When I was in 7th grade, my U.S. history teacher gave my class the following advice:
Your teachers in high school won’t expect you to remember every little fact about U.S. history. They can fill in the details you’ve forgotten. What they will expect, though, is for you to be able to think; to know how to make connections between ideas and evaluate information critically.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my teacher was giving a concise summary of critical thinking. My high school teachers gave similar speeches when describing what would be expected of us in college: it’s not about the facts you know, but rather about your ability to evaluate them.
And now that I’m in college, my professors often mention that the ability to think through and solve difficult problems matters more in the “real world” than specific content.
Despite hearing so much about critical thinking all these years, I realized that I still couldn’t give a concrete definition of it, and I certainly couldn’t explain how to do it. It seemed like something that my teachers just expected us to pick up in the course of our studies. While I venture that a lot of us did learn it, I prefer to approach learning deliberately, and so I decided to investigate critical thinking for myself.
What is it, how do we do it, why is it important, and how can we get better at it? This post is my attempt to answer those questions.
In addition to answering these questions, I’ll also offer seven ways that you can start thinking more critically today, both in and outside of class.
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
– The Foundation for Critical Thinking
The above definition from the Foundation for Critical Thinking website is pretty wordy, but critical thinking, in essence, is not that complex.
Critical thinking is just deliberately and systematically processing information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better. The above definition includes so many words because critical thinking requires you to apply diverse intellectual tools to diverse information.
Ways to critically think about information include:
That information can come from sources such as:
And all this is meant to guide:
You can also define it this way:
Critical thinking is the opposite of regular, everyday thinking.
Moment to moment, most thinking happens automatically. When you think critically, you deliberately employ any of the above intellectual tools to reach more accurate conclusions than your brain automatically would (more on this in a bit).
This is what critical thinking is. But so what?
Most of our everyday thinking is uncritical.
If you think about it, this makes sense. If we had to think deliberately about every single action (such as breathing, for instance), we wouldn’t have any cognitive energy left for the important stuff like D&D. It’s good that much of our thinking is automatic.
We can run into problems, though, when we let our automatic mental processes govern important decisions. Without critical thinking, it’s easy for people to manipulate us and for all sorts of catastrophes to result. Anywhere that some form of fundamentalism led to tragedy (the Holocaust is a textbook example), critical thinking was sorely lacking.
Even day to day, it’s easy to get caught in pointless arguments or say stupid things just because you failed to stop and think deliberately.
But you’re reading College Info Geek, so I’m sure you’re interested to know why critical thinking matters in college.
According to Andrew Roberts, author of The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, critical thinking matters in college because students often adopt the wrong attitude to thinking about difficult questions. These attitudes include:
Ignorant certainty is the belief that there are definite, correct answers to all questions–all you have to do is find the right source (102). It’s understandable that a lot of students come into college thinking this way–it’s enough to get you through most of your high school coursework.
In college and in life, however, the answers to most meaningful questions are rarely straightforward. To get anywhere in college classes (especially upper-level ones), you have to think critically about the material.
Naive relativism is the belief that there is no truth and all arguments are equal (102-103). According to Roberts, this is often a view that students adopt once they learn the error of ignorant certainty.
While it’s certainly a more “critical” approach than ignorant certainty, naive relativism is still inadequate since it misses the whole point of critical thinking: arriving at a more complete, “less wrong” answer.
Part of thinking critically is evaluating the validity of arguments (yours and others’). Therefore, to think critically you must accept that some arguments are better (and that some are just plain awful).
Critical thinking also matters in college because:
- It allows you to form your own opinions and engage with material beyond a superficial level. This is essential to crafting a great essay and having an intelligent discussion with your professors or classmates. Regurgitating what the textbook says won’t get you far.
- It allows you to craft worthy arguments and back them up. If you plan to go on to graduate school or pursue a PhD., original, critical thought is crucial
- It helps you evaluate your own work. This leads to better grades (who doesn’t want those?) and better habits of mind.
Doing college level work without critical is a lot like walking blindfolded: you’ll get somewhere, but it’s unlikely to be the place you desire.
The value of critical thinking doesn’t stop with college, however. Once you get out into the real world, critical thinking matters even more. This is because:
- It allows you to continue to develop intellectually after you graduate. Progress shouldn’t stop after graduation–you should keep learning as much as you can. When you encounter new information, knowing how to think critically will help you evaluate and use it.
- It helps you make hard decisions. I’ve written before about how defining your values helps you make better decisions. Equally important in the decision-making process is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking allows you compare the pros and cons of your available options, showing that you have more options than you might imagine.
- People can and will manipulate you. At least, they will if you take everything at face value and allow others to think for you. Just look at ads for the latest fad diet or “miracle” drug–these rely on ignorance and false hope to get people to buy something that is at best useless and at worst harmful. When you evaluate information critically (especially information meant to sell something), you can avoid falling prey to unethical companies and people.
