Critical thinking is not the act of criticising. Rather, it is considering all available information to enable a reasoned judgment. It is going beyond the obvious to deeper reflection and questioning – beyond ‘what is this?’ to ‘what does this mean?’. It is almost the opposite of jumping to a conclusion or making assumptions, because it involves actively seeking out the full story before making a judgment.
It means looking at things from as many perspectives as possible. Although it involves the knowledge we already have, we need to take into account the context in which our analysis takes place, and base our judgments on all the information we can draw together at any given time. We must be as objective as possible, and ready to acknowledge when we are wrong.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is just deliberately and systematically processing information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better (see Patterson, 2017).
Critical thinking is the skill of taking a metaphorical step backwards and examining an issue from as many angles as possible in as objective a manner as possible, in order to make a considered judgment.
Court judges do this every day: they consider the crime, the person, the victims, the law, and the circumstances or context in which the crime was committed. They make a judgment based on all the information they can gather from police, witnesses (including expert witnesses), the accused person, the jury, and everyone and everything involved before making a judgment. Once a judgment is made, they again critically examine their options: release, or prison, work orders, fines, for example. Their final decree is then based on further critical judgment of the possible consequences of any punishment that they may impose.
Introduction to Critical thinking | 9:49 mins
According to the Skills You Need (2017) website on critical thinking, a critical thinker:
- Thinks clearly, rationally, logically, systematically, and objectively,
- Engages in reflective and independent thinking,
- Uses reason and logic to come to conclusions,
- Is open to the idea that their own ideas and assumptions might be proved wrong,
- Is an active learner rather than a passive receiver of information,
- Rigorously questions ideas and assumptions, and can identify the differing arguments, testing each claim and recognising positives, negatives, gaps and weaknesses.
(Adapted from SYN 2017)
Critical thinking also involves making the process and conclusions explicit. That is, clearly, unambiguously and succinctly passing on the results of all the reflection and reasoning and questioning, either verbally or in writing. Think back to the court judge: they don’t simply bang a gavel (it is, at least in Australia, a furphy that judges use a gavel, especially when they give judgment) and pronounce ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’. They record the processes of the proceedings: all the minutiae of courtroom proceedings and evidence, and the thought processes of everything that they examined to enable them to make a considered judgment.
It is therefore important for students to make notes each step of the way, keeping records of what was reflected upon and reasoned out and questioned, and noting down the source of information garnered to ensure it can be referenced correctly. See the tutorial on referencing by clicking on the button below.
What skills are needed to think critically?
We cannot think critically all the time – we are not machines. However, there are some skills we can develop to help us think critically when we need to do so. I think the first and foremost is the ability to open our minds to all possibilities. If we have closed minds, we run the risk of missing important information, resulting in a flawed judgment. Here are some of the other skills needed. Some we might already have; some might need to be developed:
- Problem solving
- Decision making
(Adapted from SYN 2017)
Why is critical thinking important?
To begin with, please watch this short video on why critical thinking is important.
Critical Thinking: Why Bother? | 2:19mins
Further to this, here is a list of positives sourced from a university website:
These are all worthwhile accomplishments, and perhaps you can think of a few more. Here is one I think is important: while you are learning and practising the skills of critical thinking, you will be learning skills that will hold you in good stead in other aspects of your life: at home, at work, in the community, and as a leader. The skill of critical thinking is not just a study skill, but a lifetime one.
We’ve looked at some of the positives. If we are to practise what we preach, however, it is important to look at all sides of the issue. Can you think of any less than positive outcomes? Here are a few dangers I thought of:
- The danger of finding more information and sides to an issue than we can reasonably analyse.
- The danger of ‘analysis paralysis’, if we find it difficult to stop looking for more information.
- The danger of spending so much time critically thinking about what we are doing that we lose sight of everyday matters.
This means that we need to think critically about how we are thinking critically! We will need to set ourselves some parameters. As students undertaking assignments, these parameters will be informed by the task that we are undertaking, and the time period in which we need to do it.
Using critical thinking as a student
You will need to use critical thinking in your work as a student, not only for your learning, but importantly, for your assignments. Taking an objective and comprehensive view of an issue, especially when you are reading other peoples’ work in the course of your study, can help you to:
- Assess the evidence and identify spurious or illogical reasoning.
- Create strong arguments of your own.
- Present and justify those arguments.
Becoming an independent learner
You will note one of the University of Sydney’s (2017) ‘positives’ above is that development of critical thinking skills help us become ‘less dependent on teachers and textbooks’. Teachers and text books are of course a valuable resource that will inform us along the way: critical thinking will, however, help us be discerning in what we learn and from where we learn it.
For example, a critical thinker and independent learner will recognise that Wikipedia, while a wonderful source of basic and quick information, is not a valid site on which to find necessarily logical and unbiased information. Having said that, often Wikipedia has valid sources mentioned in their reference lists – and this can be a treasure-trove for the discerning independent learner.
