Critical Thinking Skills Observation Tower

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

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“Critical thinking” is a phrase that leaves many students nervously quaking in their desks. By the time we’ve become adults, though, we’ve largely forgotten it. We imagine that we think critically, but we let our ability to engage with new ideas atrophy when we leave college. We get set in our ways, and become closed off to new ways of seeing the world.

The Information Age has made critical thinking both more important and more difficult than ever before. But these skills are at the foundation of an informed civil society, and they need to be fostered.

It’s time to go back to basics.

Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

The World Economic Forum listed critical thinking as the fourth most important skill in 2015. In 2020 it surges into the #2 spot, just behind complex problem solving, a closely related proficiency. To create the list, the Forum asked “chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers” which skills they value. These aren’t random people off the street. They’re important influencers in the world economy.

If the Forum says critical thinking is important, you can believe that it’s true. For getting a job, if nothing else.

What, then, is critical thinking? The Philosophy department at the University of Hong Kong has a great definition, stating that someone with critical thinking skills can do the following:

  1. Understand the logical connections between ideas.
  2. Identify, construct and evaluate arguments.
  3. Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
  4. Solve problems systematically.
  5. Identify the relevance and importance of ideas.
  6. Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values.

These six points should make clear why critical thinking is so important. It enhances problem solving, communicative, logic, and creative skills5 Creative Hobbies That Will Make You a Happier Person5 Creative Hobbies That Will Make You a Happier PersonA proper creative outlet can work wonders for your mental health and overall happiness. Here are a few creative hobbies that are proven to help in this way.Read More, all of which are important not only as an effective employee of an organization, but as an inhabitant of the modern world.

Information Management

We’re constantly bombarded with new data in the Information Age. Constant internet access, crowd-sourced ideas, and the instant availability of new ideas means you have a huge amount of information to process if you want to make sense of it all. And critical thinking helps you do that.

It might be more helpful to think of critical thinking as a way of life instead of a set of skills. Here’s a quote from Gautama Buddha that might help you see what I mean:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Critical thinking, at its core, is a path to truth. Along the way, it’ll help you come up with creative ideas, solve difficult problemsCan You Solve 5 of the Internet's Hardest Logic Puzzles?Can You Solve 5 of the Internet's Hardest Logic Puzzles?Try these five brain-teasing sites and some of the hardest logic puzzles that are loved by anyone who likes solving stuff.Read More, and make connections between concepts. Building up critical thinking skills is a life-long process, but you can kickstart that process by keeping in mind a few simple principles.

1. Ask “Why?”

The question at the core of critical thinking is “Why?” Everyone makes claims, and listeners without critical thinking skills may be inclined to just accept those claims as fact. Critical thinkers, however, will ask why — why is your presidential candidate better? What makes this philosophy a good one? Where did you get your information? What makes you think this interpretation of an event is true? How did you come to that conclusion?

(As you can see, “why” questions can come in many forms.)

There’s no need to sound like a child and literally ask “Why?” after every claim someone makes. But by engaging them in conversation, doing your own research, and considering the stories behind the claims, you can gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

I’ve been asking a lot of this kind of question as I’ve been working on a book on the history of board games — why did humans start playing? Why have board games persisted for so many centuries? Why have they made a resurgence in popularity? And, finally, why should readers care? These are all valuable questions, and their answers have spawned many more questions and answers that I didn’t expect. And that’s where insight comes from.

2. Read

One of the best ways to increase your critical thinking abilities is to learn more about other peoples, places, cultures, and time periods. You can do this by traveling the world, of course, but we can’t all be global nomads. But we can read. A lot.

Read better content onlineRead More Intelligent Content in 2016 with These 35 SitesRead More Intelligent Content in 2016 with These 35 SitesWe should all read these 35 sites more often. If you are tiring of dumbed-down content make things somewhat more thoughtful this coming year with this super list.Read More. Read as many books as you possibly can5 Tips To Read More Books Every Year5 Tips To Read More Books Every YearThere are just so many amazing books out there. To never have finished at least some is a regret waiting to be felt. Forestall it by reading more and reading smart with the following tips.Read More. Read writers who have opinions that contradict yours politically, theologically, philosophically, scientifically, or just stylistically. Read things from great thinkers as well as everyday people.

