What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is a kind of thinking in which you question, analyse, interpret, evaluate and make a judgement about what you read, hear, say, or write. The term critical comes from the Greek word kritikos meaning “able to judge or discern”. Good critical thinking is about making reliable judgements based on reliable information.
Applying critical thinking does not mean being negative or focusing on faults. It means being able to clarify your thinking so that you can break down a problem or a piece of information, interpret it and use that interpretation to arrive at an informed decision or judgement (for example designing a bridge, responding to an opinion piece or understanding a political motivation).
People who apply critical thinking consistently are said to have a critical thinking mindset, but no one is born this way. These are attributes which are learnt and improved through practice and application.
In the academic context, critical thinking is most commonly associated with arguments. You might be asked to think critically about other people's arguments or create your own. To become a better critical thinker, you therefore need to learn how to:
- clarify your thinking purpose and context
- question your sources of information
- identify arguments
- analyse sources and arguments
- evaluate the arguments of others and
- create or synthesise your own arguments.
As the image illustrates, critical thinking skills and attributes are interconnected and need to work together for your critical thinking to be effective.
Six key steps to developing your critical thinking skills and mindset View
1. Clarify your thinking purpose and context. We live in a world oversaturated with information of varying quality and relevance. To be an effective critical thinker, you need to focus on your own purpose and context, so that you can avoid information overload and keep track of your own line of thinking. Find out more here.
2. Question your sources. Not all sources of information are equally credible, accurate or relevant. Questioning your sources will sharpen your thinking, help you select the most appropriate information and prepare the ground for further analysis and evaluation. Find out more here.
3. Identify arguments. Arguments can be found everywhere. Whenever somebody is trying to show that something is true, or persuade somebody else to agree with them, you can identify an argument. As a student, you will find that the ability to identify arguments is one of the most useful critical thinking skills. Find out more here.
4. Analyse sources and arguments. To analyse something means to examine it in detail, explain and interpret it. For the purposes of critical thinking you need to be able to examine sources, arguments, theories and processes, and explain how they work. Good analysis also involves examining, interpreting and explaining the interaction of evidence, reasoning, assumptions, methodologies, claims and arguments. Find out more here.
5. Evaluate the arguments of others. Evaluation should consider and explain the relative strengths and weaknesses of your sources and the arguments they present. You need to be able to evaluate arguments, the claims that support those arguments, the evidence that supports those claims and the reasoning that connects them all. Find out more here.
6. Create your own arguments. Creating arguments consists of bringing together evidence, reasoning and claims and developing your own main claim. Creating arguments is also called synthesis, which means “placing things together.” When you create arguments, you bring together the insights from your analysis and evaluation. You also consider how your critical thinking might apply in the broader context, and what new insights and perspectives it brings. Find out more here.
Examples of critical thinking skills, mindsets and practices
Below are four examples of critical thinking skills, mindsets and practices. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all critical thinking skills because the skills you use will depend on your specific context.
How do I apply questioning skills?
- I question the relevance and reliability of what I hear, read or see.
- I question the authority and purpose of what I hear, read or see.
How do I apply a questioning mindset?
- I am inquisitive and curious.
- I always seek the truth, rather than accepting things without questioning.
What does good questioning look like in practice?
- A student reads an academic paper and decides it is suitable to include in their essay as it was published recently by an expert in that specific field and the author’s findings were generated by the most reliable method.
- A person reads a newspaper article editorial and realises the author is not an expert in the field and the arguments they present are intended to persuade the reader to vote for (or against) a certain political party.
- A dietitian advises their patient against the advice the patient has read on the internet stating the benefits of hot chocolate as the dietitian recognises that the research was conducted by a confectionery manufacturer.
How do I apply analytical skills?
- I carefully examine ideas and information.
- I systematically consider all aspects of a problem and look at each element in its wider context.
How do I apply an analytical mindset?
- I make connections between ideas.
What does analysis look like in practice?
- A student breaks down a film into its scenes and compares the choices the director has made with a variety of established film making theories and social science literature to discuss how the film makes a social commentary on a contemporary issue.
- A person watches a news editorial and compares each claim the journalist makes with evidence generated by not-for-profit organisations, which clearly state their agenda to provide accurate data on climate change.
- An epidemiologist collects all the survey data on behaviours during a pandemic and compares each behaviour pattern with the spread of the disease in different areas.
How do I apply evaluation skills?
- I recognise (and avoid) flaws of reasoning.
- I consider what is implied in what I see, hear and read.
How do I apply an evaluation mindset?
- I compare different viewpoints and arguments, and point out their strengths and weaknesses.
What does evaluation look like in practice?
- A student writing a persuasive essay checks they have presented the opposing side of their argument and finds well reasoned evidence to change their point of view and rewrite their essay.
- When listening to a radio commentator’s response to gender diversity in the workplace a person realises the commentator criticises the advocate of the policy and never addresses their argument.
- A psychology researcher collects data from hundreds of participants to prove their hypothesis about the correlation between gun violence and video games, but upon processing their data finds their hypothesis was rejected. The researcher then discloses that their hypothesis was not supported by the data in a respected academic journal.
How do I apply synthesis skills?
- I use logic and reason to formulate my conclusions and arguments.
- I use strong evidence, based on analysis and evaluation, to support my conclusions.
How do I apply a synthesis mindset?
- I consider the bigger picture or context, and use strong evidence and reason to formulate my conclusions, decisions, judgements and arguments.
What does synthesis look like in practice?
- A student conducts a literature review comparing the arguments for and against assisted death in terminally ill patients. They develop the argument that policy at a federal level is required, and logically connect their argument to several recent academic papers and reliable government reports.
- A parent chooses to vaccinate their child against COVID-19 after reading about the benefits and risks in a piece written by a well respected immunologist in The Conversation, and after discussing the decision with their general practitioner.
- A mechanical engineer challenges their supervisor’s approach to the design of a medical device by providing a summary of the experimental data they have collected.