Several studies define critical thinking as “the ability to assess and apply evidence in order to support or evaluate an argument” (e.g., Barnett & Francis 2012, p. 204)
Critical thinking involves (Quitadomo & Kurtz 2007, p. 141):
(1) analysis = ability to break concepts and arguments down to understand each element and the relationship among the elements
(2) inference = ability to draw conclusions based on what is known AND unknown (ie, transfer knowledge or thinking skills to novel contexts)
(3) evaluation = ability to assess validity of arguments and make valid judgements
While critical thinking skills may seem to be important only in academic pursuits, they are in fact important to other aspects of life. Indeed, “students who can think critically tend to get better grades, are often better able to use reasoning in daily decisions and are generally more employable” (Quitadamo & Kurtz 2007, p. 141).
Writing can help you improve your critical thinking skills (Quitadamo & Kurtz 2007). When writing, you want to do more than summarize the information you have read - you want to support an argument. Ideally, you also want to demonstrate that you’ve thought about what you’ve read and what you’ve written. In other words, you need to think critically about what you’re presenting.
With this guide, you can learn more about critical thinking and how to improve your skills.
Barnett, JE and Francis, AL. 2012. Using higher order thinking questions to foster critical thinking: a classroom study. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology. 32:201-211
McGuire, LA. 2010. Improving student critical thinking and perceptions of critical thinking through direct instruction in rhetorical analysis. (Doctoral dissertation). UMI Number 3408479
Quitadamo, IJ and Kurtz, MJ. 2007. Learning to improve: Using writing to increase critical thinking performance in general education biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education. 6: 140–154.
Make Sure You Understand the Material: You can’t write or think critically about what you don’t understand! Answer the questions in the handout below or create an argument map (see pdf below) to help you understand the material.
Clarify Your Thinking: Often our thinking and writing are clear to us, but they may be vague to an outsider. Use the Socratic Method of Questioning (see pdf below) and the tips in the handout below to help clarify your thinking and writing.
Stick to the Point: Thinking that strays off topic or that involves arguments without logical connections can lead to confusion. Try the tips in the handout below to stay on track.
Question Questions: Ask questions about what you are reading and writing to improve your thinking. Use the Socratic Method of Questioning (see pdf below) and the tips in the handout below to ask better questions.
Be Reasonable: Good thinking and writing require a willingness to change your view if the evidence fails to support your previous opinion. To ensure you are being reasonable, use the tips in the handout below.
Updated March 7, 2019 with contributions from Derek Andrews, Dalhousie Writing Centre