Critical Thinking ZAP101-104

Objectives:

The objectives of this module are that participants will learn:

  • What critical thinking is and why it is important
  • Strategies for critical writing and note taking
  • How to apply critical thinking skills
  • Ways in which to analyse evidence

Introduction:

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas. It might be described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.

In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not. Critical thinkers will identify, analyse and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct.

What is critical thinking?

Thinking critically allows us to examine ideas, evaluate those ideas against what we already know, and make decisions about their merit. The aim of critical thinking is to try to maintain an “objective” position.

Introduction to Critical thinking | 9:49 mins

The skills that we need in order to be able to think critically are varied. However, they include observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making. Specifically we need to be able to:

  • Think about a topic or issue in an objective and critical way.
  • Identify the different arguments there are in relation to a particular issue.
  • Evaluate a point of view to determine how strong or valid it is.
  • Recognise any weaknesses or negative points that there are in the evidence or argument.
  • Notice what implications there might be behind a statement or argument.
  • Provide structured reasoning and support for an argument that we wish to make.

Why is critical thinking important?

In general, students who develop critical thinking skills are more able to:

  • Achieve better marks
  • Become less dependent on teachers and textbooks
  • Create knowledge
  • Evaluate, challenge and change the structure in society

As a reader, critical thinking enables you to assess the evidence in what you are reading and identify spurious (i.e. false) or illogical reasoning. Thinking critically will help you create strong arguments of your own (for example, in assignments). This means that you will be able to present and justify any claims you make based on the evidence you have evaluated.

Critical Thinking: Why Bother? | 2:19mins

During your studies, you will need to draw on critical thinking for assessments and to develop your learning. Critical thinking will enable you to make informed evaluation of knowledge, and develop skills as an individual learner (which you can record and monitor progress on in your learning plan).

Being an independent learner

At the university college, we encourage you to be an “independent learner” and critical thinking is central to this. You demonstrate you are an independent learner when you analyse, evaluate and synthesise information from a variety of sources and present your own justified interpretation.

You may encounter some activities during your study that don’t require high levels of critical thinking, such as quiz’s, which might simply elicit your knowledge and understanding of a topic. However report style assignment typically demand interpretation and synthesis skills. These higher order-thinking skills are used to analyse and manipulate information, rather than just memorising it.

In the 1950’s, Benjamin Bloom identified a set of important study and thinking skills for students, which he called the “thinking triangle”.

Figure 1 Levels of intellectual skill: thinking triangle ( Source: adapted from Bloom, 1956)

These higher-order thinking skills are the same as critical thinking skills. They will help both your writing and reading, and enable you to work effectively as an independent learner.

Critical Thinking Skills | 6:04 mins

The process of Thinking Critically

The aim of critical thinking is to try to maintain an “objective” position. This means that you should try to be aware of any preconceptions you have that might be skewing the way you think about an argument. Although there is no one “right” way of thinking critically, you will find it useful to get some basic tasks done before moving on to an evaluation of any material. The following are the three basic steps to critically assessing a piece of work:

1. Identify the main points of the information.

2. Analyse the material

3. Compare and apply the information.

Identify the main points of the information

Firstly, identify the main point of the text that you are reading. At this stage, you are simply trying to define and be aware of the subject matter. Try to identify the:

  • Main points of the argument
  • Claims being made
  • Conclusions reached

Analyse the material

As you read, think about whether or not the material is relevant to your needs. The following questions might help you in your analysis:

  • Does the information make sense in relation to other theories and research? Where in the broader picture does this particular argument sit?
  • How old is the material?
  • Is the material clear or do you need to find additional information to help in your understanding?
  • Can you identify any implications that might require you to look for other material?
  • What factors (ideas, people, things) have been included? Can you think of anything that has been left out?
  • Does the argument present a balanced view or is the author disregarding some topics in order to put forward a particular argument?

Compare and apply information

Assignment questions will often ask you to apply theories, principles or formulae to situations. The process of trying to apply what you are learning can help you to build your understanding of the subject. Try looking for:

• The implications of one piece of information for another

• Weaknesses that might be revealed when you apply the idea to a real-life situation

• A lack of coverage. Does the theory or formula only go so far and do you need to draw upon another theory or principle to complete your understanding of something?

Taking notes critically

Being able to express your powers of critical thinking begins with the notes that you take during your course. Nate taking is an important stage in understanding what you are reading. You may find that the very act of writing your notes helps you to distil your understanding.

The questions you ask yourself as you take notes vary according to the nature of the materials and what you are trying to achieve. What you should try to achieve is a logical, objective interpretation of the argument you are presented with. When it comes to presenting arguments in your assignments, you need to be able to defend your point of view against charges such as bias, lack of supporting evidence, incompleteness and illogical reasoning. Using critical thinking when you take notes from course materials in the first place and then rigorously employing it when you construct your own line of argument in your assignments will help you avoid these problems.

Summary: Thinking for yourself

Critical thinking skills are an intrinsic element in your study – in your reading, in writing your assignments and in working with others. Look through your course materials for specific guidance on how to apply critical thinking in your discipline, and remember that the sooner you start to develop these skills the greater the benefit they will bring.

Remember critical thinking skills involve:

  • Actively seeking all sides of an argument
  • Testing the soundness of the claims made
  • Testing the soundness of the evidence used to support claims

You will take these skills throughout your student life and beyond into your personal life and employment.

References:

Bloom, B.S. (ed) (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Handbook 1, Cognitive Domain, London, Longman.

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