PublicationsSystematic reviewsThinking skills impactThinking skills impact - summary
Thinking skills approaches to effective teaching and learning: what is the evidence for impact on learners? Summary


The teaching of thinking skills is an explicit part of the National Curriculum in England and contributes directly to an initiative of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 'Teaching and learning in the Foundation subjects' at Key Stage 3 (DfES 2003). This emphasises the importance of thinking skills approaches for the promotion of effective questioning and extending pupils' oral responses in classrooms as well as the potential contribution to assessment for learning.

Our working definition for the purposes of this review is that thinking skills interventions are approaches or programmes which identify for learners translatable, mental processes and/or which require learners to plan, describe and evaluate their thinking and learning. These can therefore be characterised as approaches or programmes which:

  • require learners to articulate and evaluate specific learning approaches; and/or 
  • identify specific cognitive and related affective or conative processes that are amenable to instruction.

A thinking skills approach therefore not only specifies what is to be taught but also how it is taught: the content of lessons and the teaching approach form an integral part of thinking skills approaches to teaching and learning. Examples of programmes and approaches commonly used in schools are instrumental enrichment (Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, and Miller, 1980), philosophy for children (Lipman, Sharp and Oscanyan, 1980), cognitive acceleration through science education (Adey, Shayer and Yates, 1995) and Somerset thinking skills (Blagg, Ballinger and Gardner, 1988). Considerable interest has also been shown by teachers and policymakers in how these more formal programmes can be integrated effectively or 'infused' into teaching approaches and adopted more widely by teachers (McGuinness, Wylie, Greer and Sheehy, 1995; McGuinness, 1999; Leat and Higgins, 2002).

A systematic review was needed:

  • to provide potential users with an overview of current research and evidence in the field by updating and extending the scope of earlier reviews, which have attempted to evaluate evidence from a range of thinking skills approaches (e.g. Sternberg and Bhana, 1986) or which have focused on a particular programme (such as Romney and Samuels' (2001) meta-analysis of evidence of the impact on learners of Feuerstein's instrumental enrichment (FIE)
  • to identify and analyse the empirical evidence available to support the teaching of thinking in schools in order to test the conclusions of the positive but largely descriptive reviews recently undertaken (McGuinness, 1999; Wilson 2000)


The aim of the Review Group is to investigate the impact of thinking skills interventions on teaching and learning in classrooms over a series of focused reviews. Our main review question is:

What is the impact of the implementation of thinking skills interventions on teaching and learning?

Underpinning this main question are the following considerations:

What are the parameters for defining a particular pedagogy or curriculum development as a thinking skills approach?
How closely do the findings of the studies of the impact of thinking skills approaches correlate with current understanding of effective teaching and learning?

For the in-depth review, a narrower focus was identified for the central question about the impact of thinking skills interventions:

What is the evidence for impact on learners' attainment in schools?


The review focused on studies which both explicitly and implicitly evaluated the implementation of thinking skills programmes and approaches in classrooms during the ages of compulsory schooling (5 to 16) in all areas of the curriculum. These were mainly accessed through articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals and unpublished materials (such as conference papers or local education authority evaluation studies or dissertations) where the focus of the study was on the implementation and evaluation of thinking skills approaches or programmes in classrooms. Nearly 6,500 chapters, articles and papers were identified as potentially relevant from searching electronic databases of references. These were screened on the basis of title and also an abstract, if available, and about 800 of them were judged to meet the inclusion/exclusion criteria of the review. Full texts of these were ordered and those that were obtained were screened in detail against the same criteria. The 191 reports that met these criteria were entered into a database using keywords in accordance with EPPI Centre Core Keywording Strategy (version 0.9.5). This enabled the group to build a 'map' of the literature about thinking skills and to identify more precisely those studies that might answer the review question in terms of the study type and focus.

From this database, 23 studies were selected for in-depth analysis and evaluation because they have a combination of quantitative and qualitative empirical data about the impact of thinking skills approaches on pupils' attainment. The Review Group felt that the combination of quantitative and qualitative data from empirical work in classrooms would be most likely to provide the evidence of impact that would be most relevant to users, particularly practitioners, and contain sufficient detail to evaluate how applicable the results would be to other educational settings.


