Five Six Seven Eight Steps In Critical Thinking

When I was in 7th grade, my U.S. history teacher gave my class the following advice:

Your teachers in high school won’t expect you to remember every little fact about U.S. history. They can fill in the details you’ve forgotten. What they will expect, though, is for you to be able to think; to know how to make connections between ideas and evaluate information critically.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my teacher was giving a concise summary of critical thinking. My high school teachers gave similar speeches when describing what would be expected of us in college: it’s not about the facts you know, but rather about your ability to evaluate them.

And now that I’m in college, my professors often mention that the ability to think through and solve difficult problems matters more in the “real world” than specific content.

Despite hearing so much about critical thinking all these years, I realized that I still couldn’t give a concrete definition of it, and I certainly couldn’t explain how to do it. It seemed like something that my teachers just expected us to pick up in the course of our studies. While I venture that a lot of us did learn it, I prefer to approach learning deliberately, and so I decided to investigate critical thinking for myself.

What is it, how do we do it, why is it important, and how can we get better at it? This post is my attempt to answer those questions.

In addition to answering these questions, I’ll also offer seven ways that you can start thinking more critically today, both in and outside of class.

What Is Critical Thinking?

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

– The Foundation for Critical Thinking

The above definition from the Foundation for Critical Thinking website is pretty wordy, but critical thinking, in essence, is not that complex.

Critical thinking is just deliberately and systematically processing information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better. The above definition includes so many words because critical thinking requires you to apply diverse intellectual tools to diverse information.

Ways to critically think about information include:

  • Conceptualizing
  • Analyzing
  • Synthesizing
  • Evaluating

That information can come from sources such as:

  • Observation
  • Experience
  • Reflection
  • Reasoning
  • Communication

And all this is meant to guide:

You can also define it this way:

Critical thinking is the opposite of regular, everyday thinking. 

Moment to moment, most thinking happens automatically. When you think critically, you deliberately employ any of the above intellectual tools to reach more accurate conclusions than your brain automatically would (more on this in a bit).

This is what critical thinking is. But so what?

Why Does Critical Thinking Matter?

Most of our everyday thinking is uncritical.

If you think about it, this makes sense. If we had to think deliberately about every single action (such as breathing, for instance), we wouldn’t have any cognitive energy left for the important stuff like D&D. It’s good that much of our thinking is automatic.

We can run into problems, though, when we let our automatic mental processes govern important decisions. Without critical thinking, it’s easy for people to manipulate us and for all sorts of catastrophes to result. Anywhere that some form of fundamentalism led to tragedy (the Holocaust is a textbook example), critical thinking was sorely lacking.

Even day to day, it’s easy to get caught in pointless arguments or say stupid things just because you failed to stop and think deliberately.

But you’re reading College Info Geek, so I’m sure you’re interested to know why critical thinking matters in college.

Here’s why:

According to Andrew Roberts, author of The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, critical thinking matters in college because students often adopt the wrong attitude to thinking about difficult questions. These attitudes include:

  • Ignorant certainty. Ignorant certainty is the belief that there are definite, correct answers to all questions–all you have to do is find the right source (102). It’s understandable that a lot of students come into college thinking this way–it’s enough to get you through most of your high school coursework. In college and in life, however, the answers to most meaningful questions are rarely straightforward. To get anywhere in college classes (especially upper-level ones), you have to think critically about the material.
  • Naive relativism. Naive relativism is the belief that there is no truth and all arguments are equal (102-103). According to Roberts, this is often a view that students adopt once they learn the error of ignorant certainty. While it’s certainly a more “critical” approach than ignorant certainty, naive relativism is still inadequate since it misses the whole point of critical thinking: arriving at a more complete, “less wrong” answer. Part of thinking critically is evaluating the validity of arguments (yours and others’). Therefore, to think critically you must accept that some arguments are better (and that some are just plain awful).

Critical thinking also matters in college because:

  • It allows you to form your own opinions and engage with material beyond a superficial level. This is essential to crafting a great essay and having an intelligent discussion with your professors or classmates. Regurgitating what the textbook says won’t get you far.
  • It allows you to craft worthy arguments and back them up. If you plan to go on to graduate school or pursue a PhD., original, critical thought is crucial
  • It helps you evaluate your own work. This leads to better grades (who doesn’t want those?) and better habits of mind.

Doing college level work without critical is a lot like walking blindfolded: you’ll get somewhere, but it’s unlikely to be the place you desire.