The more you read, the more you learn. And being learned is a great pillar upon which to build critical thinking skills. Reading non-fiction will help, but don’t discount fiction, either; novels, short stories, and plays can also offer insight into the way other people think and live.

Don’t forget to apply your critical thinking skills while you’re reading, too. Just because someone printed their claim on paper (or posted it on an internet forum) doesn’t mean it’s true.

3. Forget Multitasking

Today’s technology and culture make it easy to multitask. We continue to tell ourselves that multitasking helps us get more done, but science has repeatedly debunked that claimSingle- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity?Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity?Multitasking is a common method to increase productivity. Turns out it's not necessarily the silver bullet for productivity. The key is to know when to multitask.Read More. Multitasking gets you out of the zone and prevents you from giving serious thought to whatever it is that you’re doing.

This is the exact opposite of what you need for critical thinking. To be critical, you need to be fully present in whatever task you’re taking on. Reading, writing, debating, discussing, cooperating, arguing… to successfully do any of them, you need to be singularly focused.

Close your inbox. Silence Twitter. Stow your iPad. Turn off notifications on your phoneHow to Stop Checking Your Phone by Replacing It With Your ComputerHow to Stop Checking Your Phone by Replacing It With Your ComputerDevice hopping between your computer and phone? Losing your time, focus, and mind? Set up your computer as the main device with these simple tips and cut away the distractions.Read More. Get rid of extra tabs. These things distract you from deep thought. Not only will you not be thinking critically, but you probably won’t be thinking very much at all.

(Before you take to the comments to disprove my claims by saying that multitasking works for you, I know this isn’t the case for everyone — but it is for most people. If you can juggle tasks and still give each one the time and deep thought it deserves, great. Go for it.)

4. Spend Time Observing

Whether you’re faced with a problem, you need to come up with a new idea, or you just see something that interests you, your starting place should be observation. It’s easy to let your assumptions and past experiences take over when you’re faced with a problem or you get into a disagreement (this is especially relevant at the time of this writing, during election season).

Instead of falling back on what you think you know, spend time observing the situation. You might assume that surface issues and motivations are driving situations and people, but many multi-faceted layers are often at play. Being quick to judge or act on these initial observations might be tempting, but spending more time observing will give you a clearer picture of what’s going on.

This is especially difficult in the modern world, where firing off a comment on a news story, downvoting a Reddit post, or unfollowing someone on Twitter only takes a few seconds. Instead of acting quickly, though, engage your critical thinking skills, starting with observation.

5. Think

It might be counter intuitive, but spending time doing nothing but thinking is one of the best things you can do to engage and strengthen your critical thinking skills. Since I’ve started working on my book, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with pen and paper, just thinking. Making connections between ideas. Developing lines of thought. Coming up with more questions to ask. Identifying issues that are relevant to readers.

This is an especially difficult thing to do in the face of a world that prizes speed over almost everything. Sitting down to reflect and ponder doesn’t seem like a productive use of time. But that’s how great ideas are born. Some people are lucky enough to come up with a brilliant thought while they’re in the middle of a project, but many need quiet, solitude, and time to think.

Starting a journaling habitStart this Simple Habit to Rocket Your Productivity: JournalingStart this Simple Habit to Rocket Your Productivity: JournalingJournaling is an underrated career tool and a core habit of many successful people. From increasing productivity, to maintaining accountability, we explore why you should consider introducing journaling as a productivity tool into your workday.Read More is a great way to spend more time thinking without distractions. Doodling on a sheet of paper to help spur your problem-solving processes is another. Intentionally using time when you’re alone (even if you’re out on a walk or bike ride) to think is a great habit to get into.

Think Critically, Live Effectively

Critical thinking might not be the solution to all your problems, but it’s a good habit to get into. The more time we spend thinking critically, the more effectively we’ll be able to innovate, govern, communicate, and learn. And that’s good for everyone.

Do you make a point to flex your critical-thinking muscles? What do you find challenges your critical thinking skills? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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