Identification of studies

Before we presented a systematic map linked to our review question, we made a broad sweep to see in which general areas thinking skills figured as an aspect of research into teaching and learning. Analysis of just over 1,500 of the sources identified in the British Education Index and ERIC which used the keywords 'thinking skills' showed that the term is used broadly in the reporting of research across a number of disciplines. The majority of references are in school settings looking at pupils' thinking (61%) or teachers' thinking (3%). The term is also used in other disciplines, particularly medicine and related fields (17%), especially nursing and nurse practitioner education; there are also articles about thinking skills and critical thinking in veterinary medicine and physiotherapy. Fourteen percent of references are about undergraduate or postgraduate education. The term is also used in business education (3%), particularly accountancy and marketing, as well as social work (1%), with a handful of references (1%) in other fields appearing in our search, such as criminology and military education. We noted that there has been a shift in the use of terminology from an initial focus on thinking skills and higher order thinking to an interest in metacognition and at the time of this review on aspects of self-regulation. Many of these reports, however, deal with related aspects of teaching and learning, although practitioner interest in thinking skills has remained strong. The findings from this preliminary sweep about terminology confirmed what was found in a narrative review of thinking skills in post-compulsory education commissioned by the Learning and Skills Research Centre (Moseley et al., 2004).

Systematic map

When the search was refined to focus on teaching and learning in schools in accordance with our research question, of the 191 reports identified as being relevant to the review and likely to contain empirical data, about two-thirds are from the USA (34%) and the UK (27%). Nearly half of these reports were set in secondary schools (45%) and about a third in primary schools (34%). There is a greater proportion of research reported for 11 to 14 year-olds with comparatively little about 5 to 7 year-olds (Key Stage 1 pupils). Most subjects of the curriculum are represented in these reports, although a majority are in the core areas of science (34%), literacy (20%) and mathematics (19%). The majority of reports contain data on pupil attainment, with just less than a quarter having data on pupil attitudes or beliefs, and about an eighth with data on teachers' attitudes or beliefs. For most of the reports of pupil attainment, the data are quantitative (102 out of 136). On the other hand, about a third of the reports with data on teacher attitudes or beliefs contain qualitative data only (13 out of 40).

In-depth review and synthesis

The focus was further refined for the review by selecting studies that include quantitative and qualitative data and which meet the criterion for there being a researcher-manipulated evaluation. This produced a further subset of 23 studies. The synthesis of evidence from these studies indicates the following:

  • The majority of studies report positive impact on pupils' attainment across a range of non-curriculum measures (such as reasoning or problem solving). No studies report negative impact on such measures.
  • Approximately half of the studies show immediate, positive impact on learning on curricular measures of attainment (where such measures were used).
  • There is some evidence that pupils can apply or translate this learning to other contexts.
  • Where there is either no, or small immediate impact on curriculum measures, such improvement may appear later or increase over time.
  • The impact of thinking skills approaches may not be even across all groups of pupils.
  • There is some evidence that there may be greater impact on low attaining pupils, particularly when using metacognitive strategies.
  • There is some evidence that pupils benefit from explicit training in the use of thinking skills strategies and approaches.
  • Some of the benefits of thinking skills programmes and approaches derive from making thinking and reasoning explicit through a pedagogical emphasis on classroom talk and interaction.
  • The role of the teacher is important in thinking skills programmes and approaches in establishing collaborative group work and effective patterns of talk, and in eliciting pupils' responses.



The review has brought some structure and order to a previously disparate field of enquiry, providing practitioners and other users of research with a map of where and how the impact of thinking skills on teaching and learning has been investigated. The map indicates which phases of schooling and which subject disciplines can draw upon research evidence on thinking skills; the in-depth review and synthesis present the evidence for the impact of thinking skills interventions on pupils in authentic classroom settings, as advocated by McGuinness (1999) in her descriptive overview of research in the field. Users of research and researchers now have a clear picture of the weight of evidence to support the use of thinking skills to improve pupil learning, the gaps in knowledge and the deficiencies of research in the field.


In the main, studies were accessed through journal articles and these did not always provide all the details needed to make an appraisal of how applicable the findings would be to other educational settings or their 'ecological validity' (Gall, Borg and Gall, 1996). Details - such as the selection of the schools involved and the specific training given to teachers implementing the intervention - were either not included or were sketchy. We were conscious of a disparity between the requirements to write up research for refereed journals and ensuring that research processes are sufficiently transparent to encourage practitioners to evaluate the significance of a study for their own practice. We found the reporting of qualitative evidence, in particular, to be limited in terms of providing detailed explanations of how the data informing the conclusions were analysed.

To some degree the strength of the review in mapping the parameters of the use of the term 'thinking skills' can also be seen as a weakness. The inclusion of studies linked to keywords with wider provenance under our broader definition means that outcomes highlighted in our synthesis could be claimed to result from collaborative learning, for example, rather than thinking skills per se. However, it has enabled us to indicate where the evidence relates to the use of specific cognitive strategies and where it is concerned with outcomes linked to classroom climate and a particular style of interaction.

