Critical thinking

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” Albert Einstein

(Frank, 1948, p. 185)

At university you may be instructed to consider, justify, reason, argue, critically appraise, identify, analyse or evaluate. Such instructions provide you with the opportunity to engage your 'critical spirit' and practise your critical thinking skills.

Monash University wants you to be a critical and creative scholar and employers demand employees who possess critical thinking skills.

But what does critical thinking mean, and how do you do it?

Answering these questions is the goal of this tutorial. You will start learning how to train the mind to think by deconstructing critical thinking and its processes.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not about being negative. The term critical comes from the Greek word kritikos meaning discerning. So critical thinking is a deeper kind of thinking in which we do not take things for granted but question, analyse and evaluate what we read, hear, say, or write. It is a general term used to identify essential mindsets and skills that contribute to effective decision making. While there are many definitions for critical thinking, here is one that covers its essential aspects:

Critical thinking seeks to identify reliable information and make reliable judgements. It encompasses mindset and skills, both of which can be developed through an understanding of key concepts, practice and application.

Who are critical thinkers?

Think about an individual or group of people who you consider to be critical thinkers. Ask yourself two questions:

  1. How would you describe each of these individuals?
  2. What exactly do they do that identifies them as critical thinkers?

The people below will help you get started (Click on them to reveal more information).

What mindsets and skills do critical thinkers possess?

With respect to the first question above, you may respond by describing critical thinkers by the mindsets they possess. These could include being:

  • inquisitive and curious, always seeking the truth
  • fair in their evaluation of evidence and others’ views
  • sceptical of information
  • perceptive and able to make connections between ideas
  • reflective and aware of their own thought processes
  • open minded and willing to have their beliefs challenged
  • using evidence and reason to formulate decisions
  • able to formulate judgements with evidence and reason.

Critical thinking experts describe such people as having “a critical spirit”, meaning that they have a “probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information” (The Delphi Research Method cited in Facione, 2011, p. 10).

The second question considers what critical thinkers do – the skills they display. You might say that a critical thinker:

  • questions everything, including existing social norms and traditions
  • thinks systematically, considering all aspects of a problem and looking at each element in its wider context
  • carefully examines ideas and information
  • looks beyond what may appear as obvious
  • uses evidence to support claims
  • uses logic and reason in their arguments
  • avoids making assumptions
  • can recognise (and avoid) logical fallacies
  • strives to be aware of their own cognitive biases
  • considers different perspectives
  • uses the above critical thinking skills to make judgements.

Are you a critical thinker?

How to use this tutorial

Critical thinking is a complex skill that requires practice. Don’t expect to read everything and suddenly become a critical thinker - it will take time. Just like a musician you will need to practise to improve your skill level. Your academic studies will provide you with the opportunity to practice these skills and this tutorial will assist you to understand the process. Explore the topics at your own pace, in the context of your unit requirements and the stage of your learning.

You may like to start at the first topic, Reasoning, but beware! The ‘stages’ of critical thinking are interdependent and cyclical. For example, if we are reasoning, we may also need to reflect on our own biases and analyse how these have impacted on our evaluation. To start, choose the main focus of your task and see where this takes you in the critical thinking process.

Click on a topic in the wheel below to get started.

Reasoning Identifying Analysing Evaluating Reflecting