Without realising it, you engage in critical thinking in normal life.
When you decide to buy a new car you search for information to help you make your decision. You take reviews from different sources and information from car salespeople and determine their value. You may detect bias in the Nissan salesperson’s advice when they try to persuade you not to buy a Volkswagen from down the road.
You make judgements on the reviews you read and guess some of them are sponsored. You then weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of your options before making your logical decision.
But critical thinking in your studying can feel like a bit of a minefield.
Improving your critical thinking WILL have a positive impact on your university grades. These skills provide the foundation for university writing and allow you to pass higher-level modules.
This blog post describes critical thinking, why it’s important and, most importantly, HOW to use it to write better essays and get higher grades.
But first, sign up to my free resource library where you can download the free critical thinking guide and checklists I've created for you AND tons of other printables and worksheets to help you become a happier, more confident and more successful student.
But what is critical thinking?
Critical thinking requires you to maintain objectivity, seek all sides of an argument and question ideas and assumptions rather than seeing them as fact. It is the process of evaluating and critiquing information to make judgements on its value.
Benefits of critical thinking
Students with critical thinking skills can:
· Critique information to identify its strengths and limitations
· Weigh up different sides of an argument and draw conclusions
· Compare and contrast ideas
· Defend arguments and claims against bias, lack of evidence or missing information
· Identify the links between information
· Make logical decisions faster
· Make judgements on the value of a claim and its supporting evidence
· Dive deeper behind claims to judge the objectivity of the author
· Form strong arguments
· Achieve higher grades!
Is critical thinking necessary?
There will be assessments and subjects where critical thinking isn’t really necessary:
· Multiple choice exams
· Mathematical or scientific calculations
· Memorisation tests e.g. for language vocabulary.
But there’s many more instances where critical thinking is required.
· Essays answering a question or responding to a statement
· Reflective assignments
· Report writing
· Typing up a report of a study or lab test
· During a debate
· Analysing a case study
· Answering essay-style exam questions.
Do you need to improve your critical thinking?
If you’ve received essay feedback like this, you might need to improve your critical thinking skills:
· 'Too much description and not enough analysis or evaluation'
· 'Made some illogical speculative assumptions'
· 'Some points without evidence to support them'
· 'Some sections are confusing and don’t flow'
· 'You started to dig under the surface but stopped'
· 'So what? What does your argument show?'
· 'Your conclusions don’t answer the question'
· 'You’ve repeated the textbook instead of evaluating the material'
· 'Your conclusion is weak.'
In your first year of university you may come across a model and be asked to describe it and apply it to a situation.
In your second year you may look at the same model but be asked to recognise some of its strengths and weaknesses.
In your third year you may be asked to evaluate the usefulness of the same model, considering its context, the author’s background and aims, gaps in its theory, comparisons with other models…etc.
What is expected of you increases throughout university.
Your tutors expect you to think for yourself, create strong, logical arguments and dig under the surface of claims and information.
But, universities don’t always teach you how to improve your critical thinking skills.
If you continue writing your essays in the same way you may be left behind.
Psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed a framework for classifying educational goals. This includes six categories of academic thinking skills ranging from simple to complex and lower-order to higher-order.
Higher-order thinking requires more brainpower than lower-order thinking and is similar to critical thinking. It involves the top three categories of thinking skills Bloom sets out in his framework – analysis, creation and evaluation.
1). First, you know about a theory. You can recall some of its details and the author’s name.
2). Then you comprehend the theory and can explain it to a friend in your own words.
3). Next, you learn to apply this theory to a situation or case study. You can explain how this theory could solve a problem.
4). Then you learn to analyse the theory. You understand each part and how they relate to each other.
5). After this, you learn how to evaluate this theory. What are its strengths and weaknesses? Are there any gaps? How useful is it for your situation?
6). Lastly, you learn how to create a new solution. You discover holes in the material and believe other theories are needed in combination to maximise the theory’s value. You’ve synthesised the information and generated something new.
How should you use critical thinking?
Below are the questions you need to ask when planning and completing your assignments. Some of these are questions to ask of the evidence you’re using and some are to ask yourself about your own writing.
Questions of analysis
Is the evidence and material recent?
This may or may not be relevant for your subject so check with your tutor. An article from the 1980s may be valuable for some subjects but out-dated for engineering or science-based subjects. Are there environmental changes that make the information less relevant?
Are there any issues with the methodology?
If you’re using a study as evidence, check its methodology is sound. Are the sample sizes appropriate? Is the sample representative of the population or has bias been introduced? Are the experiments logical with suitable variables?
Who is the author?
An author’s background and experience influences their research and can affect the usefulness of their material in other contexts. Ask yourself, why did the author write this? What is their history?
For example, Alfred Chandler was a famous business strategist and Harvard professor. He believed companies should adapt to fit environmental changes.
A non-critical thinker may take this opinion as fact and apply it to their future studies.
