No matter what walk of life you come from, what industry you’re interested in pursuing or how much experience you’ve already garnered, we’ve all seen firsthand the importance of critical thinking skills. In fact, lacking such skills can truly make or break a person’s career, as the consequences of one’s inability to process and analyze information effectively can be massive.
“The ability to think critically is more important now than it has ever been,” urges Kris Potrafka, founder and CEO of Music Firsthand. “Everything is at risk if we don’t all learn to think more critically.” If people cannot think critically, he explains, they not only lessen their prospects of climbing the ladder in their respective industries, but they also become easily susceptible to things like fraud and manipulation.
With that in mind, you’re likely wondering what you can do to make sure you’re not one of those people. Developing your critical thinking skills is something that takes concentrated work. It can be best to begin by exploring the definition of critical thinking and the skills it includes—once you do, you can then venture toward the crucial question at hand: How can I improve?
This is no easy task, which is why we aimed to help break down the basic elements of critical thinking and offer suggestions on how you can refine the skills that drive your own critical thinking abilities.
What is critical thinking?
Even if you want to be a better critical thinker, it’s hard to improve upon something you can’t define. Critical thinking is the analysis of an issue or situation and the facts, data or evidence related to it. Ideally, critical thinking is to be done objectively—meaning without influence from personal feelings, opinions or biases—and it focuses solely on factual information.
Critical thinking is a skill that allows you to make logical and informed decisions to the best of your ability. For example, a child who has not yet developed such skills might believe the Tooth Fairy left money under their pillow based on stories their parents told them. A critical thinker, however, can quickly conclude that the existence of such a thing is probably unlikely—even if there are a few bucks under their pillow.
6 Crucial critical thinking skills (and how you can improve them)
While there’s no universal standard for what skills are included in the critical thinking process, we’ve boiled it down to the following six.
The first step in the critical thinking process is to identify the situation or problem as well as the factors that may influence it. Once you have a clear picture of the situation and the people, groups or factors that may be influenced, you can then begin to dive deeper into an issue and its potential solutions.
How to improve: When facing any new situation, question or scenario, stop to take a mental inventory of the state of affairs and ask the following questions:
- Who is doing what?
- What seems to be the reason for this happening?
- What are the end results, and how could they change?
When comparing arguments about an issue, independent research ability is key. Arguments are meant to be persuasive—that means the facts and figures presented in their favor might be lacking in context or come from questionable sources. The best way to combat this is independent verification; find the source of the information and evaluate.
How to improve: It can be helpful to develop an eye for unsourced claims. Does the person posing the argument offer where they got this information from? If you ask or try to find it yourself and there’s no clear answer, that should be considered a red flag. It’s also important to know that not all sources are equally valid—take the time to learn the difference between popular and scholarly articles.
3. Identifying biases
This skill can be exceedingly difficult, as even the smartest among us can fail to recognize biases. Strong critical thinkers do their best to evaluate information objectively. Think of yourself as a judge in that you want to evaluate the claims of both sides of an argument, but you’ll also need to keep in mind the biases each side may possess.
It is equally important—and arguably more difficult—to learn how to set aside your own personal biases that may cloud your judgement. “Have the courage to debate and argue with your own thoughts and assumptions,” Potrafka encourages. “This is essential for learning to see things from different viewpoints.”
How to improve: “Challenge yourself to identify the evidence that forms your beliefs, and assess whether or not your sources are credible,” offers Ruth Wilson, director of development at Brightmont Academy.
First and foremost, you must be aware that bias exists. When evaluating information or an argument, ask yourself the following:
- Who does this benefit?
- Does the source of this information appear to have an agenda?
- Is the source overlooking, ignoring or leaving out information that doesn’t support its beliefs or claims?
- Is this source using unnecessary language to sway an audience’s perception of a fact?
The ability to infer and draw conclusions based on the information presented to you is another important skill for mastering critical thinking. Information doesn’t always come with a summary that spells out what it means. You’ll often need to assess the information given and draw conclusions based upon raw data.
The ability to infer allows you to extrapolate and discover potential outcomes when assessing a scenario. It is also important to note that not all inferences will be correct. For example, if you read that someone weighs 260 pounds, you might infer they are overweight or unhealthy. Other data points like height and body composition, however, may alter that conclusion.
How to improve: An inference is an educated guess, and your ability to infer correctly can be polished by making a conscious effort to gather as much information as possible before jumping to conclusions. When faced with a new scenario or situation to evaluate, first try skimming for clues—things like headlines, images and prominently featured statistics—and then make a point to ask yourself what you think is going on.
5. Determining relevance
One of the most challenging parts of any critical thinking scenario is figuring out what information is the most important for your consideration. In many scenarios, you’ll be presented with information that may seem important, but it may pan out to be only a minor data point to consider.
How to improve: The best way to get better at determining relevance is by establishing a clear direction in what you’re trying to figure out. Are you tasked with finding a solution? Should you be identifying a trend? If you figure out your end goal, you can use this to inform your judgement of what is relevant.
Even with a clear objective, however, it can still be difficult to determine what information is truly relevant. One strategy for combating this is to make a physical list of data points ranked in order of relevance. When you parse it out this way, you’ll likely end up with a list that includes a couple of obviously relevant pieces of information at the top of your list, in addition to some points at the bottom that you can likely disregard. From there, you can narrow your focus on the less clear-cut topics that reside in the middle of your list for further evaluation.