When you need to use critical thinking for an assignment
You will find that some assignments do not require critical thinking (and often don’t provide enough time for it, especially in exam situations or time-dependent online work). These are often when it is knowledge that is being tested (such as in multiple choice questions), rather than when you are asked to examine something (or ‘critically examine’) and make a considered judgment.
For example, a multiple choice question might be:
Critical thinkers: a). Use reason or logic to come to conclusions or b). Make leaps of intuition to come to conclusions.
Your choice, (a) or (b), only depends upon how much you have learnt about the topic of critical thinking. I am sure you know the answer – if you need a hint, have a look earlier in this module.
A question that requires critical thinking, however, might ask you to think about whether it is necessary to use reason and logic rather than intuition, and to support your argument with valid evidence. Here, you will need to use your higher-order thinking skills to find relevant information, interpret it, come to a considered judgment, and make explicit your reasoning for making that judgment.
Some simple steps to using critical thinking to assess a piece of work
Identify the main points
Make yourself familiar with the text and what it is trying to tell you. Discover:
- The main points
- The claims being made
- The conclusions reached.
That is, what is the main message that the text is trying to give? A clue: in an academic work, this should be obvious in the abstract, or the introduction and conclusion. With luck, even the title should give strong hints.
Analyse and evaluate the information provided
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Is the information provided (the main points, the claims, the conclusions) clear and concise and complete, or confusing and full of gaps?
- What evidence does the author provide to support their argument?
- Is the evidence valid? That is, does it make sense when compared to other theories and research?
- Is the evidence relevant? Is it up to date? Be cautious here: if it is old, it may be outdated, or it might be seminal (that is, work that still strongly influences research). One way you can tell if it is seminal is if other authors still often refer to the work. An example would be the seminal work of Kolb and the 1984 learning cycle.
- Does the argument present a balanced view, or is it biased?
- What is the broader context in which this argument sits?
Compare and apply the information
You might be asked to apply theories, principles, or formulae to situations. This can help with your understanding of the issue.
It will also help you:
- Identify how the theory fits (or doesn’t fit) with other like theories.
- Find the strengths and weaknesses of the theory you are applying, or of comparative theories, or of the work you are examining.
‘Application’ is also the fourth quadrant of the learning cycle – also known, in some circles, as ‘synthesis’. That is, drawing together disparate pieces of information to come to an innovative and logical conclusion, then applying it to new situations.
Analysis, synthesis and evaluation skills are ‘higher-order thinking skills’ that are considered the same as critical thinking skills. They will help both your reading and your writing, and enable you to work effectively as an independent learner. For more on this, see the module on Analysis and Synthesis (please click the button below). A video on critical thinking by Sotir follows.
Critical Thinking Skills | 6:04 mins
Taking notes critically
Ballotti Learning (2017) suggests that there are four steps to good note-taking:
- Preparing before class
- Taking ‘purposeful’ notes in class
- Reviewing and reflecting after class
- Testing our new understanding
Preparing before class
Preparing means that you have become a least a little familiar with the topics of discussion, and the relevant texts (if provided), before you step/log into the classroom. That way, you will already have begun thinking about the subject matter, and perhaps already making links to previous learning.
Taking purposeful notes in class
Taking notes in class usually involves writing, drawing diagrams, making dot points, making mind maps, or even doodling – whatever you find helps you concentrate on the information being imparted, and note down salient points in a way that makes sense to you (and will make sense when you look at it later).
Reviewing and reflecting after class
Your head will probably be full of what you have just learnt, and you might find yourself reflecting and reviewing as you drive home, or as you have coffee with your friends. Before you leave, though, is a good time to start the process. Here are a few suggestions:
- Take a few minutes to go over your notes.
- Ask your teacher to explain points you might have been unsure about.
- Discuss the lesson with your classmates; perhaps even compare notes to assist each other in ensuring you haven’t missed important points.
Testing our new understanding
Ask yourself some questions – or ask your classmates to ask you some. Think of some way in which your new understanding might be applied.
Again, there are many websites that you can visit to get help in this area. The Ballotti Learning site (which informed the above) also provides references to the sources of their information, which might be of use to you should you wish to follow up the idea of critical note-taking.
‘In class’ is not the only place that note-taking is a useful skill. It is needed while you read, watch, listen, and think during study, and when researching. There are several ways you can take notes, for example:
- Writing or typing as you listen/watch/read.
- Highlighting, by underlining, or using a highlighter pen.
- Taking screen shots/using a snip tool.
- Taking photographs.
The second and third options can be useful if there is time to go back over it and pull out the really relevant points – but often there isn’t. Sometimes we find we have highlighted so many large chunks of text that they become meaningless. Highlighting can be very useful, however, if we also make, say, margin or separate notes (for example, a key word). It can also be useful in helping re-find text when there are no page numbers available and no ‘find’ key.
The third option can be useful when you need to record, say, class discussion notes from a whiteboard, for later examination.
In my experience, writing or typing is the best option. I find that in that tiny bit of time between taking in information and noting down salient points, my mind is automatically already sorting and prioritising: that is, it is already starting the process of critical thinking, which can be continued later.
For more helpful hints, see the tutorial on reading and note-taking by clicking on the button below.