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:
That information can come from sources such as:
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.
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?
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.
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.
Image Credits: skyline, waterfall, vaulted ceiling, snowy road, thinker
You’ll often hear the term “critical thinking” without an appropriate explanation attached. For example, you might remember it as something you were assessed on when you were in school, or as something that you’ve been told certain people are naturally better at doing. The problem is not only that logic and critical thinking are often undescribed. They’re also frequently made to sound dry, dull, or of little practical relevance.
In truth, critical thinking skills are learned and sharpened over time, helping you to make better decisions, process information more effectively and express yourself more clearly. By honing your critical thinking abilities, you give yourself a boost in both your personal and professional lives.
So, what is critical thinking, precisely? And how can you become a better critical thinker, starting today? This straightforward guide will provide you with a great starting point, looking at the definition of critical thinking and working through five methods of improving it.
What Is Critical Thinking?
In the simplest terms, critical thinking is about carefully analyzing, processing and making sense of information. While it is often taught as part of a philosophy course (and has its roots in the work of Plato and Aristotle), critical thinking skills can be helpfully applied to any problem, subject area, question or concept.
It involves closely monitoring your own thoughts, paying heed to where they come from and how they follow from each other, and it requires a degree of open-mindedness.
In particular, good critical thinkers try their best to be neutral with respect to their own thoughts, spotting biases and prejudices and then correcting for them (we’ll look at biases in more depth later on).
What’s more, the latest research clearly shows that critical thinking comes with major benefits for all areas of reasoning. For example, someone with critical thinking can do the following:
- Ask relevant, clear questions with a precise and limited scope
- Methodically gather information and accurately assess it
- Reach well-supported conclusions, and evaluate them against counterevidence
- Display consistent awareness of the limits of their own competence, monitoring for things they don’t understand or struggle to accept
- Communicate with others in a productive, even-handed way that gets results, even when tackling complicated problems.
As is evident from the above, exercises in critical thinking are not only helpful for your career (e.g. tasks like conducting meetings and giving presentations). They also promote better relationships, enabling you to work through conflict in a faster, more self-aware way.
5 Ways To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills
Now, as noted above, you’re not simply born with innate critical thinking skills. Yes, they’re easier to acquire for some people than others, but they can in principle be cultivated in anyone. This means that if you want to be a good critical reasoner, you need to remember that becoming a critical thinking is all about practice. Imagine it as similar to physical training! There are certain muscles you need to build over time.
The following five exercises will all help you with the critical thinking process. They’re all about making simple but powerful changes to your cognition and monitoring them over time.
In addition to using these techniques, remember that any kind of new learning is equally helpful for critical thinking. Every time you read about something new, join a class or tackle a challenging book, you’re becoming a sharper, smarter thinker.
1. Ask Basic Questions
It’s tempting to imagine that good critical thinkers ask erudite, convoluted questions when they’re trying to solve a problem. However, the truth is actually the opposite. The better you are at critical thinking, the more fundamental and clear your questions become. To enhance your questioning when problem-solving (and thereby improve your critical thinking abilities), make sure you break questions down.
Suppose you encounter a new problem, in work or life, and aren’t sure what to do. Start by asking the following:
- What information about this problem do you already have?
- How do you know the above information?
- What is your goal and what are you trying to discover, prove, disprove, support or criticize?
- What might you be overlooking?
These types of questions encourage you to get right to the heart of a problem, interrogating it for simple solutions before assuming complexity.
If it helps, try writing down the answers to the above four questions when faced with a problem, to help yourself remember your process as you go through it. You can use the same strategy to try and coax someone else through a problem when they bring it to you.
Once again, this shows how critical thinking is important from an interpersonal perspective, not just a cognitive perspective.
2. Be Aware Of Your Mental Process
People who assume they’re good critical thinkers often turn their analytical abilities outwards, arrogantly critiquing other people. However, being a genuinely skilled thinker involves a lot more self-reflection.
In particular, you want to keep an eye on your own mental process; where it started, what it looks like, and where it’s going. Our brains are incredibly impressive and can sort through information at an amazing rate, but this lightning-fast work can encourage us to ignore important factors.
Our brains use heuristics, sort of like cognitive shortcuts, to make quick inferences about what’s going on around us. In many cases, these heuristics yield reliable results and help us get on in the world. In other cases, they take the form of unreliable biases that lead us down the wrong path.
No matter how smart and thoughtful you are, if you want to be a good critical thinker you need to accept that you have such biases, and you need to learn to look out for them. Make a habit of asking yourself what you’re assuming and why, and checking for things like unhelpful stereotyping. Becoming more aware of your own biases is the first step to rewriting these parts of your thinking (though even the best critical thinker will never be entirely bias-free).
3. Adjust Your Perspective
As noted above, being more mindful of your own biases is a great help in critical thinking. However, it’s only step one in a gradual perspective shift.
One useful thing you can do is read the literature on biases and how they operate. For example, in the field of “CV studies”, researchers show how identical CVs can receive different evaluations depending on whether the name placed on the top sounds male or female, foreign or familiar, and so on.
Meanwhile, there are is all sorts of interesting work on how situational factors influence our seemingly staple character traits. For example, we make different decisions depending on things like hunger, the color of a room, whether we had to climb a flight of stairs, and so on.
Just the act of reading about these biases and heuristics can help to adjust your perspective. Another thing you can do to help is to deliberately expose your mind to other ways of thinking. Instead of sticking to your favored news sources, read a little more widely. Pick up books by authors outside your culture. Deliberately conduct empathy exercises that place you in an unfamiliar person’s shoes. All of these actions make you a better thinker.
4. Think In Reverse
Thinking in reverse is another fascinating and effective technique, especially when you’re stuck trying to puzzle through a difficult problem.
The basic idea is that you flip what you think you know on its head. So, if you think it’s pretty obvious that A cause B, ask yourself “But what if B caused A?”. This is the structure of the famous case of the chicken and the egg.
You initially think you’re sure that the chicken is the one who comes first because the egg needs to be laid by the chicken. However, once you consider that the chicken itself needed to originate somewhere, it’s no longer so clear.
Thinking in reverse won’t always get you an immediate solution to a problem. However, it jolts you out of perceiving the problem in the same old way, which is often all you need to get onto the road to success. Further, flipping the assumed direction of causation is a particularly useful trick in relationships, one that discourages blame.
For example, perhaps you thought you acted the way you did because of the way your partner has been speaking, but what if they think they’ve been speaking differently because of the way you’ve been acting?
5. Develop Foresight
While one of us are likely to become psychic anytime soon, we can get a lot better at predicting the impact of the choices we make (and the things we say). Consider that good foresight is an asset no matter what you’re trying to achieve. Whether you’re at a job interview, trying to market a business or attempting to date, you’ll be better able to make the right decisions if you can already see the consequences further down the line.
How do you develop your capacity for foresight, thereby improving your critical thinking more broadly? Make sure you take the time to look at all angles of a potential decision.
To take the example of looking for a place to situate your new business, don’t just go with your gut. Ask yourself questions like the following: what impression does this location give to visitors? How many competitors are there in the area? Will it be easy for employees to get here?
Making a pro and con list is another excellent way to boost your foresight, making you much better at predicting outcomes. And the more you do this, the less work you need to put into your attempted predictions each time.