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Becoming a critical thinker

 

How do I become a critical thinker?

Critical thinking doesn’t just happen. It takes time to develop and practice the necessary combination of knowledge, skills and attitude.

As a critical thinker, you will:

  • ask questions
  • analyse and evaluate information/theories/practice
  • be aware of your own biases, beliefs and values

In developing your skills as a critical and independent thinker at university, the following traits are important.

 

It takes a conscious effort to develop a critical attitude. Before you can think critically, you need to be aware of what’s stopping you. Attitudes that prevent us from thinking critically include the following:

  • I want you to tell me what I need to know, not figure it out myself.
  • I ‘know’ what is right so I don’t have to think about it.
  • I don't usually try to think about why things happen the way they do.
  • I’m not an expert but this other person is, so I can’t say anything.
  • I don't like to be criticised.
  • I don’t want to get into an argument.
  • I don’t want to be disrespectful.

Reflecting on your learning is a useful activity that can help you develop a more critical attitude. It allows you to think deeply about your experiences of learning and the attitudes you bring to it. Critical or academic reflection is a common assessment task at university.

An advertising man

All arguments try to persuade you to a point of view. Everything you see, hear or read is an argument attempting to persuade you to believe or do something. Advertising is an obvious example of persuasion. However, authors of academic texts are also trying to persuade you to agree with their ideas and conclusions.

The main idea of an argument is called the contention. This is the ‘claim’ the author is making. The contention can be anywhere within the overall argument and can usually be identified by asking the following question:

  • What is the author expecting me to do or think as a result of this argument?

The persuasiveness of the claim can be evaluated by asking additional questions:

  • Is the language appealing to my emotions or beliefs?
  • Is the author being reasonable in what they expect to happen?

A contention needs to be supported by relevant, reliable, credible, sufficient and current evidence.

If there is no evidence, it isn’t an argument - it is only an opinion, a description, or an explanation.

Question the evidence the author has used.

  • Does the evidence provided support the argument?
  • How credible (trustworthy) is the evidence?
  • Has enough evidence been presented?
  • Does it come from different sources?
  • Are there any missing links between the evidence and the author’s contention?
  • Is the evidence current?
  • Is there other evidence available that might challenge the evidence used?

A man is reading news about 'No Climate Change!', and some quotes pop out such as 'temperatures this winter have been very cold, therefore global warming isn't happening.','humans are not responsible for climate change because it's always changed.'

Take notice of linking words and phrases which demonstrate cause/reason, effect/results, to help identify the evidence used to support the argument.

See more about Linking words in Learning Lab.
A man with a question mark over the head.

Sometimes we assume the answer or reason we have given is ‘obvious’ or ‘common sense’. This is because we believe (often incorrectly) that other people think and feel the same as we do. Assumptions come from our personal beliefs and values; they may be justified, or not. Often assumptions are also unstated or ‘hidden’ because the writer feels it is unnecessary to explain.

Weak or false arguments are based on incorrect assumptions and poor reasoning, and are not well-supported by credible evidence.

Use the following series of questions to critically analyse an argument:

Has the author used words that might have more than one meaning?

  • Has a context been provided for all words or terms used?
  • Have those words been used consistently or is there ambiguity?

Has the author linked one element or situation in their argument to another?

  • Is the link appropriate?
  • Is the comparison relevant?

Does the author apply general principles or personal experience to a specific example?

  • Is the general principle or personal experience relevant to the example?

Is the argument calling for a particular course of action?

  • What might be the possible consequences of such action?

Be aware that arguments based on faulty reasoning can still be persuasive. Providing evidence does not always mean an argument is sound or reasonable.