- It makes you more employable (and better paid). The best employees not only know how to solve existing problems–they also know how to come up with solutions to problems no one ever imagined. To get a great job after graduating, you need to be one of those employees, and critical thinking is the key ingredient to solving difficult, novel problems.
Now we come to the part that I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for: how the heck do we get better at critical thinking? Below, you’ll find seven ways to get started.
1. Ask Basic Questions
“The world is complicated. But does every problem require a complicated solution?”
– Stephen J. Dubner
Sometimes an explanation becomes so complex that the original question get lost. To avoid this, continually go back to the basic questions you asked when you set out to solve the problem.
Here are a few key basic question you can ask when approaching any problem:
- What do you already know?
- How do you know that?
- What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrated, critique, etc.?
- What are you overlooking?
Some of the most breathtaking solutions to problems are astounding not because of their complexity, but because of their elegant simplicity. Seek the simple solution first.
2. Question Basic Assumptions
“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”
The above saying holds true when you’re thinking through a problem. it’s quite easy to make an ass of yourself simply by failing to question your basic assumptions.
Some of the greatest innovators in human history were those who simply looked up for a moment and wondered if one of everyone’s general assumptions was wrong. From Newton to Einstein to Yitang Zhang, questioning assumptions is where innovation happens.
You don’t even have to be an aspiring Einstein to benefit from questioning your assumptions. That trip you’ve wanted to take? That hobby you’ve wanted to try? That internship you’ve wanted to get? That attractive person in your World Civilizations class you’ve wanted to talk to?
All these things can be a reality if you just question your assumptions and critically evaluate your beliefs about what’s prudent, appropriate, or possible.
If you’re looking for some help with this process, then check out Oblique Strategies. It’s a tool that musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created to aid creative problem solving. Some of the “cards” are specific to music, but most work for any time you’re stuck on a problem.
3. Be Aware of Your Mental Processes
Human thought is amazing, but the speed and automation with which it happens can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. Our brains naturally use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to explain what’s happening around us.
This was beneficial to humans when we were hunting large game and fighting off wild animals, but it can be disastrous when we’re trying to decide who to vote for.
A critical thinker is aware of their cognitive biases and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions.
All of us have biases in our thinking. Becoming aware of them is what makes critical thinking possible.
4. Try Reversing Things
A great way to get “unstuck” on a hard problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X?
The “chicken and egg problem” a classic example of this. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. The chicken lays the egg, after all. But then you quickly realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it?
Even if it turns out that the reverse isn’t true, considering it can set you on the path to finding a solution.
5. Evaluate the Existing Evidence
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work that has been done in the same area. There’s no reason to start solving a problem from scratch when someone has already laid the groundwork.
It’s important, however, to evaluate this information critically, or else you can easily reach the wrong conclusion. Ask the following questions of any evidence you encounter:
- Who gathered this evidence?
- How did they gather it?
Take, for example, a study showing the health benefits of a sugary cereal. On paper, the study sounds pretty convincing. That is, until you learn that a sugary cereal company funded it.
You can’t automatically assume that this invalidates the study’s results, but you should certainly question them when a conflict of interests is so apparent.
6. Remember to Think for Yourself
Don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself–sometimes this can be your most powerful tool.
Writing about Einstein’s paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (the paper that contained the famous equation E=mc2), C.P. Snow observed that “it was as if Einstein ‘had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done'”(121).
Don’t be overconfident, but recognize that thinking for yourself is essential to answering tough questions. I find this to be true when writing essays–it’s so easy to get lost in other people’s work that I forget to have my own thoughts. Don’t make this mistake.
For more on the importance of thinking for yourself, check out our article on mental laziness.
7. Understand That No One Thinks Critically 100% of the Time
“Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought.”
– Michael Scriven and Richard Paul
You can’t think critically all the time, and that’s okay. Critical thinking is a tool that you should deploy when you need to make important decisions or solve difficult problems, but you don’t need to think critically about everything.
And even in important matters, you will experience lapses in your reasoning. What matters is that you recognize these lapses and try to avoid them in the future.
Even Isaac Newton, genius that he was, believed that alchemy was a legitimate pursuit.
As I hope you now see, learning to think critically will benefit you both in the classroom and beyond. I hope this post has given you some ideas about how you can think more critically in your own life. Remember: learning to think critically is a lifelong journey, and there’s always more to learn.
For a look at critical thinking principles in action, check out our guide to strategic thinking.
- The Thinking Student’s Guide to College by Andrew Roberts (the source of several of the seven ways to think more critically)
- What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (the source of several of the seven ways to think more critically)
- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (the source for the C.P. Snow quote about Einstein and the information about Isaac Newton).