Saturday, December 2nd, 2023

Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking?

When you think critically, you are not just accepting everything you see and hear. You are thinking actively. You are asking questions about what you see and hear, evaluating, categorizing, and finding relationships. Critical thinking is the essence of tertiary learning. As a college student, you will be expected to apply critical thinking skills to your academic activities. This can include: 

  • Predicting –> Interpreting information from a framework.
  • Describing –> Relating theory to practice.
  • Analyzing –> Making a claim and supporting it.
  • Synthesizing –> Using appropriate evidence.
  • Categorizing –> Making links between information or ideas.
  • Establishing cause and effect –> Asking and answering questions.

How does critical thinking differ between the disciplines?

Different disciplines are characterized by particular approaches to critical thinking,  and a lage part of studying those disciplines means learning to think like an exponent of that discipline. So, for example, if you are studying geology, you will have to learn to think like a geologist. Geologists typically: 

  • Categorize rocks and land formations
  • Explain how they evolved
  • Predict what can be found in similar circumstances.

You need to understand what the typical ways of thinking are in your discipline. Speak with your instructor about it, ask questions, and copy the style and tone of writing that is used in your discipline. 

  • All disciplines will require you to ask questions, relate theory to practice, find and use appropriate evidence, evaluate, find links, and categorize.
  • Science is often concerned with interpreting within a framework, describing, explaining,
    predicting, and identifying cause and effect.
  • Business Management is often concerned with identifying problems and solutions, relating theories to practice, and making comparisons and contrasts.
  • Information Technology is often concerned with analyzing complex situations into component parts.
  • Literature and History are often concerned with making claims and supporting them, usually in the light of a particular framework of analysis (eg feminism, postmodernism etc).

Applying critical thinking to academic reading

When you read academic material you need to develop an academic and rational response to what you read through: 

  • developing an understanding of the content.
  • evaluating and critiquing the article.

Before reading a text closely, you should read the introduction or abstract and skim through the text to give you a preliminary idea of what it is about. Then read it closely and critically.

Some questions to help you read critically:

  • What are the main points of this text?
  • Can you put them in your own words?
  • What sorts of examples are used? Are they useful? Can you think of others?
  • What factors (ideas, people, things) have been included? Can you think of anything that has been missed out?
  • Is a particular bias or framework apparent? Can you tell what ‘school of thought’ the author belongs to?
  • Can you work out the steps of the argument being presented? Do all the steps follow logically?
  • Could a different conclusion be drawn from the argument being presented?
  • Are the main ideas in the text supported by reliable evidence (well researched, non-emotive, logical)?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  • What connections do you see between this and other texts?
  • Where does it differ from other texts on the same subject?
  • What are the wider implications—for you, for the discipline?

Some techniques to help you read critically: 

  • When you take notes, divide your notepaper into two columns. Jot down the main ideas in the left hand column, and the supporting comments in the right hand column. Add your own comments in another color, or in brackets.
  • Talk to other people (anyone who is interested!) about what you have read.
  • Relate this text to others by looking for similar or contrasting themes.
  • Think of how you might explain what the text means to, say, a high school student
  • What would you have to add to make it intelligible? (This will help you to see the underlying, unstated assumptions.)
  • Ask yourself: ‘Is it possible to disagree with any of this?’
  • Ask yourself: ‘How can I convince my peers/teachers that I understand what this is about?’


Applying critical thinking to academic writing

Look at the assignment and formulate your own questions. 

  • Work out what sort of critical thinking will be involved—comparing? problem solving? looking for cause and effect? evaluating?
  • What is the lecturer looking for?
  • If you want to say something which is new or unusual, or which your lecturer may disagree with, make sure you have EXTRA evidence and support.
  • Make sure everything you say is backed up by evidence and references.
  • Link what you are saying into the overall field of the discipline.
  • Think about why this essay topic is worth writing about—what makes it particularly significant.
  • Look at both sides of an argument.

Your writing needs to be critical in the broadest sense: categorizing the factors involved, establishing cause-effect chains, making comparisons and contrasts, pointing out problems and suggesting solutions, evaluating theories and relating them to practice, and so on. 

Your writing must be rational, balanced, well-argued, and based on evidence and wide reading. 

Really excellent writing is distinguished because it says something substantial. Excellent writing is insightful and thought-provoking; it gives many relevant and interesting examples and other supporting details; and it shows evidence of deep thinking. 

Conclusions are particularly important in this regard. Use the conclusion to: 

  • say why this topic is particularly important
  • make a prediction about the future (based on what you have written)
  • make an evaluation (make sure it is not too extreme and is well supported by the body of your text)
  • suggest a solution to the problems you have described
  • restate your central argument in convincing terms (make sure you have supported the argument rigorously through the body of your text).

A conclusion should never say ‘Everything is fine and beautiful’ because nothing is ever perfect. Even the best theory has flaws and is open to criticism. Your writing will be judged as simplistic if you look only at the good points (or only at the bad points). 

Using critical thinking for the rest of your life 

Developing critical thinking skills now, will support you in your life as a professional later. 

Professionals constantly use critical thinking skills to make decisions, evaluate processes and outcomes, and to reflect upon their practices. 

Good critical thinkers make good professionals.