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Critical thinking 101

Your thinking affects every area of your life. It determines where you dedicate your limited energy and resources. Developing good critical thinking skills is an important part of healthy living.

What is critical thinking?

A practical way to explore critical thinking is through the framework developed by Richard Paul and Linda Elder. Paul and Elder define critical thinking as “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.” In other words, a critical thinker applies intellectual standards to the elements of thought.

The benefits of good critical thinking skills

Your thinking affects every area of your life. Building high-quality critical thinking skills can benefit you in many ways:

  • Improve your physical health: The knowledge and beliefs you have about a behaviour (e.g. getting sufficient sleep) strongly influence whether or not you will engage in that behaviour. Unfortunately, much of the information we are exposed to is inaccurate, superficial, incomplete, irrelevant, illogical or misleading. Good critical thinking skills help you sift out bad information from good so that you can base your health behaviours on substantiated and justifiable information.
    For example, many students sacrifice sleep in order to have more study time; sometimes even “pulling all-nighters." They do so because they believe that more study time leads to better grades. They also believe that caffeine helps them stay up all night so they can study more. However, a good critical thinker will examine these beliefs and conclude that spending lots of time studying does not necessarily translate to better grades. Rather, it is the quality of the studying that is most important. No amount of time or caffeine can overcome poor study habits. A good critical thinker will also determine that lack of sleep interferes with academic performance and negatively affects health. 
  • Improve your mental health: Many mental health issues (including anxiety, stress, and depression) are a result of ineffective ways of thinking. A type of therapy called cognitive therapy (CT) has been found very effective at helping people manage mental health problems. The basis of CT is to help a person identify unhelpful thoughts and change them into helpful ones. Essentially, CT helps build critical thinking skills, and it is these high-quality critical thinking skills that prevent many mental health problems in the first place.
  • Enhance your academics: The main goal of education is to help students learn how to think. Exams, papers, assignments, presentations, tests and labs are some of the approaches that professors use to evaluate your ability to think critically. You are mostly tested on your ability to problem solve, apply concepts, identify associations, compare and contrast ideas etc., all of which are improved through good critical thinking. By improving your critical thinking skills, you will also improve your performance on tests, exams, papers etc.
  • Focus your resources: A good critical thinker focuses her time, money, energy and other resources towards endeavours that are valid and worthwhile, not towards those that waste these precious resources.
  • Enhance your sense of personal control: If you don’t critically examine your beliefs, they are not your own. By building good critical thinking skills you can determine your own beliefs and be in control of what you do. 
  • It’s better for mankind: Prejudice and discrimination are a result of very poor critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is an important skill for ethical living. 

Improve your critical thinking skills

A practical way to explore critical thinking is through the framework developed by Richard Paul and Linda Elder. You can learn more about this framework on the website criticalthinking.org, which has some free material; however, users need to pay a membership fee to access all content. A great resource is their book Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of your Professional and Personal Life. The second edition of this book is available as an eBook through the Concordia libraries. (Hint: Select "view e-book" and then select the option "Not listed? Click here." (the first option) in the "Select your institution" dropdown. Then enter your Concordia e-mail to view the e-book.)

In Paul and Elder's framework, building good critical thinking skills requires applying intellectual standards to the elements (structures) of thought. These are listed below. You can obtain more detailed information about these in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 of the e-book listed above.

The elements of thought are the components of thought that are present every time we think...whether we think critically or not. The elements of thought are:

  • Purpose: Why am I thinking about this? What am I trying to achieve?
  • Questions: What question(s) am I asking?
  • Information: Data, facts, observations, experiences.
  • Inferences: Interpretations, conclusions, solutions.
  • Concepts: Theories, definitions, axioms, laws, principles, models.
  • Assumptions: What am I taking for granted? What assumptions am I making?
  • Implications: Consequences of thinking this way.
  • Point of view: Frame of reference, perspective.

 

The intellectual standards are the tools (criteria) to assess the elements of thought. They can be applied to all of the elements. The intellectual standards are listed below with examples of how they can be applied to the elements of thought:

  • Clarity: Understandable, the meaning can be grasped.
    • Is my purpose clear? 
    • Am I clear about my assumptions? 
    • Is my question clear?
  • Accuracy: Free from errors or distortions, true.
    • Can I accurately state my purpose? 
    • Am I accurate about my inferences? 
    • Is the information I am using accurate?
  • Precision: Exact to the necessary level of detail.
    • Is my purpose precise? 
    • Have I precisely stated my assumptions? 
    • Can I precisely state my point of view?
  • Relevance: Relates to the matter at hand.
    • Is my question a relevant one?
    • Am I using concepts that are relevant to my question?
    • Is the information I am using relevant to my question?
  • Depth: Contains complexities and multiple interrelationships.
    • Do the assumptions I am using have enough depth?
    • Is there depth in the inferences I am making?
    • Does the information I am using have enough depth?
  • Breadth: Considers multiple viewpoints.
    • Do the assumptions I am using have enough breadth?
    • Does the information I am using have enough breadth?
    • Do the implications I have identified have enough breadth?
    • Do I need to consider another point of view?
  • Logic: The parts make sense together, no contradictions.
    • Is my question logical?
    • Is this information logical?
    • Are my inferences logical?
  • Significance: Focuses on the important, not trivial.
    • Are the concepts I am using significant?
    • Is the question I am asking a significant one?
    • Are the inferences I am making significant?
  • Fairness: Justifiable, not self-serving or one-sided.
    • Have I fairly included all the information?
    • Am I fair in my conclusions?
    • Is the question a fair one? Do I have a bias for one side or the other?

Traits to develop to become a better critical thinker

One way to build critical thinking skills is to apply intellectual standards to the structures of thought, as described by Paul and Elder. However, they point out that a person must develop intellectual traits that support building critical thinking skills. These traits are summarized below. Learn more about them at criticalthinking.org.

  • Intellectual humility: A good critical thinker is aware of the limits of their knowledge (e.g. biases). They know that they don’t know everything.
  • Intellectual courage: A good critical thinker challenges their beliefs and ideas, even when they may be emotionally valuable to them.
  • Intellectual empathy: A good critical thinker is able to consider the viewpoints of others.  
  • Intellectual autonomy: A good critical thinker is in charge of the development of their beliefs and understanding. They don’t passively accept information as fact; they examine it for themselves. They seek out information for themselves rather than wait for someone else to hand it to them.
  • Intellectual integrity: A good critical thinker treats their own ideas by the same standards that they treat other peoples' ideas.
  • Intellectual perseverance: A good critical thinker does not give up when faced with a problem that is not easily resolved or figured out. They hold to intellectual standards steadfastly.  

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