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Developing critical thinking

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The ability to think critically is a key skill for academic success.

It means not taking what you hear or read at face value, but using your critical faculties to weigh up the evidence, and considering the implications and conclusions of what the writer is saying.

Imagine two situations. On the first, you are on a country walk and you come across a notice which tells you not to attempt to climb a fence because of risk of electrocution. Would you pause to consider before obeying this instruction? On the other hand, suppose you were to receive a letter from a local farmer announcing that he proposed to put up an electric fence to protect a certain field. In this case, would you not be more likely to think about his reasons for doing so and what the implications would be for you and your family? In the first case, you are thinking reactively and in the second, you are thinking critically.

An allied skill is the ability to analyse – that is, to read or listen for the following points:

  • How robust are the points presented as evidence?
  • Does the author have a coherent argument, and do the points follow through logically from one another or are their breaks in the sense?
    Can you spot flaws?
  • Is the conclusion clearly presented?
  • Are there signs of bias or persuasion in the language, such as use of emotional appeal, or indications that the author adheres to a particular school of thought or methodological perspective (an example here might be that of someone whose methodological approach was strongly quantitative, or qualitative)?
  • How do the views presented differ from those of others in the field?

The key to critical thinking is to develop an impersonal approach which looks at arguments and facts and which lays aside personal views and feelings. This is because academic discourse is based according to key principles which are described as follows by Northedge (2005):

  • Debate: arguing different points of view.
  • Scholarship: awareness of what else has been written, and citing it correctly.
  • Argument: developing points in a logical sequence which leads to a conclusion.
  • Criticism: looking at strengths and weaknesses.
  • Analysis: taking the argument apart, as described above.
  • Evidence: ensuring that the argument is backed by valid evidence.
  • Objectivity: the writing should be detached and unemotional and without direct appeal to the reader.
  • Precision: anything that does not assist the argument should be omitted.

Critical and analytical thinking should be applied at all points in academic study - to selecting information, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of these, learning to read and evaluate information critically is perhaps the most important skill, which if acquired can then be applied to other areas.

Selecting information critically

The first stage in reading critically is to exercise care in the information you use - how trustworthy is it? For printed material, consider:

  • For books, who is the publisher? Is it a reputable academic publisher? Is the book part of a series (in which case it will also have another layer of ‘quality control’, from the Series Editor).
  • For journal articles, does the article appear in an academic journal? (Your tutor should be able to tell you what the leading journals are in your field.)
  • For both, who is the author and does he or she come from a respectable academic organization?
  • How recent it the publication date, and are you using the latest edition of a textbook?

Particular care needs to be exercised when using information from the Internet. This will be the topic of another article on this site, but you need to consider relevance and in particular:

  • What is its source? Is it from a commercial or academic organization, and if the latter, is it from well-known one? (For example, when I looked up ‘critical thinking’ I got a lot of commercial sites who were trying to sell particular services such as software or consultancy.)
  • Is it written in an academic style, with references,
    substantiated claims etc.?
  • There are many journals which are published on the Internet. Not all of these are subject to the process of peer review, which involves the content being checked by people of standing.
  • When was it posted/updated?

Reading critcally

When reading academic texts, you need to employ certain procedures.

1. Identify the argument – what is the author’s main line of reasoning?

2. Analyse and criticize the argument:

  • Are the reasons sufficient, and are they valid to the argument, in other words do they support it, or would it be possible to draw other conclusions from them?
  • Does the author develop the argument in a logical and coherent fashion, i.e. premise/point A/point B/conclusion, avoiding confusing breaks in the logical flow?
  • Is the author’s logic always valid, or does he/she draw arguments from false premises, or are there flaws in the reasoning assuming a causal connection where none is justifiable or generalizing from too few examples?
  • Is the author’s style objective, or does he/she use emotive language, designed to get the reader’s sympathy, for example, words or phrases such as cruel, inhuman, Golden Age?

3. Assess the evidence:

  • What is it – statistics, surveys, case studies, findings from experiment are all examples of evidence that may be presented.
  • Is it valid? Validity may be affected by external criteria such as the source (for example an article from an academic journal is likely to be more reliable than one from a newspaper) or by the particular bias of the party concerned (for example if a women’s hospital is resisting closure, look carefully at evidence of other women’s services in the area). You should also examine the intrinsic qualities of the evidence, for example how recent are case studies? How robust are experiments? How large and representative is the survey? Is evidence anecdotal (for example, stories of one person being cured from a particular treatment are less impressive than clinical trials)?