The value of critical thinking doesn’t stop with college, however. Once you get out into the real world, critical thinking matters even more. This is because:

  • It allows you to continue to develop intellectually after you graduate.Progress shouldn’t stop after graduation–you should keep learning as much as you can. When you encounter new information, knowing how to think critically will help you evaluate and use it.
  • It helps you make hard decisions. I’ve written before about how defining your values helps you make better decisions. Equally important in the decision-making process is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking allows you compare the pros and cons of your available options, showing that you have more options than you might imagine.
  • People can and will manipulate you. At least, they will if you take everything at face value and allow others to think for you. Just look at ads for the latest fad diet or “miracle” drug–these rely on ignorance and false hope to get people to buy something that is at best useless and at worst harmful. When you evaluate information critically (especially information meant to sell something), you can avoid falling prey to unethical companies and people.
  • It makes you more employable (and better paid). The best employees not only know how to solve existing problems–they also know how to come up with solutions to problems no one ever imagined. To get a great job after graduating, you need to be one of those employees, and critical thinking is the key ingredient to solving difficult, novel problems.

7 Ways to Think More Critically

Now we come to the part that I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for: how the heck do we get better at critical thinking? Below, you’ll find seven ways to get started.

1. Ask Basic Questions

“The world is complicated. But does every problem require a complicated solution?”

– Stephen J. Dubner

Sometimes an explanation becomes so complex that the original question get lost. To avoid this, continually go back to the basic questions you asked when you set out to solve the problem.

Here are a few key basic question you can ask when approaching any problem:

  • What do you already know?
  • How do you know that?
  • What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrated, critique, etc.?
  • What are you overlooking?

Some of the most breathtaking solutions to problems are astounding not because of their complexity, but because of their elegant simplicity. Seek the simple solution first.

2. Question Basic Assumptions

“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”

The above saying holds true when you’re thinking through a problem. it’s quite easy to make an ass of yourself simply by failing to question your basic assumptions.

Some of the greatest innovators in human history were those who simply looked up for a moment and wondered if one of everyone’s general assumptions was wrong. From Newton to Einstein to Yitang Zhang, questioning assumptions is where innovation happens.

You don’t even have to be an aspiring Einstein to benefit from questioning your assumptions. That trip you’ve wanted to take? That hobby you’ve wanted to try? That internship you’ve wanted to get? That attractive person in your World Civilizations class you’ve wanted to talk to?

All these things can be a reality if you just question your assumptions and critically evaluate your beliefs about what’s prudent, appropriate, or possible.

If you’re looking for some help with this process, then check out Oblique Strategies. It’s a tool that musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created to aid creative problem solving. Some of the “cards” are specific to music, but most work for any time you’re stuck on a problem.

3. Be Aware of Your Mental Processes

Human thought is amazing, but the speed and automation with which it happens can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. Our brains naturally use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to explain what’s happening around us.

This was beneficial to humans when we were hunting large game and fighting off wild animals, but it can be disastrous when we’re trying to decide who to vote for.

A critical thinker is aware of their cognitive biases  and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions.

All of us have biases in our thinking. Becoming aware of them is what makes critical thinking possible.

4. Try Reversing Things

A great way to get “unstuck” on a hard problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X?

The “chicken and egg problem” a classic example of this. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. The chicken lays the egg, after all. But then you quickly realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it?

Even if it turns out that the reverse isn’t true, considering it can set you on the path to finding a solution.

5. Evaluate the Existing Evidence

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”

– Isaac Newton

When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work that has been done in the same area. There’s no reason to start solving a problem from scratch when someone has already laid the groundwork.

It’s important, however, to evaluate this information critically, or else you can easily reach the wrong conclusion. Ask the following questions of any evidence you encounter:

  • Who gathered this evidence?
  • How did they gather it?
  • Why?

Take, for example, a study showing the health benefits of a sugary cereal. On paper, the study sounds pretty convincing. That is, until you learn that a sugary cereal company funded it.

You can’t automatically assume that this invalidates the study’s results, but you should certainly question them when a conflict of interests is so apparent.

6. Remember to Think for Yourself

Don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself–sometimes this can be your most powerful tool.

Writing about Einstein’s paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (the paper that contained the famous equation E=mc2), C.P. Snow observed that “it was as if Einstein ‘had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done'”(121).

Don’t be overconfident, but recognize that thinking for yourself is essential to answering tough questions. I find this to be true when writing essays–it’s so easy to get lost in other people’s work that I forget to have my own thoughts. Don’t make this mistake.

7. Understand That No One Thinks Critically 100% of the Time

“Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought.”

– Michael Scriven and Richard Paul

You can’t think critically all the time, and that’s okay. Critical thinking is a tool that you should deploy when you need to make important decisions or solve difficult problems, but you don’t need to think critically about everything.

And even in important matters, you will experience lapses in your reasoning. What matters is that you recognize these lapses and try to avoid them in the future.

Even Isaac Newton, genius that he was, believed that alchemy was a legitimate pursuit.

Conclusion

As I hope you now see, learning to think critically will benefit you both in the classroom and beyond. I hope this post has given you some ideas about how you can think more critically in your own life. Remember: learning to think critically is a lifelong journey, and there’s always more to learn.

How has critical thinking helped you in and outside the classroom? Are there any important tips I missed? Share them in the comments or discuss them in the College Info Geek Community.

Sources

Image Credits: skyline, waterfall, vaulted ceiling, snowy road, thinker

Critical Thinking


What is Critical Thinking?

When examining the vast literature on critical thinking, various definitions of critical thinking emerge. Here are some samples:

  • "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Scriven, 1996 ).
  • "Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo, 1995, p. 6 ).
  • "Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself" ( Center for Critical Thinking, 1996b ).
  • "Critical thinking is the ability to think about one's thinking in such a way as 1. To recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, 2. To recast the thinking in improved form" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996c ).

Perhaps the simplest definition is offered by Beyer (1995) : "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Basically, Beyer sees critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.).


Characteristics of Critical Thinking

Wade (1995) identifies eight characteristics of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking, "Ambiguity and doubt serve a critical-thinking function and are a necessary and even a productive part of the process" (p. 56).

Another characteristic of critical thinking identified by many sources is metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking. More specifically, "metacognition is being aware of one's thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing" (Jones & Ratcliff, 1993, p. 10 ).

In the book, Critical Thinking, Beyer elaborately explains what he sees as essential aspects of critical thinking. These are:

  • Dispositions: Critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fair-mindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view, and will change positions when reason leads them to do so.
  • Criteria: To think critically, must apply criteria. Need to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable. Although the argument can be made that each subject area has different criteria, some standards apply to all subjects. "... an assertion must... be based on relevant, accurate facts; based on credible sources; precise; unbiased; free from logical fallacies; logically consistent; and strongly reasoned" (p. 12).
  • Argument: Is a statement or proposition with supporting evidence. Critical thinking involves identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments.
  • Reasoning: The ability to infer a conclusion from one or multiple premises. To do so requires examining logical relationships among statements or data.
  • Point of View: The way one views the world, which shapes one's construction of meaning. In a search for understanding, critical thinkers view phenomena from many different points of view.
  • Procedures for Applying Criteria: Other types of thinking use a general procedure. Critical thinking makes use of many procedures. These procedures include asking questions, making judgments, and identifying assumptions.

Why Teach Critical Thinking?

Oliver & Utermohlen (1995) see students as too often being passive receptors of information. Through technology, the amount of information available today is massive. This information explosion is likely to continue in the future. Students need a guide to weed through the information and not just passively accept it. Students need to "develop and effectively apply critical thinking skills to their academic studies, to the complex problems that they will face, and to the critical choices they will be forced to make as a result of the information explosion and other rapid technological changes" (Oliver & Utermohlen, p. 1 ).

As mentioned in the section, Characteristics of Critical Thinking , critical thinking involves questioning. It is important to teach students how to ask good questions, to think critically, in order to continue the advancement of the very fields we are teaching. "Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996a ).

Beyer sees the teaching of critical thinking as important to the very state of our nation. He argues that to live successfully in a democracy, people must be able to think critically in order to make sound decisions about personal and civic affairs. If students learn to think critically, then they can use good thinking as the guide by which they live their lives.


Teaching Strategies to Help Promote Critical Thinking

The 1995, Volume 22, issue 1, of the journal, Teaching of Psychology , is devoted to the teaching critical thinking. Most of the strategies included in this section come from the various articles that compose this issue.

