What is critical thinking?
of critical thinking” is a frequent comment on student essays. But
what is critical thinking, or critical analysis? Briefly, critical thinking
means thinking well and applying sound intellectual standards to your
thinking. It involves self-evaluation, thinking about your thinking, and
being sure that you are not jumping to conclusions. You should be prepared
to consider all aspects of an issue before making up your mind, and to
avoid letting personal bias or prejudice interfere with your reasoning.
Critical thinking is important for most academic tasks, including reading,
tutorial discussions, written assignments and exam answers.
Critical thinking includes such ‘higher-order’ thinking tasks
as reasoning, problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The
skills or tasks involved in critical thinking will vary, but may include:
• Developing a logical argument;
• Identifying the flaws or weaknesses in an argument;
• Making relevant connections or links across disciplines, or from
theory to practice;
• Analysing the material in a range of sources and synthesising
• Applying theory to particular cases
The critical thinker
does not simply accept what she/he reads or hears and does not simply
make assertions, but bases arguments on evidence and sound reasoning.
A way of practising critical thinking is to ask yourself questions as
you listen, read and study: questions such as
• What is really important here?
• How does this relate to what I know already?
• What examples might illustrate this idea?
Here is a checklist of seven important
intellectual standards and some more questions to ask yourself:
Could I have expressed this point in another (better) way? Have I elaborated
sufficiently? Have I given illustrations or examples?
If a statement is unclear, the reader can’t tell whether it is
accurate or relevant. For example “Australia’s tertiary
education system is failing students.” This could be interpreted
in at least two ways: “The system is not meeting students’
needs” or “Students are failing”. If the first of
these two interpretations matches the intended meaning, there is still
a need to specify what student needs are not being met.
Is this really true? Can I check its accuracy?
A statement can be clear but inaccurate, as in “Most Australians
are over 180cm in height.”
Have I given enough detail to explain what I mean? Could I have been
A statement can be clear and accurate, but not precise, as in “Many
Australian teenagers are overweight”. The reader needs to know
what, precisely, you mean by “overweight” and what proportion
of the teenage population is overweight.
How is this related to the topic? Is it really relevant to the question?
A statement can be clear, accurate and precise, but of little relevance
to the question. For example, if you have been asked to discuss the effect
of the growth of tourism on levels of employment in Tasmania, there is
not much relevance in arguing that Tasmania’s population growth
is slower than the other states.
Have I addressed the complexities in this question, or have I just skated
over the surface?
A statement can be clear, accurate, precise and relevant, but superficial.
For example, the slogan “Just say No” which has been used
to discourage youth from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise and
relevant, but it does not reveal the complexity of this issue.
Are there issues I have omitted? Is there another way to look at this
A line of reasoning may be clear, accurate, precise, relevant and deep,
but still ignore another side of the argument. A strong argument for
reducing the scale of logging in Tasmania would lack breadth if it did
not consider the possible effects of such a reduction on employment
in the forest industries.
Does this really make sense? How does this follow from what I said before?
Does this contradict a previous statement?
When we think, we bring a variety of thoughts together in some order.
If the combination of these ideas is not mutually supportive, or does
not make sense, then the combination is not logical.
(Based on Elder, L and Paul, R (1996)
Universal Intellectual Standards Center for Critical Thinking, Sonoma
State University http://www.sonoma.edu/cthink/University/univlibrary/unistan.nclk)
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Different kinds of critical
Clearly, the kinds of critical thinking required will vary from course
to course. For example, studies in mathematics or engineering might
emphasise a systematic problem-solving approach. If you follow the seven
standards listed in the previous section you should arrive at a good,
logical solution. However, many academic problems have no absolute solutions;
no clearly ‘right’ answers. In some areas (Humanities and
Social Sciences for example) it may be more important for you to identify
important questions than to produce solutions. In some cases, you may
have to suspend pre-conceived beliefs or assumptions for the time being,
in order to explore various aspects of a problem.
A conceptual framework
Having suspended pre-conceived beliefs, how are you to proceed? One
way of coming to terms with a subject area is to develop a conceptual
framework for dealing with the subject and making sense of it. Teachers
generally attempt to help students develop such frameworks. For example,
a teacher of Literature might teach critical analysis of a novel by
concentrating on elements such as narrative, plot, characterisation
and metaphor; thus providing students with a framework for analysing
other novels. (Example from Meyers, C (1986) Teaching Students to Think
Critically San Francisco: Jossey-Bass p6)
Mastering any subject involves development of an overview, or conceptual
framework. The three questions listed under ‘Intellectual standards’
(above) can help in the development of such a framework.
For an issue or a case study which could be interpreted in different
ways, or approached from different viewpoints, one way of suspending
your own pre-conceived beliefs is to play ‘Devil’s Advocate’.
You could try to produce an objective summary of the strengths and limitations
of the position you least prefer; then summarise the strengths and weaknesses
of your preferred position. You then would be in a better position to
explain why and to what extent your position is preferable.
Everyone is subjective (to
This paper suggests that to be genuinely critical, you should try to
suppress personal bias and consider arguments and points of view with
an open mind. But this does not mean abandoning all your values! While
you should try to be objective rather than subjective in your thinking,
you cannot escape the fact that, like every other individual, your thinking
and your views have been shaped by your personal subjective experiences.
Absolute objectivity is impossible to achieve. In fact, such objectivity
is not even desirable, because our underlying values and beliefs, which
profoundly influence the ways in which we think, are essential ingredients
of our individuality.
The important thing to remember about critical thinking is that it means
not being blinded by one’s own bias, prejudice or point of view.
The critical thinker is prepared to consider conflicting points of view
before coming to a conclusion. Strong critical thinkers realise that
there is uncertainty in the world, and that for many problems there
is no ‘right’ answer or clear solution. They are aware,
too, of the limits of their knowledge and understanding, and are willing
to allow their ideas and assumptions to be tested. However, having applied
rigorous intellectual standards, they will adopt considered positions
and argue strongly for them.
Critical thinking skills
Thinking critically is the best route to developing reasoned and reasonable
beliefs. Critical thinking skills help you decide what to believe about
an issue, how to defend what you believe, and how to evaluate the beliefs
• Be as clear as possible.
• Focus on a question or issue.
• Try to take into account the whole problem
• Consider all relevant alternatives.Try to be well-informed.
• Seek as much precision as possible.
• Be aware of your biases and assumptions.
• Be open-minded.
• Take a position if you have enough basis; otherwise, withhold
(From ‘The Mind Module’ developed by The Agricultural Instructional
Media (AIM) Lab - a World Wide Web (WWW) development lab at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
Your aim should be to convince the reader. Your writing will be more
convincing if it shows evidence of critical thought.
Is your position clearly stated? Is it in focus throughout the paper?
• Does your reasoning lead to a logical conclusion?
• Are your definitions clearly explained? Are they reasonable?
• Is your writing clear and concise?
• Do you state and defend your assumptions?
• Is your position well-informed?
• Are your sources identified? Are they credible?
• Are your generalizations reasonable?
• Are your hypotheses and predictions sound?
• Have you covered alternative views?
• Are you being fair and open-minded?
• Will your paper convince your reader?
These checklists are adapted from the CT taxonomy of Dr. Robert Ennis,
Professor of the Philosophy of Education, Department of Educational
Policy Studies, University of Illinois <http://classes.aces.uiuc.edu/AIM/Discovery/Mind/crit-writing.html>
to further resources on critical thinking
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Last updated: 27 May 2011