4. What are the conclusions, and are they supported by the evidence? It may be possible to present what appears to be flawless research, which may yet not justify the conclusions. A good example here is the ongoing debate on child care, and whether mothers are better off at home looking after their children themselves. In the 1950s, John Bowlby presented good arguments why mothers should stay at home, which was subsequently reputed by later researchers, whilst the stay at home argument is now making a return. The studies themselves may not present valid evidence and need to be seen against other trends, such as the need to ensure full male employment after the war, the rise of feminism, and women’s desire for choice over whether or not they work.

5. What are the alternatives? Look at the author’s work from different perspectives - how does the view presented differ from others? Does the author have a particular agenda, revealed (as in the case of a particular view of research, see above) or hidden (for example, particular reasons, political or other, for arguing a case)? Does the evidence really lead to the conclusions offered or might there be other explanations (see the example in 4 above).

Air traffic in the Southeast of the country is becoming increasingly great, there are three airports and the plan is to expand the airport at Lutwick to ease congestion at the other airports and help with the expected tripling of demand by 2030 (1). Pollution from aircraft is one of the biggest problems of our times. (2) A recent survey of local residents by the Lutwick Times showed that 60 per cent of local residents would oppose the plan. (3) Lutwick was severely bombed in the war (4), and has suffered enough (5) without the further incursion of gridlocked motorways which would result from the enlarged airport. (6) Forecasts show that many more houses will be affected by noise pollution than with other airports, that the projected increase in jobs is dubious, and that flooding may result from hard surface run-off (7). We must therefore oppose the plans and press for an environmental impact tax on aviation (8).

A critique of the above passage

  1. The first sentence is a descriptive statement: unclear what the author’s premise is.
  2. The second sentence is a non sequitur - there is no explicit link with the first statement.
  3. A survey is a piece of evidence, but how reliable is the source, 60 per cent of what number and when was the survey carried out?
  4. That Lutwick was bombed during the war is a non sequitur, and is not essential to the case.
  5. This is emotive language.
  6. This assumes a causal connection between the enlarged airport and congested motorways, but there may be other reasons why motorways are congested.
  7. These statements constitute evidence, but they are not substantiated, referenced or quantified. What forecasts, how many more houses over what area, where will the flooding be and why will it result from hard surface run-off?
  8. The conclusion is clearly stated, but its first part (that plans must be opposed) clearly shows the bias of the writer, and the second part (the environmental impact tax) does not necessarily follow from the evidence, which is specific to a particular location. In order to arrive at that conclusion it is necessary to report evidence on a more general link between flights and the environment, to argue for the practicality of the tax looking at opposing arguments such as would it price air travel out of some people’s reach and would this be a bad thing?

Writing Critically

Much has been written elsewhere on this site about the writing process, so we will only make brief reference here. Planning is the key: if you organize your ideas carefully in your plan, you will be clearer what you have to write.

You need to employ the same critical judgement to your own writing as you do to that of other people, although it can be more difficult to assess your own work! In particular:

  • Check your line of reasoning is clear – start out by stating what you propose to do, organize your information in a logical pattern, and reach a clear and substantiated conclusion.
  • Ensure that the evidence you use is valid according to the criteria set out above, under Reading critically.
  • Be aware of the difference between descriptive writing, which tells a story, using statements, explanation and lists etc., and analytical writing, which presents an argument, giving reasons, weighing up information, and drawing conclusions.

Listening and speaking critically

Much of learning is carried out by dialogue, and by tossing ideas around, but you can’t expect yourself or others always to substantiate with the same degree of rigour as in writing! However, listen out in yourself and other people for inconsistencies and contradictions; if you are in a seminar, notice how ideas are ‘developed’ through dialogue, how your ideas fit in or contradict with those of others, etc. Be as prepared to ask questions as you are to listen, for example if someone offers a point of view about a particular author or text, don’t be afraid to challenge them to substantiate their claim. You will also need to put forward a reasoned argument, which will help develop your thinking skills, particularly as verbal debate proceeds at a more rapid pace than writing or reading, which are mostly solitary activities. Remember, too, that you have extra ‘data’ in the form of body language - does the latter fit in with what they are saying, or are you noticing contradictory signals, for example, a raised eyebrow?

Reference

  • Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK