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Practicing Critical Thinking as a Student

African man working on laptop while engaging in critical thinking skills Have you ever heard the phrase critical thinking? What does it mean to you? For some people, the word ‘critical’ might evoke feelings of negativity. It might suggest that you have to pick things apart and be judgmental. In a way it does, however thinking about things ‘critically’ means a lot more than being a grouch.

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘critical thinking’?

Critical thinking is an active process of learning and engaging with the surrounding environment. Having essential skills of thinking allows us to make decisions about life and provides the opportunity for us to participate in the world around us fully.

According to John Dewey, an American philosopher, critical thinking involves a process of reflective thought. Dewey believed that to learn and become an active member of society, students must be actively engaged in the process of learning as opposed to being passive receivers of information. Dewey’s philosophy involved the perspective that committed, critical education was a consistent process throughout life, and that knowledge is a fundamental component of social progress and reform. In other words, he felt that critical thinking was a key component of learning.

Critical thinking is a skill we engage in every day. Whenever we make any decision, we are using critical thinking. So, it makes sense that we can apply this to our academic work as well. However, in university and college, critical thinking has a broader meaning

Being critical means making informed or educated judgments about social issues, literature, math, and so on. It can also mean distinguishing between fact and opinion. It involves determining the validity of theories and considering how to apply these theories to practice. When we make academic judgments, they must be well grounded in appropriate research. Critical thinking skills allow us to consider an issue from all sides. Through the process of critical thinking, we create a synthesis of all available information, and then we apply it to the decision making process.

Critical thinking is a necessary component of academia because it allows for the development of new information and knowledge. In academia, we are essentially learning to question all information while looking for ways to continue to challenge the data to create further research.

As a critically thinking student, it is crucial to incorporate the process into your reading, note-taking, essay writing, and presentations. These skills are also essential for anyone in a professional degree and can contribute to developing your practice.

Critical thinking doesn’t only apply to academia; it can also help us to navigate our daily lives as well. When we enhance our critical thinking skills, we can improve our decision-making processes and make stronger decisions based on accounting for all information.

Remember, most of our everyday thinking is uncritical. We generally go through our days without thinking through every step. However, there is a time and a place where critical thinking should be employed. But, how do we learn to enhance our natural critical thinking skills?

Ask Basic Questions

As we know, our social world, as well as the content we take in as students, often appears complicated. However, we can begin by merely asking simple questions. When an answer to a question becomes difficult, it starts to lose meaning.

Here are some basic questions that you can apply in your academic writing that will help keep things simple:

● What do you already know?

● How do you know that?

● What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrate, critique?

● What are you overlooking?

When beginning a paper or another assignment and the information seems complex, start with these simple questions and create an outline. Working from a critical perspective does not have to be difficult, and sometimes the best solutions come from the most natural process.

Question Basic Assumptions

When you are writing a paper or thinking through a problem, you do not want to base your analysis only on what you know. We all have basic assumptions which inform our everyday lives. Academic quality work must extend beyond basic assumptions towards analysis and synthesis of information. Check your assumptions at the door and do some research with an open mind.

We all have ways of making life simpler. These are called heuristics or otherwise, mental shortcuts. While these techniques were helpful when we were hunter-gatherers, we now live in a society that calls for critical thinking. When you are writing a paper or working on an exam, make sure to have a one up on your mental biases, so they will not lead you astray.

Reading more, becoming educated, and becoming more informed about how others think can allow us to understand our cognitive biases more readily.

Remember to Think for Yourself

Although you will be drawing on academic literature and information when you do your research and write papers, it is also important to remember to think for yourself. While this does not mean incorporating your biases into your writing, it means that you must analyze a situation using a critical lens.

Go back and ask those basic questions. What is missing? Is there a gap? What is this research saying? Does it make sense concerning other research on the topic? Think through the literature using your power of deduction. You will write a stronger paper, and your professor will be able to see that you can do more than regurgitate the literature.

Man reading intensely on laptop

John Dewey truly believed in the values of students learning to think for themselves. He warned against the tendency towards training people to fit into boxes in society, fearing that it would omit the potential for social growth and democratic development. A great quote from Dewey captures his sense of the value of critical thinking:

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

As an active contemporary leader in the realm of critical thinking, TED-Ed has developed a five-step process to help improve critical thinking skills. The following is a summation of the process, however, for more on the topic, TED-ed has developed an accessible video.

TED-Ed’s 5-Step Process for Critical Thinking:

1. Formulate your question. In an academic setting, this looks like creating a thesis statement or hypothesis.

2. Gather your information. Do your research/review the literature.

3. Apply the information. Ask yourself what concepts are included? What assumptions are made? Consider if your interpretation is logically sound

4. Reflect on the implications of this information.

5. Explore other points of view.

Critical Thinking is a Part of Our Everyday

We participate in critical thinking every day. When we look out the door in the morning and see dark clouds, we might assume that it is going to rain later, so we choose to put on a raincoat. That is critical thinking. We can apply these same skills in academia by using the knowledge we already have to make sound arguments about data. As Dewey suggests, we are always engaged in the process of learning and critical thinking, whether it is inside the classroom or in our daily lives.

If you’re interested in the topic of critical thinking and you want to continue the conversation, check out our YouTube video: The Importance of Critical Thinking in Academia. If you’re in an advanced degree that calls for a higher level of critical thinking, consider drawing on the expertise of some of our Top Writers for some additional support.