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Critical thinking

Critical thinking is a way of thinking, understanding and expressing ourselves. See the Critical thinking checklist.

Critical thinking is about using your ability to reason. It's about being active in your learning and questioning ideas, arguments and findings.

In an academic argument ideas are organised into a line of reasoning. The writer aims to persuade the reader that their point of view is valid. Being able to understand 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.

Try to constantly evaluate what you read, hear, think, experience and observe. Assess how well ideas, statements, claims, arguments and findings are backed up so that you can make a reasoned judgement about how convincing they are. 

Criticising the experts

At first, students often feel anxious about criticising ideas that they come across in their reading or in lectures. They feel that it's disrespectful to challenge established academics.

In fact, it is essential to critique what you read - but always make sure you back up your argument with evidence.

Critical thinking means analysing ideas, observations, experience and reasons, exploring the evidence and carefully considering whether something makes sense and is accurate.

You might consider whether ideas or findings can be applied in a particular context and, if so, how useful or effective this would be. Often, you will compare and contrast what academics say about a subject so you can come up with your own argument.

Using critical thinking skills

You will need to demonstrate your critical thinking skills in various ways:

Critical reading

Ask questions about the text as you read. This will keep you focused and help you to understand it. See Reading strategies.

Evaluating arguments

When reading a text containing an argument, try to evaluate whether it makes sense and is well supported. See Evaluating arguments.

Critical writing

Make sure that your writing is clear and your argument well structured. See Critical essay writing.

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.



Always ask questions about what you hear, think, believe, observe, read and experience. It's central to being a successful critical thinker.

Explore ideas and observations you come across by talking through your responses, questions and criticisms with other students. Recording yourself talking can work too.

If you are not sure how to think, read and write critically, ask for help.

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.

Next page - Critical thinking checklist