In Critical Thinking

No matter what walk of life you come from, what industry you’re interested in pursuing or how much experience you’ve already garnered, we’ve all seen firsthand the importance of critical thinking skills. In fact, lacking such skills can truly make or break a person’s career, as the consequences of one’s inability to process and analyze information effectively can be massive.

“The ability to think critically is more important now than it has ever been,” urges Kris Potrafka, founder and CEO of Music Firsthand. “Everything is at risk if we don’t all learn to think more critically.” If people cannot think critically, he explains, they not only lessen their prospects of climbing the ladder in their respective industries, but they also become easily susceptible to things like fraud and manipulation.

With that in mind, you’re likely wondering what you can do to make sure you’re not one of those people. Developing your critical thinking skills is something that takes concentrated work. It can be best to begin by exploring the definition of critical thinking and the skills it includes—once you do, you can then venture toward the crucial question at hand: How can I improve?

This is no easy task, which is why we aimed to help break down the basic elements of critical thinking and offer suggestions on how you can refine the skills that drive your own critical thinking abilities.

What is critical thinking?

Even if you want to be a better critical thinker, it’s hard to improve upon something you can’t define. Critical thinking is the analysis of an issue or situation and the facts, data or evidence related to it. Ideally, critical thinking is to be done objectively—meaning without influence from personal feelings, opinions or biases—and it focuses solely on factual information.

Critical thinking is a skill that allows you to make logical and informed decisions to the best of your ability. For example, a child who has not yet developed such skills might believe the Tooth Fairy left money under their pillow based on stories their parents told them. A critical thinker, however, can quickly conclude that the existence of such a thing is probably unlikely—even if there are a few bucks under their pillow.

6 Crucial critical thinking skills (and how you can improve them)

While there’s no universal standard for what skills are included in the critical thinking process, we’ve boiled it down to the following six.

1. Identification

The first step in the critical thinking process is to identify the situation or problem as well as the factors that may influence it. Once you have a clear picture of the situation and the people, groups or factors that may be influenced, you can then begin to dive deeper into an issue and its potential solutions.

How to improve: When facing any new situation, question or scenario, stop to take a mental inventory of the state of affairs and ask the following questions:

  • Who is doing what?
  • What seems to be the reason for this happening?
  • What are the end results, and how could they change? 

2. Research

When comparing arguments about an issue, independent research ability is key. Arguments are meant to be persuasive—that means the facts and figures presented in their favor might be lacking in context or come from questionable sources. The best way to combat this is independent verification; find the source of the information and evaluate.

How to improve: It can be helpful to develop an eye for unsourced claims. Does the person posing the argument offer where they got this information from? If you ask or try to find it yourself and there’s no clear answer, that should be considered a red flag. It’s also important to know that not all sources are equally valid—take the time to learn the difference between popular and scholarly articles.

3. Identifying biases

This skill can be exceedingly difficult, as even the smartest among us can fail to recognize biases. Strong critical thinkers do their best to evaluate information objectively. Think of yourself as a judge in that you want to evaluate the claims of both sides of an argument, but you’ll also need to keep in mind the biases each side may possess.

It is equally important—and arguably more difficult—to learn how to set aside your own personal biases that may cloud your judgement. “Have the courage to debate and argue with your own thoughts and assumptions,” Potrafka encourages. “This is essential for learning to see things from different viewpoints.”

How to improve: “Challenge yourself to identify the evidence that forms your beliefs, and assess whether or not your sources are credible,” offers Ruth Wilson, director of development at Brightmont Academy.

First and foremost, you must be aware that bias exists. When evaluating information or an argument, ask yourself the following:

  • Who does this benefit?
  • Does the source of this information appear to have an agenda?
  • Is the source overlooking, ignoring or leaving out information that doesn’t support its beliefs or claims?
  • Is this source using unnecessary language to sway an audience’s perception of a fact?

4. Inference

The ability to infer and draw conclusions based on the information presented to you is another important skill for mastering critical thinking. Information doesn’t always come with a summary that spells out what it means. You’ll often need to assess the information given and draw conclusions based upon raw data.

The ability to infer allows you to extrapolate and discover potential outcomes when assessing a scenario. It is also important to note that not all inferences will be correct. For example, if you read that someone weighs 260 pounds, you might infer they are overweight or unhealthy. Other data points like height and body composition, however, may alter that conclusion.

