How to Think Critically: Short Lesson
Know What Academic Thinking Is
Academic thinking, or critical thinking, means questioning and interrogating what you read, hear or see. The predominant component of critical thinking is Analysis.
What is Analysis
Analysis is often referred to as analytical thinking. Analytical thinking involves a number of processes, including:
- An objective view of the information provided
- Examining the information in detail from a number of different perspectives
- Checking the accuracy of the information
- Making sure the information is developed/develops in a logical manner
- Interrogating the information for flaws in reasoning, evidence provided or the manner in which the conclusions are drawn
- An ability to compare and contrast issues from the perspective of other theorists, scientists and writers
- Explain why different scholars reach different conclusions at different times (context)
- Caution and objectivity to ensure that you don’t take questionable statements at face value, miss hidden assumptions or attempts to convince the reader without the appropriate support
Critical thinking means making a considered and careful appraisal or judgment after a balanced consideration of all elements of a topic. This is the approach you should adopt with university assignments, including:
- Essay-writing in the Arts and Social Sciences
- Problem-based learning in medicine and nursing
- Engineering problems based on real-life machines and buildings
- Scenarios in Law
- Project-based practical work in the sciences
Your marks in your chosen course depend on your ability to analyse and interpret particular information and then how you apply this to the question posed by your lecturer or tutor. Your subsequent marks will be based on your analysis of facts or information and on your ability to arrive at an opinion supported by relevant information. This is more than simply recalling or repeating facts – again, it your interpretation of these facts which is important and how you Support your opinion and your critical analysis.
Edward Glaser who developed a test for critical thinking, defined it as: ‘Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of any evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.’
By engaging in academic thinking, your mind will become sharper, more focussed and you will have the ability to identify false, inaccurate, unjust or unsupported assumptions. Skills in critical thinking can be developed through a better and deeper understanding of what critical thinking involves and through practicing academic thinking.
Through using academic thinking you will become skilled at analysing material critically and this will mean that your work will be more precise, relevant and structured. You will achieve better marks in your assignments and examinations because your work will contain evidence of critical thinking.
Academic thinking allows you to become critically engaged with your work, but also in the world around you. You will begin to consider alternative points of view and different interpretations of information. This will facilitate a critical dialogue to take place, or a debate with the material you are focussing on.
Why is critical thinking important for your university courses? Academic thinking helps you to take a more structured approach to reading, writing and listening, allowing you to truly engage with the subject matter, considering different points of view and alternative interpretations of what you are studying.
Academic thinking encourages you to weigh up evidence for or against a particular view.
Planning, researching, reading and writing all contribute to the development of critical thinking. Academic thinking can help you to take a more structured approach to reading, writing and listening.
Reading: Identify a line of reasoning in the text, evaluate the line of reasoning, critically evaluate the evidence in the text, identify the writers’ conclusions, does the evidence given support your conclusions?
Listening: Bring the same awareness to the task of listening as you do to reading. Does the speaker contradict him/herself? Why? Check for consistency. Check that body language, eye contact, are consistent with what is being said.
Writing: This involves comparable processes to reading and listening. Be clear what your points are, show a clear line of reasoning, present evidence to support your argument, read your own writing critically as well as your sources, view your subject from a number of different perspectives.
Benefits of Academic Thinking: Critical thinking brings precision to how you think and work. Practicing critical thinking brings accuracy and specificity. You will begin to recognise and know what is relevant and what is not in any given assignment. It is a slow process initially but eventually you will begin to identify the most relevant material as you hone your skills. Academic thinking improves your attention, allows you to engage in more focussed reading, improves your ability to recognise key points in a text without becoming distracted by less important material, develop more sophisticated responses, an understanding of how to get your own points across and skills of analysis.
Noted educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom and colleagues (Bloom et al, (1956)), identified the six different stages involved in learning and thinking within education:
- Knowledge: Define, Describe, Identify
- Comprehension: Contrast, Discuss, Interpret
- Application: Demonstrate, Calculate, Illustrate
- Analysis: Analyze, Explain, Compare
- Synthesis: Compose, Create, Integrate
- Evaluation: Recommend, Support, Draw a Conclusion
Academic thinking facilitates finding the best evidence for the subject you are discussing, evaluating the strength of the evidence that supports competing arguments, coming to an interim conclusion about where the evidence seems to lead, constructing a line of reasoning to guide audience through the evidence to lead them to an appropriate conclusion, selecting the best evidence and examples to illustrate your argument.