  • CATS (Classroom Assessment Techniques): Angelo stresses the use of ongoing classroom assessment as a way to monitor and facilitate students' critical thinking. An example of a CAT is to ask students to write a "Minute Paper" responding to questions such as "What was the most important thing you learned in today's class? What question related to this session remains uppermost in your mind?" The teacher selects some of the papers and prepares responses for the next class meeting.
  • Cooperative Learning Strategies: Cooper (1995) argues that putting students in group learning situations is the best way to foster critical thinking. "In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher" (p. 8).
  • Case Study /Discussion Method: McDade (1995) describes this method as the teacher presenting a case (or story) to the class without a conclusion. Using prepared questions, the teacher then leads students through a discussion, allowing students to construct a conclusion for the case.
  • Using Questions: King (1995) identifies ways of using questions in the classroom:
  • Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Following lecture, the teacher displays a list of question stems (such as, "What are the strengths and weaknesses of...). Students must write questions about the lecture material. In small groups, the students ask each other the questions. Then, the whole class discusses some of the questions from each small group.
  • Reader's Questions: Require students to write questions on assigned reading and turn them in at the beginning of class. Select a few of the questions as the impetus for class discussion.
  • Conference Style Learning: The teacher does not "teach" the class in the sense of lecturing. The teacher is a facilitator of a conference. Students must thoroughly read all required material before class. Assigned readings should be in the zone of proximal development. That is, readings should be able to be understood by students, but also challenging. The class consists of the students asking questions of each other and discussing these questions. The teacher does not remain passive, but rather, helps "direct and mold discussions by posing strategic questions and helping students build on each others' ideas" (Underwood & Wald, 1995, p. 18 ).
  • Use Writing Assignments: Wade sees the use of writing as fundamental to developing critical thinking skills. "With written assignments, an instructor can encourage the development of dialectic reasoning by requiring students to argue both [or more] sides of an issue" (p. 24).
  • Dialogues: Robertson andRane-Szostak (1996) identify two methods of stimulating useful discussions in the classroom:
    • Written dialogues: Give students written dialogues to analyze. In small groups, students must identify the different viewpoints of each participant in the dialogue. Must look for biases, presence or exclusion of important evidence, alternative interpretations, misstatement of facts, and errors in reasoning. Each group must decide which view is the most reasonable. After coming to a conclusion, each group acts out their dialogue and explains their analysis of it.
    • Spontaneous Group Dialogue: One group of students are assigned roles to play in a discussion (such as leader, information giver, opinion seeker, and disagreer). Four observer groups are formed with the functions of determining what roles are being played by whom, identifying biases and errors in thinking, evaluating reasoning skills, and examining ethical implications of the content.
  • Ambiguity: Strohm & Baukus advocate producing much ambiguity in the classroom. Don't give students clear cut material. Give them conflicting information that they must think their way through.

References & Resources

  • Angelo, T. A. (1995). Beginning the dialogue: Thoughts on promoting critical thinking: Classroom assessment for critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 6-7.
  • Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Cooper, J. L. (1995). Cooperative learning and critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 7-8.
  • Jones, E. A. & Ratcliff, G. (1993). Critical thinking skills for college students. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University Park, PA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 358 772)
  • King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum: Inquiring minds really do want to know: Using questioning to teach critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22 (1) , 13-17.
  • McDade, S. A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.
  • Oliver, H. & Utermohlen, R. (1995). An innovative teaching strategy: Using critical thinking to give students a guide to the future.(Eric Document Reproduction Services No. 389 702)
  • Robertson, J. F. & Rane-Szostak, D. (1996). Using dialogues to develop critical thinking skills: A practical approach. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39(7), 552-556.
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Strohm, S. M., & Baukus, R. A. (1995). Strategies for fostering critical thinking skills. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 50 (1), 55-62.
  • Underwood, M. K., & Wald, R. L. (1995). Conference-style learning: A method for fostering critical thinking with heart. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 17-21.
  • Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28.

Other Reading

  • Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, & active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Bernstein, D. A. (1995). A negotiation model for teaching critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 22-24.
  • Carlson, E. R. (1995). Evaluating the credibility of sources. A missing link in the teaching of critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 39-41.
  • Facione, P. A., Sanchez, C. A., Facione, N. C., & Gainen, J. (1995). The disposition toward critical thinking. The Journal of General Education, 44(1), 1-25.
  • Halpern, D. F., & Nummedal, S. G. (1995). Closing thoughts about helping students improve how they think. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 82-83.
  • Isbell, D. (1995). Teaching writing and research as inseparable: A faculty-librarian teaching team. Reference Services Review, 23(4), 51-62.
  • Jones, J. M. & Safrit, R. D. (1994). Developing critical thinking skills in adult learners through innovative distance learning. Paper presented at the International Conference on the practice of adult education and social development. Jinan, China. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 373 159)
  • Sanchez, M. A. (1995). Using critical-thinking principles as a guide to college-level instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 72-74.
  • Spicer, K. L. & Hanks, W. E. (1995). Multiple measures of critical thinking skills and predisposition in assessment of critical thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, TX. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 391 185)
  • Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students' critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 23-39.

On the Internet

  • Carr, K. S. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking. Eric Digest. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://ericps.ed.uiuc.edu/eece/pubs/digests/1990/carr90.html
  • The Center for Critical Thinking (1996). Home Page. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Ennis, Bob (No date). Critical thinking. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/teach/for442/ct.htm
  • Montclair State University (1995). Curriculum resource center. Critical thinking resources: An annotated bibliography. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.montclair.edu/Pages/CRC/Bibliographies/CriticalThinking.html
  • No author, No date. Critical Thinking is ... [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://library.usask.ca/ustudy/critical/
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Sheridan, Marcia (No date). Internet education topics hotlink page. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://sun1.iusb.edu/~msherida/topics/critical.html

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