Critical and creative thinking

Creative thinking and critical thinking sometimes overlap. Teachers should consider these graduate attributes in programme and course design.

Critical thinking

It's not unsurprising that the question "this course encouraged me to think critically" sometimes scores poorly in student feedback results. Students may not realise they are developing cognitive skills unless they are told directly.

Below are some ideas about critical thinking developed by researchers. These theories may be helpful for thinking about how such learning occurs for different students, in different courses and at varying stages and levels. You can also get teaching resources for critical thinking.

Critical thinking theories

Bloom's taxonomy of learning

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy aligns levels of cognitive development with related actions and learning outcomes applicable to both critical and creative thinking.

Critical thinking development stages

The best learning comes from recognising where learners are at. The model below presents students' typical progression throughout their studies.

DomainsAbsolute knowing
Transitional knowing
Independent knowing
Role of learner Obtain knowledge from instructor. Understand knowledge. Think for oneself, share views with others, self-authored knowledge.
Role of peers Share materials, explain what they have learned to each other. Active exchanges. Share views, Source of knowledge, Self-authored knowledge.
Role of instructor Communicate knowledge appropriately, ensure students understand it. Use methods aimed at understanding & help apply knowledge. Promote independent thinking & exchange of opinions.
Role of evaluation Provide vehicle to show instructor what was learnt. Measure student's understanding of material. Reward independent thinking.
Nature of knowledge Certain or absolute. Partially certain and partially uncertain. Uncertain, everyone has own beliefs.

This was adapted from: Baxter Magolda, M. (1992), Students' epistemologies and academic experiences: Implications for pedagogy. The Review of Higher Education, 15(3), 265-287.

Pedagogical implications

Dr Jennifer Moon considered the pedagogical implications of Magolda's epistemologies, for example, what you can reasonably expect from students at each stage in terms of performance and assessment tasks. Read about this in 'We seek it here...: a new perspective on the elusive activity of critical thinking' and see appendix 4 in particular.

Theoretical discussion, literature review and critical thinking related activities are further developed in Moon's book Critical thinking: An exploration of theory and practice.

Creative thinking

Creative thinking is a highly desirable graduate attribute. It provides the perfect complement to critical thinking by challenging both staff and students to think 'outside the box'. You can also get teaching resources for creative thinking.

Creative thinking theories

Often associated primarily with Fine Arts, Design, Architecture and performance-based courses, creative thinking permeates all aspects of tertiary learning. Higher education definitions are, however, less easy to find than primary school and business-related resources.


Bloom's Revised Taxonomy regards creating as the highest level of cognitive development. It requires the synthesis, evaluation and application of all other levels in order to generate, plan and produce a coherent new pattern or structure.


According to the International Center for Studies in Creativity, creativity can be represented by the equation C=ƒa(K, I, E) as a function ("f") of attitude multiplied by knowledge, imagination, and evaluation.

As a measurable trait

Ellis Paul Torrance, developer of a series of creative thinking tests, regarded creative thinking as a process of:

  1. sensing difficulties, problems, gaps in information, missing elements, something askew
  2. making guesses and formulating hypotheses about these deficiencies
  3. evaluating and testing these guesses and hypotheses
  4. possibly revising and retesting them
  5. communicating the results.

Torrance's and similar creative thinking tests generally apply the following criteria:

  • Fluency: The total number of interpretable, meaningful, and relevant ideas generated in response to the stimulus.
  • Flexibility: The number of different categories of relevant responses.
  • Originality: The statistical rarity of the responses.
  • Elaboration: The amount of detail in the responses.

Applied creative thinking

According to Edward de Bono, creator of the Six Thinking Hats and Lateral Thinking systems, creativity and creative thinking involve breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.

Overlap of creative and critical thinking

Thinking doesn't necessarily occur within discrete compartments. Course content and assessment should encourage students to apply a range of skills across the creative-critical continuum:

Creative thinking skillsCreative and critical skillsCritical thinking skills
Ideas generation Synthesis, integration, combination Identification, description
Openness to novelty Elaboration Evaluation, assessment
Curiosity, invention, imagination Complexity Categorisation, classification
Reasoning by metaphor Simplification and abstraction Reasoning by logic

Divergent thinking, playfulness

Awareness of content Interpretation, analysis

Generating creative and critical thinking

The Creative Minds database of thinking tools include some that segue from creative to critical thinking and vice versa. Below are two examples, SCAMPER and Six Thinking Hats.


Use the SCAMPER stimuli to foster new ways of thinking.

Who or what could you substitute, swap or use instead?
Who or what could you bring together?
Who or what (parts of the process) could you change?
How could you distort, reshape, maximise or minimise parts of the whole?
Put to another use
How might this apply in other circumstances? How could it be used by someone else or for other purposes?
What if you remove a component or forego the usual way of doing X?
What if you did this the other way around? How could you achieve the opposite effect?

De Bono's Thinking Hats

Use these to focus group thinking. Also see de Bono Thinking Systems.

White hat—information
Seeking facts and information from others.
Black hat—judgemental
Playing devil's advocate or explaining why something won't work.
Green hat—creativity
Offering possibilities and ideas.
Red hat—intuition
Explaining hunches, feelings and gut senses.
Yellow hat—optimism
Being positive, enthusiastic and supportive.
Blue hat—thinking
Using rationalism, logic and intellect.

Applying critical and creative thinking

  • Definitions, higher-order thinking techniques, bibliographic resources: Bonk, C.J., & Smith, G.S. (1998). Alternative instructional strategies for creative and critical thinking in the accounting curriculum. Journal of Accounting Education, 16(2), 261–293.
  • Applicability to postgraduate studies: Brodin, E. (2010). Relationship between critical and creative thinking in postgraduate education. Educating Researchers for the 21st Century: Proceedings of the 2010 Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, April 13-16: Adelaide, pp. 101-110 [NB: = pp.113-122 of pdf]

Assessing critical and creative thinking