Despite our best efforts, there will be studies that we did not find and so did not include in the review. The decision to limit our search to studies published in English is, of course, an obvious limitation but one that we could not overcome, given the scope, scale and funding of the review.

Implications for policy, practice and research

While thinking skills programmes and approaches have a positive impact on pupils' attainment, such impact is not always consistent. The evidence from this review suggests that there is a need to select interventions carefully and to be prepared to persist with an intervention, as it may not always provide improvement on curricular measures in the short term. Research also indicates that the causes of improvement in pupil learning are complex and a more general emphasis on making aspects of teaching and learning explicit in classrooms (particularly in terms of making reasoning explicit) may have similar benefits to those obtained through a particular programme. Further research across a wider range of subjects and age groups would be particularly useful, as would (i) comparative research to evaluate the relative benefits of different thinking skills programmes and approaches, and (ii) a comparison of such approaches with other educational interventions.

  • Policy-makers - Provision of guidelines for the implementation and evaluation of thinking skills in classrooms based on research evidence would enable schools to make informed choices. Access to information, in order to make links between thinking skills programmes and what is known about effective teaching and learning and national policy initiatives, could be facilitated. Research could be commissioned to establish which thinking skills interventions are effective, efficient and cost-effective.
  • Practitioners - When introducing interventions that focus on improving specific cognitive strategies, it could be more efficient to target particular groups of pupils and identify the most appropriate times for development. Interventions aimed at developing a classroom ethos conducive to making learning more explicit and fostering dialogue about teaching and learning, on the other hand, can be promoted at any time. Positive outcomes on pupil motivation and self-esteem may be registered before there is any tangible impact on attainment measured by standard assessments. There may be a delay of as much as two years in the appearance of improved attainment in tests and exams, and consequently it may be difficult to distinguish between the impact of the intervention and the effect of any subsequent teaching.
  • Researchers - Further work is needed on identifying efficient, as well as effective, ways of intervening to promote thinking skills and raise attainment. There is a clear need for more comparative studies between different types of intervention, and between thinking skills approaches and other strategies designed to change patterns of classroom interaction. The descriptive map shows where there are gaps in the research evidence. The in-depth review indicates where aspects of methodology and the reporting of findings could be more robust and accessible to other researchers as well as to other users of the findings.


Adey PS, Shayer M, Yates C (1995) Thinking Science: The Curriculum Materials of the CASE Project. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Blagg N, Ballinger M, Gardner R (1988) Somerset Thinking Skills Course Handbook. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Feuerstein R, Rand Y, Hoffman MB, Miller R (1980) Instrumental Enrichment: an Intervention Programme for Cognitive Modifiability. Baltimore: University Park Press.

 Leat D, Higgins S (2002) The role of powerful pedagogical strategies in curriculum development. The Curriculum Journal 13: 71-85.

Lipman M, Sharp A, Oscanyan F (1980) Philosophy in the Classroom. Princeton: Temple University Press.

McGuinness C, Wylie J, Greer B, Sheehy NAF (1995) Developing children's thinking: a tale of three projects. Irish Journal of Psychology 16: 378-388.

McGuinness C (1999) From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms: A Review and Evaluation of Approaches for Developing Pupils' Thinking. Nottingham: DfEE Publications.

Moseley D, Baumfield V, Higgins S, Lin M , Miller J, Newton D, Robson S, Elliott J, Gregson M (2004) Thinking Skill Frameworks for Post-16 Learners: An Evaluation. A research report for the learning and skills research centre. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press. Available from:

Romney DM, Samuels MT (2001) A meta-analytic evaluation of Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment program. Educational and Child Psychology 18: 19-34.

Sternberg RG, Bhana K (1986) Synthesis of research on the effectiveness of intellectual skills programs: snake-oil remedies or miracle cures? Educational Leadership 44: 60-67.

Wilson V (2000) Education Forum on Teaching Thinking Skills Report. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive. Available from:

This report should be cited as: Higgins S, Baumfield V, Lin M, Moseley D, Butterworth M, Downey G, Gregson M, Oberski I, Rockett M and Thacker D (2004) Thinking skills approaches to effective teaching and learning: what is the evidence for impact on learners. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. 


Copyright 2019 Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education :: Privacy Statement :: Terms Of Use :: Site Map :: Login
About::Projects::Research Use::Courses & seminars::Resources::Databases::Blog::Publications