It’s incredibly easy to sit back and take everything presented to you at face value, but that can also be also a recipe for disaster when faced with a scenario that requires critical thinking. It’s true that we’re all naturally curious—just ask any parent who has faced an onslaught of “Why?” questions from their child. As we get older, it can be easier to get in the habit of keeping that impulse to ask questions at bay. But that’s not a winning approach for critical thinking.
How to improve: While it might seem like a curious mind is just something you’re born with, you can still train yourself to foster that curiosity productively. All it takes is a conscious effort to ask open-ended questions about the things you see in your everyday life, and you can then invest the time to follow up on these questions.
“Being able to ask open-ended questions is an important skill to develop—and bonus points for being able to probe,” Potrafka says.
Put your critical thinking skills to work
Critical thinking skills are vital for anyone looking to have a successful college career and a fruitful professional life upon graduation. Your ability to objectively analyze and evaluate complex subjects and situations will always be useful. Unlock your potential by practicing and refining the six critical thinking skills above.
Most professionals credit their time in college as having been crucial in the development of their critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking to improve your skills in a way that can impact your life and career moving forward, higher education is a fantastic venue through which to achieve that. For some of the surefire signs you’re ready to take the next step in your education, visit our article, “6 Signs You’re Ready to Be a College Student.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has since been updated.
Reichenbach: An Introduction to Critical Thinking
Critical thinking involves the use of a group of interconnected skills to analyze, creatively integrate, and evaluate what you read and hear. To become a critical thinker you must be able to decide whether an author�s opinions are true or false, whether he or she has adequately defended those ideas, whether certain recommendations are practical, as well as whether particular solutions will be effective.
Critical Thinking Dispositions
Critical thinking involves certain dispositions. A disposition is a tendency to act or think in a certain way. Review the list of dispositions that are characteristic of critical thinkers.
To learn how to think critically, one must learn skills that build upon each other. Only by concentrating on and practicing these basic skills can mastery of critical thinking be achieved. The author lists three basic characteristics of the skills required to think critically: they are interconnected (review a sample list of these skills), they build on each other, and they are goal-oriented in that we can constantly apply them to situations in everyday life.
- Characteristics of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking involves the use of a kind of thinking called reasoning, in which we construct and/or evaluate reasons to support beliefs. Critical thinking also involves reflection � the examination and evaluation of our own and others� thoughts and ideas. Finally critical thinking is practical. Actions are more rational if they are based on beliefs that we take to be justified. Critical thinking then, is the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject or suspend judgement about the truth of a claim or a recommendation to act in a certain way.
Review what the guiding model of the text. This model is discussed in steps or stages. For each step note the specific headings to help you identify the level discussed.
Step 1: Knowledge
In terms of critical thinking, the basic level of acquisition of knowledge requires that you be able to identify what is being said: the topic, the issue, the thesis, and the main points. See Chapter Three.
Step 2: Comprehension
Comprehension means understanding the material read, heard or seen. In comprehending, you make the new knowledge that you have acquired your own by relating it to what you already know. The better you are involved with the information, the better you will comprehend it. As always, the primary test of whether you have comprehended something is whether you can put what you have read or heard into your own words. Review some key words that help you identify when comprehension is called for. Remember that comprehending something implies that you can go beyond merely parroting the material back but instead that you can give the material your own significance.
Step 3: Application
Application requires that you know what you have read, heard, or seen, that you comprehend it, and that you carry out some task to apply what you comprehend to an actual situation. Review the some tasks that require application.
Step 4: Analysis
Analysis involves breaking what you read or hear into its component parts, in order to make clear how the ideas are ordered, related, or connected to other ideas. Analysis deals with both form and content. Reviewhow critical thinkers analyze form. Reviewhow critical thinkers analyze content.
- Step 5: Synthesis
Synthesis involves the ability to put together the parts you analyzed with other information to create something original. Review some key words that help you identify when synthesis is called for.
Step 6: Evaluation
Evaluation occurs once we have understood and analyzed what is said or written and the reasons offered to support it. Then we can appraise this information in order to decide whether you can give or withhold belief, and whether or not to take a particular action. Review some key words that help you identify when synthesis is called for. Never put evaluation ahead of the other steps in critical thinking steps; otherwise, you will be guilty of a "rush to judgement." When emotion substitutes for reasons, evaluation incorrectly precedes analysis.
- Who was the author of the Declaration of Independence? Answer
- Compare and contrast the themes of Jack London�s Call of the Wild and White Fang. Answer
- design. Answer
- with the others? Siren, Kelpie, Lorelei, Amazon. Answer
- Combining the theories of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and John Rawls, sketch out your own theory of social justice. Answer
- Using Question 7, give three ways Congress could implement your theory of social justice. Answer
- Write a critique of last night�s drama department performance of Twelfth Night. Answer
- Define and explain the term, "a priori." Answer
- On the cadaver of the fetal pig in the biology laboratory, identify the aorta, the heart and the lungs. Answer
- On the map at the front of the class, identify the country of Indonesia. Answer
- Clarification Abilities�the ability to discern the thesis and main points of what you read and hear. See Chapter Three.
- Inference-related Abilities�making an inference that some true statements provide reasons to think that other statements are true. Review some requirements for working with inferences.
- Ability to Employ Strategies�adapting to unique situations and problems effectively in a carefully reasoned way. Review what the ability to employ strategies enables you to do.
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