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#6: 13 apps that promote higher-order thinking standards

These mobile apps go way beyond games.

[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on May 31st of this year, was our #6 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues Monday with #5, so be sure to check back!]

Mobile devices are becoming increasingly common in schools because they cost so much less than computers—especially since so many students are willing to bring their own devices to school.

While mobile devices, tablets in particular, have been commonly used to reinforce math and reading skills through the use of games, they can also be used to promote the development of higher level skills and knowledge included in the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS*S): creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; and critical thinking and problem solving. Here are a handful of high-quality apps that reinforce these skills and promote others.

Writing skills

Students who resist typical writing instruction with pencil and paper may blossom as authors when given the opportunity to compose electronically on computers and tablets. Some that struggle with the fine motor skills necessary for producing legible print are liberated by the ability to type. Although pressing letters on a flat screen without being able to feel them may be awkward for an adult accustomed to typing on a keyboard, students that learn to type on these devices when they’re young are likely to be as skilled on them as they are on a traditional keyboard.

Another advantage of having students compose their written work on mobile devices is the ability to save and organize work. The Noteshelf app allows users to type on the virtual keyboard or write with a stylus in a wide variety of colors, and includes the ability to highlight in several colors. PDFs can be imported or new documents can be created from scratch.

Collins Big Cat Books apps appear to be simple read-aloud picture books with beautiful animated pictures and sound effects. However, each one has a ‘Read by Myself’ option enabling the reader to read aloud and record their voice. Reading buddy activities could involve older students recording themselves so their younger partners can listen to them reading the book at any time. They have a ‘Story Creator’ feature that has several backgrounds similar to the original story, objects, characters, and speech bubbles that enable students to create their own picture book. This feature makes the C. Collins Big Cat Books apps appropriate for a wide range of grade levels.

(Next page: Apps for presentations, research, and more)


The most well-known presentation program is Powerpoint, but free apps exist that are easy to use on mobile devices. One of these apps is Haiku Deck, which can also be accessed on computers. Students can create attractive slideshows for research reports, persuasive speeches, poetry, or other written work and present them to the class with their own narration.


Mobile devices make it possible for students to have an almost infinite number of research sources available right at their desks. Safe search engines designed for K-12 students are available such as Kidtopia, which has content area buttons to help focus research. Many other safe search engines and research websites can be accessed at Notability allows students to make notations and highlight PDF files while EasyBib helps students cite their research sources correctly.

Art, music, & photography

Art, music, and photo apps provide opportunities for students to use mobile devices in constructivist, student-centered ways, allowing them to create original products. A camera capable of taking photos and recording video comes standard with most mobile devices. This feature could be utilized in science units in which students take photos of science experiments, plants, insects, or other objects in nature. The recording feature can be used by students to record dramatic skits, musical presentations, interviews, and other creative projects.

The Autorap app turns students’ voices into raps with melodies of popular rap songs. Students can retell stories, recite poems, or create their own songs without having to sing. They simply read and record into a smartphone or tablet, and even the most hesitant reader’s voice is instantly turned into a catchy tune. A link is created to students’ creations that can be shared with friends or family members. Other musical apps enable students to create their own tunes with drumbeats, sound effects, digital guitars, and pianos.

Drawing and painting apps allow students to create artwork or illustrations to accompany their writing. Drawing Desk and Doodle Buddy have drawing and painting tools, colors, textures, and stamps that are easy for even young students to use.

A search of any famous artist’s or musician’s name in the app store or at will result in many apps to enhance a lesson or unit. For example, a search for ‘Van Gogh’ results in animated storybooks about Van Gogh, interactive art museums displaying his works, and a painting/drawing app called PlayART by Tapook that allows students to create their own works of art with paintbrushes and stamps in Van Gogh’s style.

Formative assessment

Audience response systems that enable all students to respond to questions simultaneously allow all students to demonstrate knowledge or express opinions, and allowing teachers to quickly check for understanding. Prior to websites and apps such as Socrative, Kahoot, and Quizzizz, expensive sets of devices known as clickers had to be purchased. Students can now use any mobile device or a computer as a response tool with all the advantages of audience response systems without the cost. Quizzes or surveys can be administered anonymously or with identifying information. Results can be saved and downloaded as spreadsheets for teachers to review, facilitating assessment and grading.

Using what you have

Teachers without mobile devices in their classrooms can start by connecting their own personal device to a classroom projector. As devices are purchased and made available in more classrooms, a full class set of devices is not necessary; just a few can greatly increase engagement and enhance instruction and learning in ways that promote critical thinking skills and creativity in ways never before possible.

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