You may have come across the term ‘critical thinking’ during your time considering university. Whether this is the first time you’ve heard it or you already have grounding in this skill, there’s a reason it’s mentioned so often in the context of higher education. A good university education develops a person’s ability to think clearly, rationally, logically and independently. At university you have a unique opportunity to learn from a vast array of people, and it’s vital that you develop the skills to deal with the information you’re presented with in a constructive way.
Thinking critically, is in essence, thinking things through. A critical thinker does not take all information on face value but instead examines the validity of its source and considers its context. When you think critically about something you strive to be objective and informed, rather than subjective or sensational. You will seek out the information you need to make a sound judgement rather than relying only on what you already know. This approach is especially important in an academic setting when new research is being conducted and existing knowledge is continuously being expanded on and evaluated by experts (staff) and new contributors (people like you).
When you are presented with a proposition, do you immediately take it as truth or do you question in your mind whether its valid? A critical thinker knows when they need to learn or find out more before they can be sure of something.
Who exactly is it that is making the claim? What are their credentials? Is it a trusted professional body, experts? Or is it a group with a specific ideology or motive?
Why might they be making the claim? Do they have a vested interest? Are they trying to sell something (a product or an idea)? Are they not very well informed themselves and are simply passing on information they’ve heard elsewhere?
When was the claim first made and is it still valid? If someone is simply passing information on, they may not have checked if it’s still ‘in date’. Someone may be purposefully spreading an outdated idea or they may spreading a new one that’s not yet been proven to be certain.
It is not the case that you should be suspicious of everything you are told! Becoming educated in your field means that you will develop ‘shortcuts’ in regards to which information is reliable. You will become familiar with which publications, journals and authors are respected for example, although it’s always worth bearing in mind that even the experts don’t have all the answers or make mistakes – that’s how breakthroughs are made.
When evaluating information that’s new to you, it’s useful to consider its position in its wider context and think about what evidence exists that the information is ‘sound’.
What is the main thrust of the claim or argument? And who is making it? (see above)
What are the main counter arguments, if there are any. If there aren’t, then there is a large consensus, you could find out if it has always been that way?
What evidence is being used to support the claim or argument? You may need to investigate the evidence itself further, using the same questions as above, to determine if the evidence is valid and reliable.
It’s important to remember that just because a counter argument may be made to a claim, the original claim itself isn’t automatically invalid. You would need to apply the same critical analysis to the counter argument too, and you may find it to be nonsense after all, but you will be more certain in your reasoning and able to defend your support of the idea in the first place! This is how knowledge becomes strengthened and how the academic world works together to build consensus, through peer-review and ongoing critique of work.
Keep a look out for an email from us that will have some short exercises designed to help you engage your critical thinking skills and start to prepare your mindset for your studies. Who knows where your skills will take you, you may become a trail blazer or authority in your field.