How to improve: An inference is an educated guess, and your ability to infer correctly can be polished by making a conscious effort to gather as much information as possible before jumping to conclusions. When faced with a new scenario or situation to evaluate, first try skimming for clues—things like headlines, images and prominently featured statistics—and then make a point to ask yourself what you think is going on.

5. Determining relevance

One of the most challenging parts of any critical thinking scenario is figuring out what information is the most important for your consideration. In many scenarios, you’ll be presented with information that may seem important, but it may pan out to be only a minor data point to consider.

How to improve: The best way to get better at determining relevance is by establishing a clear direction in what you’re trying to figure out. Are you tasked with finding a solution? Should you be identifying a trend? If you figure out your end goal, you can use this to inform your judgement of what is relevant.

Even with a clear objective, however, it can still be difficult to determine what information is truly relevant. One strategy for combating this is to make a physical list of data points ranked in order of relevance. When you parse it out this way, you’ll likely end up with a list that includes a couple of obviously relevant pieces of information at the top of your list, in addition to some points at the bottom that you can likely disregard. From there, you can narrow your focus on the less clear-cut topics that reside in the middle of your list for further evaluation.

6. Curiosity

It’s incredibly easy to sit back and take everything presented to you at face value, but that can also be also a recipe for disaster when faced with a scenario that requires critical thinking. It’s true that we’re all naturally curious—just ask any parent who has faced an onslaught of “Why?” questions from their child. As we get older, it can be easier to get in the habit of keeping that impulse to ask questions at bay. But that’s not a winning approach for critical thinking.

How to improve: While it might seem like a curious mind is just something you’re born with, you can still train yourself to foster that curiosity productively. All it takes is a conscious effort to ask open-ended questions about the things you see in your everyday life, and you can then invest the time to follow up on these questions.

“Being able to ask open-ended questions is an important skill to develop—and bonus points for being able to probe,” Potrafka says.

Put your critical thinking skills to work

Critical thinking skills are vital for anyone looking to have a successful college career and a fruitful professional life upon graduation. Your ability to objectively analyze and evaluate complex subjects and situations will always be useful. Unlock your potential by practicing and refining the six critical thinking skills above. 

Most professionals credit their time in college as having been crucial in the development of their critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking to improve your skills in a way that can impact your life and career moving forward, higher education is a fantastic venue through which to achieve that. For some of the surefire signs you’re ready to take the next step in your education, visit our article, “6 Signs You’re Ready to Be a College Student.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has since been updated.

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Critical thinking

What is critical thinking and how do you do it?

Anyone involved in academic study will have asked this question - often repeatedly - and come up against the problem of getting a swift answer. While you could say that critical thinking is at the heart of academic study, it's more of a process, a way of thinking, understanding and expressing ourselves, than a single definable skill (which is why a Critical Thinking Checklist has been included).

When you're asked to 'engage critically' with texts, to 'critically evaluate' a theory or findings, to develop a ‘critical analysis' in your written work, you're being asked to employ a number of skills and demonstrate a number of qualities, at the same time. Understanding what these are - and learning to use them effectively - is something you develop over time and with the help of tutors, lecturers and peers.

Fundamentally, critical thinking is about using your ability to reason. It's about being active (as opposed to passive) in your learning. It means that when you approach an idea, you do so with scepticism and doubt, rather than with unquestioning acceptance. You're always questioning whether the ideas, arguments and findings you're coming across are the whole picture and you're open to finding that they're not. You're identifying, analysing and, where possible, solving problems systematically.

Arguments, here, are not squabbles between people - though they do evaluate other people's ideas: they are the way in which ideas are developed and organised into a line of reasoning which moves in a logical order to the conclusion and which aims to persuade the reader or listener of the validity of the point of view presented. Being able to discern and create structured, reasoned arguments is central to critical thinking.

"Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view."
Cottrell, S. (2005) Critical Thinking Skills p47 New York, Palgrave.

What all this means is that:

  • You're constantly evaluating what you read, hear, think, experience and observe. 
  • You're assessing how well ideas, statements, claims, arguments and findings are backed up so that you can make a reasoned judgement about how convincing they are.