How to Evaluate Data
You must be able to evaluate ideas at university level. Evaluate is another word for analyse – essentially this means picking apart information to see how, and why, it works, if at all. You must base your evaluation on evidence from the text/experiment/case (primary text) and criticism/discussion about the text (secondary text).
Evaluating is a filtering process, where you sift through the information available and come to a logical, provable conclusion. Your analysis can focus on:
- The truth or accuracy of the information provided
- The reliability of the source of the information
- The value of the information
- Comparing and contrasting different sources based on the same information
- Assessing the merits of particular information
- Scientific Approach: Interpret and check the reliability of data. This is an integral element of setting up and testing a scientific hypothesis
- Non-Scientific Approach: In this instance ideas and concepts are of integral importance. You will need to carry out an objective evaluation of the information provided and of the arguments presented to facilitate the construction of your own position which must be supported or backed-up with evidence.
Types of information:
- Numerical or Scientific Data
Assessing the source of information:
- Be Careful: Not all facts cited in articles or sources are correct or true. You must be particularly careful when quoting or referencing information from the internet as it is less likely to be edited or refereed. Always interrogate the origin of the work, the closer to the primary source the more likely it is to be accurate and relevant. Always cite your sources! Reference any information you use in your work.
- Authorship? This is an important element of assessing whether information is reliable or viable. Who wrote the piece? Why? What is their background?
Examples of primary and secondary sources of information:
Primary Sources: literature in which ideas and data are first communicated – the original vehicle for an idea or argument. Primary sources come in various forms:
- Journal articles
- Primary literature is usually refereed by experts in the field
- Books are also a form of primary material
Secondary Sources: These sources quote, translate, interpret, develop or otherwise utilize information found in primary sources. Secondary sources come in various forms:
- Reviews, textbooks, magazine articles
- Modifications to the original material by editors etc.
Differentiating between facts, opinions and truth:
In the Arts and Social Sciences there is often no ‘right’ answer, that is you are often required to discuss, develop or debate particular issues presented by your lecturers or tutors. You must take a stance or viewpoint on an issue, therefore it is possible to answer taking into account a number of different perspectives. You will be credited for constructing your own argument with evidence to support your position.
Assess the reliability of the source: You must use the following criteria when ascertaining whether a source is viable or not:
- Identify the author’s name
- Check if the source is cited by other critics/theorists
- Is the information accurate?
- Is the information fact or opinion?
- Has the source been refereed or edited?
- Is the content original or derived?
- Does the source cite relevant literature or data?
- Have they/you checked a range of sources?
- Are the graphs constructed fairly?
Remember that in some subjects, particularly Politics, History and Economics, it is integral not to stray into biased or opinionated conclusions. These are often referred to as ‘value judgments’ or unsubstantiated viewpoints. You must avoid these or you will be marked harshly. Bear in mind that concepts you will be dealing with involve aspects of objectivity and subjectivity:
- Objectivity: this means that your argument is based on a balanced and unbiased consideration of the facts.
- Subjectivity: this means that your thesis (main argument) is based on one person’s (predominantly your own) opinion.
The majority of academics favour detached, objective work. However, it is still important to state your own opinion at some point in your essay/report but you must produce valid reasons for expressing this opinion with evidence from the primary source. You must use appropriate, academic language at all times when doing so.
It is important to keep an open and enquiring mind, this is valued in academia, but this must be supported by contemporary reference points
Back up your opinion and your conclusion:
- It is important to use evidence from primary and secondary sources to back up your thesis. Evidence includes statistical/numeric sources, quotations and observation.
- You must make sure you cite the source of the information in your own writing or you may be accused of plagiarism.
- Your evidence must be assessed for relevance and value.
- You must endeavour to provide a balanced conclusion where you are open concerning counter-arguments or evidence that does not appear to support your view, then explain the reasons why you have arrived at your particular conclusion.
