Introducing Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?

It’s likely that you have come across the word critical before; possibly in a negative context, for example: “The judges’ comments were highly critical of her singing ability”.

You might have even come across this word as used to describe something of high important, for example: “The mission was critical to peace between the two nations.”

However, at University, the word critical takes on a slightly different meaning, as being critical in your assignments is to question everything, and not accept anything on face value. Critical thinking encapsulates several cognitive processes that humans use to reason or evaluate evidence, before accepting something. The ability to think critically is a very valuable skill, as it demonstrates our ability to think clearly and rationally, make logical connections between ideas, detect inconsistencies and mistakes, and reflect on our own justifications and beliefs (Chatfield, 2018; Lau & Chan, 2019).

Put simply, critical thinking includes:

  • Identifying other people’s positions, arguments and conclusions
  • Evaluating evidence for alternative points of view
  • Weighing up opposing arguments fairly
  • Reading between the lines of arguments, seeing below the surface and identifying faulty arguments
  • Recognising techniques that are used to make certain arguments more persuasive such as rhetorical devices and false logic
  • Reflecting in a structured way to consider logic and insight
  • Drawing conclusions on arguments, including whether they are justifiable, based on good evidence and assumptions
  • Synthesising information by drawing together pieces of evidence, judgments and pulling these together to create your own argument
  • Challenging our own assumptions and testing these in a systematic, well-reasoned manner

(Cottrell, 2017, p. 2-3)

When do we need Critical Thinking?

As humans, we think critically every day, in lots of different scenarios. Critical thinking isn’t exclusive to your academic assignments; you also think critically in everyday situations in order to make well-reasoned, logical decisions. Take this example:

Crossing the road

Evaluate the road – is it safe to cross? If there are cars coming will you make it in time?

Reason – if cars are coming, is it worth the risk?

Drawing conclusions – Using this information to determine when it is safe to cross.

It’s also important to realise that we do not think critically all of the time. For instance, emotions can affect our ability to think critically and may skew our understanding. Therefore, our ability to think critically will vary according to our current mindset (Skills You Need, 2019).

Why do we need Critical Thinking?

Good critical thinking skills have many benefits in terms of academic progress and beyond. Here are some reasons to determine why critical thinking is beneficial and useful to you.

Critical thinking hones the human ability for decision-making

As humans, we tend to believe what we hear, or assume we have the full story even though this isn’t necessarily the case (Cottrell, 2013). This can lead to mistakes in our understanding: some will be minor or insignificant, but some will have major consequences. Critical thinking allows humans to consider their own thinking process and fully consider options before drawing a conclusion.

Critical thinking is an employability skill

Critical thinking is considered a ‘domain-general skill’ (Lau & Chan, 2019) meaning that the ability to question is a valued skill by potential employers in any discipline. The ability to question is vital to critical thinking and it is actively sought by potential employers. Critical thinking encompasses the ability to analyse complex information quickly and problem solve, which is a trait that is often tested for in job interviews or required on a person specification.

Critical thinking allows us to truly evaluate our own skills and abilities

When used well, critical thinking can allow us to evaluate our own skills, abilities and trains of thought. This can help us make decisions on areas we excel in and areas to improve, which in turn can influence our choices for education, training, work or other ventures.

Critical thinking enables emotional management

Reasoning requires us to decide upon a line of argument which may challenge our own feelings or opinions, especially if the evidence is contrary to our own beliefs. Critical thinking is not completely devoid of emotion, as often we can make passionate arguments or disagree with a point of view. Engaging critically allows you to regulate emotional responses and reconsider them in terms of logic and good reasoning (Cottrell, 2013).

Critical thinking is essential for academic study and practice

Objectivity underpins all academic practice. In order to be objective, a student or an academic must carefully consider and weigh up all perspectives and arguments, in order to make a well-reasoned judgment. When a judgment is made, this judgment must be conveyed in an argument that persuades the reader in an objective way. All of these activities constitute critical thinking, and the ability to think critically is absolutely essential to academia.

Sometimes, to understand what something is, we need to identify what it is not. The Open University (2019) gives the following advice:

Critical thinking is not:

  • restating a claim that has been made
  • describing an event
  • challenging peoples’ worth as you engage with their work
  • criticising someone or what they do (which is made from a personal, judgmental position).

Critical thinking and analysis are vital aspects of your academic life – when reading, when writing and working with other students.