Chloe and Donna

Second year Geography

View Chloe and Donna's student perspective

Transcript

To me critical thinking means that when I read something I don't just agree with it and I'm not just a sponge basically; I'm not just absorbing whatever I am taking in and saying ‘yeah I agree with that'. Even when I read two things saying completely different things, the arguments are polar opposites, and I have agreed with them both and I've thought, I can't agree with them both. It is easy to get lulled into just agreeing with what an academic says because they write it so persuasively and they write it so eloquently but what you need to do is establish what you think about a particular topic. So, before you start the reading, think to yourself ‘what is my point of view on this?' and think do you agree with what that author is saying or is the author using a narrow set of examples to back up their arguments? Don't be afraid to criticise people who are published, even if it's your own lecturer's book, if you don't agree with what they've written don't be afraid to say that because what that shows is that you are thinking critically.

Kalim

Third year English literature

View Kalim's student perspective

Transcript

So I think one thing that's important throughout all courses is critical thinking and analysing arguments. It's not an entirely new thing coming to uni but it's definitely something that I found I needed to improve and use a lot more at uni. I found that A level was a bit like GCSE in a sense, in that you had to jump through hoops and you had clear like learning objectives. Whereas at university that's not so obvious - it's not like you just have to do these things, you have to write an essay that does this and does that. There's more freedom in what you can choose to do and it's all judged by a similar kind of method of how strong your argument is, how sound your logic is or your reasoning and also how well you've evidenced things and researched things. I think since I've been at university I've learnt to make less generalisations in essays and also not just that, but to learn that things I didn't think were generalisations, are actually generalisations and you can be a lot more specific about things and it should be. And it's hard, it's really hard that's why essays take me so long to write because I love to speak about things in seminars and think about things but it's really hard constructing a really well argued, robust argument and really well expressed. It's a really hard thing to do and I think you've got to accept that and give yourself enough time to be able to do it. I'd like to say it gets easier as you go along, it doesn't necessarily get easier, I think you get better at it but it still is hard.

Milan

Second year History and Film Studies student

View Milan's student perspective

Transcript

In terms of developing my critical thinking, I look at the subject or topic matter and then I try to understand the basic background first. When I go to the reading I have to keep reminding myself whilst reading what the angle is of the author who has written this. Why have they said this? What are they attempting to make us question while reading it? Are they right in what they say ? Are they wrong in what they say? And at the end of the reading you should be able to have kept those things at the back of your mind and have developed your own critical thinking which may agree with what the author has said or completely the opposite but it really depends on looking at the angles of the text, the subject matter and what the subject matter means to you.

How can I criticise what the experts say?

Initially, students often feel anxious about criticising ideas, evidence etc. that they come across in their reading or in lectures. Some may feel that it's disrespectful to criticise or challenge what established academics present in their work. What you need to remember here is that you're not being critical in the sense of being negative (although you might be!). And you're certainly not rubbishing ideas without any back-up to what you say.

Critical thinking is not just about what you think, it's about what you think and argue. You're being critical in the sense of analysing ideas, observations, experience and reasons, exploring the evidence and carefully considering whether something makes sense and is accurate.

Maybe you'll be considering whether ideas or findings can be applied in a particular context and, if so, how useful or effective this would be. A lot of the time you'll be drawing on what other academics have to say about a subject, comparing or setting these authors' ideas and reasons against each other in order to come up with your critique of the subject.

When will I need critical thinking skills?

At university you will need to demonstrate your critical thinking skills in a variety of areas:

  • Critical reading - When reading, you need to ask questions about the text. This will keep you focused, and help you to develop an understanding of the text. If you have not done so you may find it helpful to visit, Reading strategies
  • Evaluating arguments -When reading a text containing an argument, you need to evaluate whether it makes sense and is well supported. To practise this skill visit the Evaluating arguments page in this section.
  • Critical writing - When writing, you need to make sure that your writing is clear and your argument is well structured. For help with this, visit Critical essay writing.

There's a lot of overlapping and interdependence of skills in these areas, eg effective critical writers apply their critical reading skills to their own, as well as other people's work. And it's hard to see how you could evaluate an argument if you haven't been able to discern, in your reading, exactly what the line of reasoning is.

Don't expect to become an instant expert in critical thinking. Just as critical thinking itself is a process, becoming a critical thinker is a process.

Remember - it's always all right to ask for help in understanding exactly what is being asked of you. Everyone has to learn the key academic study skills they use to think, read and write critically.

Doubting what you hear, think, believe, observe, read and experience is central to being a successful critical thinker. Keep asking those questions!

Explore ideas and observations you come across by ‘talking through' your responses, questions and criticisms with other students, friends - anyone who'll listen! (Talking into a dictaphone can work well, too.)

Copyright © Moira Wilson 2009 All rights reserved

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