However, a critical thinking student will investigate whether Chandler’s work is biased or one-sided. Chandler’s opinions stem from research he conducted on four large US manufacturing companies in the 1960s. Therefore, you could draw the conclusion Chandler’s findings may be less relevant to the business strategies of smaller companies, those in different industries, or those in other countries.
Can you spot any gaps?
Do you have any unanswered questions when reading the material?
Similarly, when you read over your essay, have you given enough information to the reader?
Have assumptions been made?
Check your writing for assumptions that may be incorrect, illogical or biased. Do the same for the material you’re using.
Questions of application
What problems does the concepts/information solve or explain?
What are the strengths of the material? How can you apply it to answer the essay question?
Can you think of situations and problems where the concepts don’t work or aren’t useful?
For instance, for a business question, does the concept apply to both large and small companies, new and old, bureaucratic and innovative companies, companies all over the world (or just those in a specific country), public sector and private sector companies, profit and non-profit companies?
Does the argument flow?
Does your essay take the reader on a journey? Your essay needs to lay out its points in the right order so the argument builds and leads logically to the conclusion.
Correlation vs. causation
Correlation between two variables does not mean one results in the other. It is important to engage in critical thinking when assessing the value of a claim or statement.
Tyler Vigen has a blog where he finds ridiculous correlations in public data in the U.S. He found a 94.7% correlation between ‘per capita cheese consumption’ and the ‘number of people who died becoming tangled in their bedsheets’.
Tyler also found 99.26% correlation between the ‘divorce rate in Maine’ and the ‘per capita consumption of margarine’.
I can’t imagine eating margarine affects your likelihood of divorce, or that the more cheese you eat the more likely you are to die wrapped in your bedsheets. This is a reminder to check your claims, and those of the authors you want to use, for inaccurate causation statements.
Questions of evaluation
Are all sides of the argument considered?
Is your writing balanced? Have you covered different perspectives to strengthen your arguments?
Likewise, is the material you’re using complete? Have some viewpoints been ignored or disregarded too easily.
Are the conclusions accurate and logical?
Your conclusions should make sense from the evidence and not come as a surprise to the reader. While editing your essay list your key points and findings and use these to create your conclusion.
Also, check the conclusions in the material you’ve used are sound. Has the study drawn accurate conclusions from its findings?
Does your answer require a synthesis of ideas?
Are there gaps in a theory that should be filled with another one? Should a combination of approaches or theories be used? Is further research required?
The Positioning approach to strategy explains strategy creation should be externally focused. In contrast the RBV approach believes strategy creation should be internally focused. Both theories provide a partial view and after applying critical thinking – you can determine both approaches should be combined and applied.
Critical thinking in your writing
When you take notes with critical thinking in mind your essays become easier to write. You’ll already have ideas you can turn into a logical, objective argument.
Below I explain four critical thinking writing tools.
1. Do you understand your essay question?
To write a good essay you first need to have a clear understanding of what the question or statement requires from you. So the first step is to pull apart your essay question to work out the meaning of the ‘directive words’. You can match these words to the level of Bloom’s triangle of thinking to see how much critical thinking you must apply.
I’ve created a list of 18 essay directives with explanations for each one. This is included in the free guide for this post.
2. Linking words and signposting
Critical thinking requires you to address the different sides of an argument and evaluate evidence and claims. This becomes a lot easier if you use signposts and linking words in your writing.
Signposts answer the reader’s questions before they ask it and show you’re in control of your essay structure.
· ‘This essay aims to…’
· ‘To further understand the importance of organisational structure …’
· ‘The above evidence demonstrates …’
Linking words show the progression of your argument and the relationship between ideas.
· Additionally, …
· Similarly, …
· Nevertheless, …
· On the other hand, …
· For example, …
· Therefore, …
· In conclusion, …
· To summarise, …
3. Interweaving module themes
Some modules have key themes running through the material, linking the key ideas. A key theme in a business module could be complexity, or diversity in a social sciences module. If the module guidance or learning outcomes asks you to refer to these themes then include them in your writing where applicable.
4. Hedging language
Critical thinking requires unbiased, logical reasoning. Claims should not be made that can easily be dismissed so ‘hedging’ language should be used to show caution and protect your claims. An example from a previous blog post is this.
High unemployment causes crime to rise.
High unemployment may be a contributing factor to an increase in crime.
The second sentence uses the ‘hedging’ term ‘may’ to indicate the strength of the claim. It is important to check the reasoning of your claims so you don’t make incorrect inferences or assumptions. ‘Hedging’ language is useful in critical thinking to make claims that are proportionate to the strength of the evidence – which increases the objectivity of your writing.
Where you might find critical thinking difficult
Critical thinking takes time to perfect.
At first it’s going to be difficult to question rather than accept the material. But practice and you’ll soon develop the objectivity of academic writing
Critical thinking requires more effort.
You can’t passively read your textbooks or listen to a lecture. Instead you have to actively engage in and judge the merits of the material.
If you’ve found this blog post useful I’d be grateful if you could share it with a fellow student.
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