One of the most important aspects of academic work is the ability to think critically about what you read, what you write and what you are told.
Rather than accept all information as truth, you need to test the validity of others’ standpoints in order to arrive at your own point of view.
When you think critically, you are being active; you are not passively accepting everything you read and hear, but questioning, evaluating, making judgements, finding connections and categorising. Critical thinking is necessary in order to form judgements in lectures and tutorials; when reading and when writing assignments.
Critical thinking at university
Students often ask why critical thinking is required at university and what it means to be a critical thinker.
Critical thinking has been variously defined but the following two definitions may help you to understand it better.
Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do (p.xvii).
Ennis, R. H 1996, Critical thinking, Prentice-Hall, NJ.
Critical thinking is evaluating whether we should be convinced that some claim is true or some argument is good, as well as formulating good arguments. p. 5
Critical thinking as a tool for decision making
Weighing up alternatives in order to make decisions is part of the critical thinking process. For example, think about the following activities and ask yourself what strategies you would use to come to a decision about:
- buying a car
- choosing where to go for a holiday
- selecting a university course
- moving to a different city.
In each of the activities listed above, you probably noticed that you would have to find information, analyse and evaluate the alternatives in relation to your aims and requirements and reach a conclusion. All of these processes are part of critical analysis; thinking critically is an activity you use in making decisions and evaluating different possibilities.
What does critical thinking involve?
Critical thinking involves active involvement. You are not passively accepting everything that you read or hear but are questioning, evaluating, categorising information and making connections within the text and comparing what the author is saying with other experts who have written on the same topic.
At university you are asked to think critically when you read academic texts, when you write academic assignments and when you present in tutorials or seminars.
One of the key strategies you can use when reading critically is to ask yourself a series of questions. Begin by asking questions which relate to the text overall and then look at the author’s argument and the evidence used to support it.
Examine the overall credibility of the text
The first level of reading critically
- Who is the author and when was this written?
- What is the author’s approach and perspective?
- What is the author saying? (Try to sum up the argument in your own words)
- What are the main points of this text?
- Who/what is left out of the text?
- On first reading, does this seem a credible argument? Why?
Examine the argument and the evidence
(These questions will help you to evaluate the validity of the argument and enable you to better understand how the argument has been developed and supported).
- What evidence has been presented to support the argument?
- What is the quality of the evidence?(Is the evidence anecdotal or supported by research and/or scientific study?)
- Is the evidence referenced? (or is the author relying solely on their own research?)
- Is the evidence recent and relevant?
- Is there a logical development of ideas?
- Which parts of the argument do I agree with and why?
- Which parts of the argument do I disagree with and why?
- What assumptions does the author make?
Analyse the style and tone of the argument
- Is the argument clearly expressed?
- Does the writer’s language, tone or choice of examples reveal any biases? If so do these biases reduce the credibility of the argument?
- Does the author use emotive terms or examples to persuade the reader?
- Do these strategies enhance or detract from the argument?
Overall assessment of the writing
- Does the writing challenge your own biases, assumptions and beliefs?
- Are you capable of reviewing your beliefs/assumptions in the light of the argument presented?
- What were the strengths of the argument?
- What were the weaknesses of the argument?
- How convincing was this piece of writing?
- What connections do you see between this text and other texts?
Critical thinking for academic writing
When writing at university, your aim is to convince the reader by using critical thinking to promote your argument. Ask yourself the following questions when you are planning and writing your first draft.
- What is your purpose in writing?
- Have you clearly formulated your thesis/argument?
- Have you gathered the evidence to support your argument?
- Have you provided your reader with accurate references?
- Is your argument rational and logical?
- Have you read widely to gain a broad perspective on the topic?
- Have you expressed yourself clearly? Have you used examples to illustrate your point?
- Have you been accurate in your claims?
- Have you addressed the question?
- Is the evidence you are using relevant?
- Have you explored this topic in depth or have you just skimmed over the surface?
- Have you structured your argument effectively and provided the reader with an effective/relevant introduction and conclusion?
Critical thinking underpinning tutorial/seminar presentations
Before giving a presentation it is vital to consider your purpose, the needs of your audience and how best to research and present the topic. These considerations will help you to structure your talk so that it is relevant (on topic) and meaningful to your audience.
Consider the content of your presentation in terms of the questions listed in the previous section (critical thinking for academic writing) but remember that this is an oral presentation and you have to engage your audience and sustain their interest in the topic.
Using your critical thinking skills will help you to research, plan and anticipate any questions that may arise in relation to the topic.
Critical thinking is a vital aspect of academic engagement and the more you practice developing these skills, the better you will be at analysing, questioning and evaluating your own writing as well as the academic texts you encounter at university.