A new bilinear four-noded quadrilateral element (called quadrilateral linear refined zigzag) for the analysis of composite laminated and sandwich plates/shells based on the refined zigzag theory is presented. The element has seven kinematic variables per node. Shear locking is avoided by introducing an assumed linear shear strain field. The performance of the element is studied in several examples where the reference solution is the 3D finite element analysis using 20-noded hexahedral elements. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.