How to Ace Exams by Thinking Critically

How to Ace Exams by Thinking Critically

Written by Adele Keyser

Is school really that different these days than it was 20+ years ago? Are assessments getting more difficult?

Having previously written on Questioning Techniques I feel the need to elaborate on the “highest” level of questioning – Problem Solving and Critical Thinking.

I did touch on it, but it is definitely the area I’m most questioned about as a teacher during parent meetings. Why, you may ask?

One of the biggest reasons is that we as parents were not questioned on this level at school. Most of our exam papers comprised of the first 2 levels of questioning (see Questioning Techniques) and if you’d studied you were able to answer without much thought. No more was expected of us.

Children are now encouraged to think independently and to reason through questions. They are expected to use knowledge, facts and data to effectively solve problems. During an exam situation this would mean thinking on your feet, being able to assess the problem and find a solution within a reasonable time-frame.

Why is critical thinking important in our daily lives?

Everyone experiences problems, challenges and issues in all areas of life at some point, but we don’t always have the necessary skills to identify solutions to these problems.

South African Practice Exams

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (Scriven, 1996)

Perhaps the simplest definition is offered by Beyer (1995): “Critical thinking…means making reasoned judgements.”

I find that if pupils are not taught and encouraged to think critically that they become passive receptors of information.

“Students need to develop and effectively apply critical thinking skills to their academic studies, to the complex problems that they will face, and to the critical choices they will be forced to make as a result of the information explosion and other rapid technological changes.” (Oliver and Utermohlen)

This certainly bears true in both the curriculum the pupils are being exposed to, as well as, their daily lives. By learning to think critically pupils will be able to use good thinking as a guide by which they live their lives.

Obviously, teachers want to educate their pupils to make their own decisions and choices based on cautious critical thinking. Unfortunately, these skills do not suddenly appear in their pupils and teaching them is no simple task. Pupils find teaching that includes higher level cognitive processes, comprehension and decision making challenging.

Teachers need to allow their pupils to become actively involved in the learning process. They need to promote the awareness of the relationship between thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening thus changing ordinary thinking to good thinking.

Some of the skills that need to be incorporated into lessons to encourage critical thinking are:

  • Point of view
  • Argument
  • Reasoning

BUT, most importantly, critical thinking involves good questioning by both the teacher and pupils.

What are teachers doing to promote critical thinking?

  • Ongoing classroom assessment: including questions such as: “What was the most important thing you learnt in class (a particular lesson) today?”
  • Co-operative Learning: Pupils are put into pair or group learning situations in order to discuss/process material, link it to previous lessons and have the support of their peers and teachers (who act as facilitators).
  • There is evidence that regular discussions play a critical role in stimulating critical thinking.
  • Case Studies: Case studies are presented to the class with questions that lead the pupils to a conclusion.
  • Peer questioning/discussion: Pupils are given the opportunity to debate and resolve problems.

What can parents do?

Children model critical thinking skills by those that teach them. As parents, we too fit into the teaching category and can successfully teach these skills by making our thought processes clear.

By inviting your child to be a part of stimulating conversation and discussion they can learn the skills of reasoning, evaluating, understanding varying points of view and learning to put into words what puzzles or confuses people. Encourage your child to ask questions and allow them the time to ponder and evaluate situations.

Most importantly, children need to feel comfortable when reasoning through a problem and understand that there could possibly be more than one correct answer and that they won’t be punished for an incorrect answer. We need to show genuine respect for our child’s input and convey the message that their input is of value as to build their confidence and motivate them to continue building their thinking skills.

Matthew Lipman (1988) writes, “The improvement of student thinking—from ordinary thinking to good thinking—depends heavily upon students’ ability to identify and cite good reasons for their opinions.”

A great start is to sign up to WorksheetCloud where you’ll be able to download hundreds of exam practise tests and memos based on the CAPS curriculum. WorksheetCloud includes critical thinking questions that will help your child prepare for the upcoming exams. Work your way up from there.

The Author - Adele Keyser

Adele has 27 years experience in teaching pre-primary, foundation phase, intermediate-senior phase and adult education. That's 27 years experience in dealing with children (and parents!). Currently teaching in Cape Town, her major focus is building classroom environments that foster healthy self-esteem and help children realise what they're capable of.

WorksheetCloud is the most exciting way to study for exams and tests!

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  1. Roland van Wyk


  2. thinawanga

    would love to help mt learners in grade 3 class with homeworks and exams

    • Kayleen Olivier

      Hi Thinawanga

      Thanks for your message and interest in WorksheetCloud!

      We have a very special VIP price for individual teachers who want to use WorksheetCloud in their classroom.

      Please let me know if you are interested in the above and I’ll email you directly regarding our pricing.

      If you have any other questions, just let me know!

      Kayleen 🙂

  3. Nicky

    I would like to see the references listed as in-text citations.

    • Kayleen Olivier

      Hi Nicky

      Thanks for your message.

      I’ll be happy to pass your comment and suggestion on to our blog team for their consideration.

      Please let us know if you have any other suggestions or questions, we’ll be happy to help.

      Kayleen 🙂


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