Critical thinking is an essential academic skill and is considered one of the most transferable skills students develop at university. This page will help you comprehend the concept of critical thinking and will provide some advice how to effectively apply it to your studies.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is not about being negative. The term critical comes from the Greek word "kritikos" meaning being able to judge and discern. Critical thinking is considered a deeper kind of thinking in which we do not take things for granted but question, analyze and evaluate what we read, hear, say, or write.
Many definitions of the term critical thinking exist, but here is one which covers its essential elements:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
The Foundation for Critical Thinking
Why critical thinking?
At university you are asked to think critically when you read academic texts, when you write academic assignments (essays, reports, etc.) and when you deliver presentations. In these situations, you are expected to demonstrate that you not only have researched and understood the topic, but that you have thought deeply and critically about it and can express your thinking in appropriate ways.
- It allows you to form your own opinions and engage with material beyond a superficial level. This is essential to writing a great essay and having an intelligent discussion with your professors or classmates. Repeating what the textbook says won’t get you far.
- It allows you to make worthy arguments and back them up with evidence from various sources. If you plan to pursue a post-graduate degree (masters or a PhD), you will be expected to possess excellent critical thinking skills.
- It helps you evaluate your own work. By being able to reflect on your own work and critically evaluate it, you will be in the position to get high grades and achieve your full academic potential.
- It allows you to continue to develop intellectually after you graduate. Learning is a never-ending journey, you will need to use your critical thinking skills every time when you encounter new information.
- It helps you make hard decisions. Whether you will be thinking of a career change or buying a new house, critical thinking will allow you to compare the pros and cons of your available options, showing that you have more options than you may think of.
- It helps you recognize fake news by investigating the source and evaluating the source of information.
- It helps you avoid falling prey to unethical companies and people. Evaluating information critically helps you learn not to take everything at face value and not to allow others to manipulate you (especially when they are trying to sell something to you).
- It makes you more employable and possibly better paid. Employers value highly when employees demonstrate superior critical thinking skills by solving difficult problems at work and suggesting original solutions.
What does critical thinking involve?
Critical thinking involves reasoning and active involvement. Critical thinkers are not passive recipients of information, they do not accept everything they read or hear but are questioning, evaluating, categorizing information and making connections within the text and comparing what the author is saying with other experts who have written on the same topic.
Critical thinkers possess high-level critical thinking skills which enable them to:
- Distinguish facts from opinions
- Seek multiple perspectives
- Recognize assumptions
- Identify bias and persuasion
- Evaluate arguments for relevance and accuracy
- Weigh data appropriately
- Use multiple sources rather than a single source
- Balance logic and emotion
- Use diagrams to visually represent processes and thinking
In order to be a successful university student and a good critical thinker, you are expected to develop solid critical thinking skills and demonstrate critical thinking behaviors. Follow these tips and strategies to help you achieve this:
- Tip 1: Ask questions that increase understanding
- Tip 2: Don’t draw conclusions too quickly
- Tip 3: Consider all sides of an argument
- Tip 4: Use criteria to evaluate information
- Tip 5: Recognize other people’s agendas
- Tip 6: Explores multiple perspectives
- Tip 7: Adjust assumptions in light of new evidence
- Tip 8: Understand how conclusions are drawn
- Tip 9: Identify what’s known and what isn’t
Asking questions (Who/What/Where/When/How/Why) and using the answers to understand the world around us is what drives critical thinking. In order to enhance your critical thinking abilities, use your ability to reason and ask questions, such as:
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?
- What is the difference between … and …?
- What would happen if …?
- What is the nature of …?
- Why is … happening?
- What is a new example of …?
- How could … be used to …?
- What are the implications of …?
- What is … analogous to?
- What do I already know about …?
- How does … affect …?
- How does … tie in with what I have learned before?
- What does … mean?
- Why is … important?
- How are … and … similar/different?
- How does … apply to everyday life?
- What is a counterargument for …?
- What is the best …and why?
- What is a solution to the problem of …?
- What causes …? Why?
- Do I agree or disagree with this statement? What evidence is there to support my answer?
- What is another way to look at …?
Try this simple exercise to help you to start thinking critically.
Further Support and Guidance
If you would like to learn more about the concept of critical thinking, its history, process, components, dispositions and abilities, check the page for Critical Thinking in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the website of the Foundation for Critical Thinking.
If you would like to receive additional advice how to apply your critical thinking skills at university, you can request an appointment from BADA Counselors.
References & Further Readings:
- Erkens, C., Schimmer, T. and Vagle, N., 2019. Growing Tomorrow's Citizens In Today's Classrooms. Chapter 3 Critical Thinking, Bloomington, OH: Solution Tree Press, pp.75-103