Critical thinking

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See also Critical appraisal | Critical theory in librarianship | Paulo Freire | Journal clubs | Occam's razor | Research Portal for Academic Librarians | Teaching library users

"...critical thinking is an intellectually disciplined process of actively 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. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness." — Foundation for critical thinking

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate ideas (especially in academia) critically through questioning, reasoning and reflective techniques. Critical thinking gives consideration to evaluating evidence, context and other salient considerations. The process of critical thinking should promote the adoption of rational views based on balanced or reasoned conclusions. While critical thinking provides room for adjustment to one's position, disagreements occur between critical thinkers; critical thinking asks its proponents to employ logic and intellectual criteria such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, significance and fairness in argumentation. Fisher & Scriven define critical thinking as "...the skilled, active, interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications, information and argumentation." Moore defines it as the careful determination of whether one will accept, reject or suspend judgment about a claim or argument. In contemporary use "critical" has the connotation of expressing disapproval but this is not necessarily the case with critical thinking. The critical evaluation of a paper, for example, might conclude that its ideas and conclusions are expressed reasonably well despite elements which do not hold up to close scrutiny.

According to Papp et al (2014)...."Critical thinking is essential to a health professional's competence to assess, diagnose, and care for patients. Defined as the ability to apply higher-order cognitive skills (conceptualization, analysis, evaluation) and the disposition to be deliberate about thinking (being open-minded or intellectually honest) that lead to action that is logical and appropriate, critical thinking represents a "meta-competency" that transcends other knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors required in health care professions." Some academic libraries take it upon themselves to teach aspects of critical thinking. For example, here is University College Dublin Library's Critical thinking tutorial.

Critical thinking defined

What is critical thinking?

  1. Disciplined, self-directed thinking which exemplifies the perfections of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking.
  2. Thinking that displays mastery of intellectual skills and abilities.
  3. The art of thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make your thinking better: more clear, more accurate, or more defensible. Critical thinking can be distinguished into two forms: "selfish" or "sophistic", on the one hand, and "fairminded", on the other. In thinking critically we use our command of the elements of thinking to adjust our thinking successfully to the logical demands of a type or mode of thinking. See critical person, critical society, critical reading, critical listening, critical writing, perfections of thought, elements of thought, domains of thought, intellectual virtues.

Developing critical thinking processes

Open-ended questions to trigger thinking

Reading and reflecting on ideas are two critical activities in learning how to think. However, research indicates that teachers do not spend enough time in their classrooms posing questions. If they do, the vast number of teachers ask students to recall information rather than get them to think critically about it. Questions calling for a recall of facts are the least likely to promote student involvement. In fact, some studies show that open-ended questions that require divergent thinking (i.e., questions that allow for a range of possible answers and encourage students to think at a deeper level than rote memory) are more effective in eliciting student responses than “closed” questions (i.e., questions that require students to select one correct answer). The results indicate that students are more likely to respond to questions that require deeper-level thought (critical thinking) than those that require rote memorization.

Open-ended questions are useful cognitive triggers and can be used liberally in classes or small groups. Sometimes, students can think for a moment about their own responses to questions. This strategy benefits students by allowing them time to gather their thoughts prior to verbalizing them. International students and those who may be fearful about public speaking may find it gives them time to build their confidence before communicating their ideas. Experimental research indicates that students who are asked higher-level questions are more likely to display higher-level thinking on course exams. Class-based research indicates that students learn to generate their own higher-level thinking questions. Using a technique called guided peer questioning students are provided with generic questions that serve as cognitive prompts to stimulate different forms of thinking:

  • What are the implications of ___?
  • Why is ___ important?
  • What is another way to look at ___?

Questions that promote reflection

After students communicate their ideas orally via groups or in writing, ask them to reflect on what type of critical thinking they are engaged in and whether they think they have demonstrated critical thinking in their responses. Ask them to record their reflections either individually or in pairs. If they select the latter, their job is to listen and record the reflections shared by their partner.

Research shows that one distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving students is that they reflect on their thought processes and recognize the importance of cognitive strategies. Additional research shows that students can learn to engage in “meta-cognition” (thinking about thinking) if regularly asked to do so. When students learn to routinely ask themselves these questions, the depth and quality of their thinking are enhanced.

What makes a critical thinker?

Nickerson (1987) characterizes a good critical thinker in terms of knowledge, attitudes and abilities. Here are some of the characteristics of such a thinker:

  • uses information and evidence skillfully and impartially
  • organizes thoughts and articulates them concisely and coherently
  • distinguishes between logically valid and invalid inferences
  • suspends judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision
  • understands the difference between reasoning and rationalizing
  • attempts to anticipate the probable consequences of alternative actions
  • understands the idea of degrees of belief
  • sees similarities and analogies that are not superficially apparent
  • can learn independently and has an abiding interest in doing so
  • applies problem-solving techniques in domains other than those in which learned
  • can structure informally represented problems in such a way that formal techniques, such as mathematics, can be used to solve them
  • can strip a verbal argument of irrelevancies and phrase it in its essential terms
  • habitually questions one's own views and attempts to understand both assumptions that are critical to views and implications of views
  • sensitive to the difference between the validity of a belief and the intensity with which it is held
  • aware one's understanding is always limited, often much more so than would be apparent to one with a noninquiring attitude
  • recognizes the fallibility of one's own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of weighting evidence according to personal preferences

Barriers to critical thinking

  • Lack of relevant background information
  • Poor reading skills
  • Poor listening skills
  • Bias
  • Prejudice
  • Superstition
  • Egocentrism
  • Socio-centrism
  • Peer pressure
  • Mindless conformism (tendency to follow the crowd )
  • Mindless non-conformism
  • Provincialism
  • Narrow-mindedness
  • Closed-mindedness
  • Distrust of reason
  • Stereotyping
  • Unwarranted assumptions and stereotypes
  • Relativistic thinking
  • Scapegoating
  • Rationalization
  • Wishful thinking
  • Short-term thinking
  • Selective perception / attention
  • Selective memory
  • Overpowering emotions
  • Self-deception
  • Face-saving
  • Fear of change

Key websites

Linkage to information literacy

See Information literacy and Transliteracy for librarians


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