuming?
  • Why do you think someone would say that?
  • Is that always the case?
Seek reason and evidence.
  • What’s your reason for saying that?
  • What criteria do you base that argument on?
  • Could you explain your reasoning?
Probe implications and consequences.
  • What might be the consequence of that?
  • Do you think you might be jumping to conclusions?
  • How can we find out?
 Seek viewpoints and perspectives.
  • What would be another way of saying that?
  • How do your ideas differ from Student A’s ideas?
  • What’s an alternative?
 Seek additional questions.
  • How will that question help us?
  • Can you think of other questions that might be useful?
  • What is the question?

You can use these types of questions in discussion forums, assessment feedback, or live chats with students. But asking the right question isn’t the end of your job. When students respond, you must pay close attention to their answers to assess whether their thinking strategies are leading them down the path to truly understanding the content. Be careful not to move on too quickly or dismiss “wrong” or unexpected answers. Doing so may signal to students that their contributions aren’t interesting, and you’ll miss a pivotal opportunity to shape the visible thinking process. Instead, follow up with more questions, statements, or praise, and encourage students to elaborate or clarify where their thinking may be misguided or incomplete.

When you adopt this approach, students will become more willing to share their thinking and put forth ideas. This is an important aspect of building the thinking culture in your classroom.

Documenting Thought Processes

Asking questions is a great first step to guiding students’ thinking, but to deepen students’ understanding even further, consider having students document their thought processes. “Documenting” simply means assigning students activities that make their thinking visible. Just as actually playing basketball helps you understand the game better than looking at plays on a clipboard, so too does documenting help students master their methods of thinking and thus engage concepts in a more authentic way. For example, in addition to having students write out their thoughts on a discussion forum, you could ask them to draw their thoughts (on paper or online), take screenshots or screencasts of themselves working through a problem, or record audio or video of themselves talking about their ideas and insights.

One great tool for making thinking visible is a concept map. Concept maps are diagrams that show relationships between ideas. They can be as simple or as complex as they need to be, and there is no “wrong” way to do it. All you do is start with a central idea, and then draw branches and sub-branches connected to that main idea. For example, for the topic “Russian authors,” one student might list “Tolstoy,” “Dostoyevsky,” and “Pushkin” as the branches, with each author’s respective books as sub-branches. However, another student with the same topic might write “dense,” “depressing,” and “confusing” for their branches. Ultimately, concept maps will help students think without getting caught up in the nature of thinking itself. Rather, students can record ideas as they come to them, and in a way that makes sense to them.

Once students have created these artifacts documenting their thinking, make sure to collect the artifacts so you know how to continue to explore the topics, whether through new questions or new instruction. If students have additional thoughts or ideas, you can use the artifacts to spur conversations. Documenting also allows you to monitor students’ progress and contributions so you can help guide their engagement with the subject matter.


As educators, we want to produce students who can think but also do. Encouraging visible thinking is one way to ensure that students not only are aware of a concept, but also know how to engage it in an in-depth, actionable way. If you take the time to incorporate some of these methods and exercises in your online classroom, your students will benefit by not only understanding your content more deeply, but also learning thinking techniques they can apply to the rest of their education and beyond.


Biggs, J. B. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Research monograph. Hawthorn, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Hook, J. (n.d.). Using mind maps in the classroom. Retrieved from

Ritchart, R. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. N. (2005). Learning to think: The challenges of teaching and thinking. In K. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 775–802). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Visible Thinking. (n.d.). Thinking routines. Retrieved from

Posted February 1, 2018
Author Kapri Livingston
Categories Online Experience