- Be careful and discerning about the sources you choose to cite: Read and cite sources, do not rely on a secondary source to do this work for you as you may find the secondary source is bias in some way, or interprets it in a different way.
- Cross-reference: This means examining and investigating more than one source and comparing and contrasting what is said in each. The sources should be as independent and objective as possible and you may need to ascertain which is more suitable.
- Take into account the historical context of the source: You can cite sources from any historical period; however you must be aware that facts and ideas have changed between then and now. It is sometimes useful to trace the changes in the material through the years. What significant moments, works or changes in methods have instigated any changes in the conclusions over time?
- Examine and be aware of the extent and the quality of the citations used by the author: Be aware of this particularly in relation to articles in academic journals, where work is often supported by secondary sources. It is useful to follow-up these references and check their quality, context and relevance.
- Look beyond presentation. Remember substance over style: Just because the presentation is impressive does not mean that the substance is of quality. Look beyond the surface.
- Be analytical of the language used in a text: Differentiate between subjective and objective language. Look out for propaganda or bias language. Is the language unbalanced?
- Be detached, be a healthily skeptical: It is always a good idea to maintain a certain degree of skepticism about facts or ideas involved and to constantly question and interrogate the logic of particular arguments. Always investigate information from primary sources, different approached can lead to different outcomes.
- Distinguish fact from opinion: Is the viewpoint of the author supported? Are the facts quoted relevant and have they been appropriately cited or flagged as the author’s own research? Has numerical data been used to support the points made and are they reliable? Examine the authors’ intention, do they have a bias?
- Identify false arguments and logical flaws: What method is being employed by the researcher to put his/her points across? Are these suitable for the task? Analyse their method to determine this, perhaps there is a logical flaw in their arguments.
- Examine any data and graphs presented and the manner in which they have been interpreted: Have any errors in data been taken into consideration and, where appropriate, have these been quantified? Have the correct statistical methods been employed to interpret the data? Are the base hypotheses the right ones? Have any results been interpreted correctly in arriving at the particular conclusion? Always examine graphs carefully and note their construction, for example bias selection of axis starting points.
- ‘There are lies, damned lies in statistics’: Remember that statistical methods do not actually deal with proof, only with probability. You will need a basic understanding of statistical methods, at least, to ensure that you are aware of any inherent bias or manipulation.
- Where else has the author’s work been cited? By whom?: In science you can use the Science Citation Index to determine how many times an article or author has been referenced and by whom. You can then consult these sources in your own research to ascertain how others have viewed the original findings. Texts that review the same area of study but which are published after your source, may also be of some use.
- Always assess a source that you are uncertain about, endeavour to establish its reliability before you use it in your own work
- Ensure the nature of your sources: You will be provided with a reading list from your lecture/tutorial to aid with an assessment or as important background reading. Compare and contrast the primary and secondary sources. How has knowledge on the topic developed over time? How can you apply this to your experience of the subject?
- When reading evidence cited, remember to ask yourself the following questions: Is the evidence what it appears to be? Could there be other explanations for the evidence presented? Is the necessary information included or are their significant details missing? Is the article/book bias in any way? Who wrote it? Why? When? Could there be any hidden agendas? Does the evidence come from a reliable, objective source? Always check key research!
- Be aware of any possible bias: Pay close attention to any bias in the information. Even if there is bias the information could still be accurate but incomplete in some way. With each piece that you read you must continually question whether it has been influenced in any way by hidden agendas. Be alert!
- Note that evidence can be divided into reputable sources (or authorities) and non-reputable sources. Reputable sources are based on research, expertise or first-hand knowledge. The source of the information is also completely recognized in academia as an authority. These often include recommended academic text books and professional journal articles.
- Check numerical evidence. Be skeptical about any numerical data as this can be easily misinterpreted in order to convince a reader. Be aware too of any generalizations inherent in the data. These generalizations can be useful but in order to them to be so, they must be well-founded and be based on a relatively large sample.
- The writer’s conclusion: If you are satisfied that the writer’s evidence is correct, then what of their conclusion? Even if the evidence is reliable you should never assume that the writer’s conclusion is correct. You always need to check the logic of the argument yourself. Most researchers intend to be objective but it is often very difficult to be so, always bear this in mind when evaluating any research or information.