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Critical thinking

What is this 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.)