The Critical Thinking Co.™
"Critical thinking is the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. A critical thinker uses broad in-depth analysis of evidence to make decisions and communicate his/her beliefs clearly and accurately."
Other Definitions of Critical Thinking:
Robert H. Ennis, Author of The Cornell Critical Thinking Tests
"Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do."
A SUPER-STREAMLINED CONCEPTION OF CRITICAL THINKING
Robert H. Ennis, 6/20/02
Assuming that critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do, a critical thinker:
1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
2. Tries to be well-informed
3. Judges well the credibility of sources
4. Identifies conclusions, reasons, and assumptions
5. Judges well the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence
6. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position
7. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
8. Formulates plausible hypotheses; plans experiments well
9. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
10. Draws conclusions when warranted, but with caution
11. Integrates all items in this list when deciding what to believe or do
Critical Thinkers are disposed to:
1. Care that their beliefs be true, and that their decisions be justified; that is, care to "get it right" to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
a. Seek alternative hypotheses, explanations, conclusions, plans, sources, etc., and be open to them
b. Endorse a position to the extent that, but only to the extent that, it is justified by the information that is available
c. Be well informed
d. Consider seriously other points of view than their own
2. Care to present a position honestly and clearly, theirs as well as others'. This includes the dispositions to
a. Be clear about the intended meaning of what is said, written, or otherwise communicated, seeking as much precision as the situation requires
b. Determine, and maintain focus on, the conclusion or question
c. Seek and offer reasons
d. Take into account the total situation
e. Be reflectively aware of their own basic beliefs
3. Care about the dignity and worth of every person (a correlative disposition). This includes the dispositions to
a. Discover and listen to others' view and reasons
b. Avoid intimidating or confusing others with their critical thinking prowess, taking into account others' feelings and level of understanding
c. Be concerned about others' welfare
Critical Thinking Abilities:
Ideal critical thinkers have the ability to
(The first three items involve elementary clarification.)
1. Focus on a question
a. Identify or formulate a question
b. Identify or formulate criteria for judging possible answers
c. Keep the situation in mind
2. Analyze arguments
a. Identify conclusions
b. Identify stated reasons
c. Identify unstated reasons
d. Identify and handle irrelevance
e. See the structure of an argument
3. Ask and answer questions of clarification and/or challenge, such as,
b. What is your main point?
c. What do you mean by…?
d. What would be an example?
e. What would not be an example (though close to being one)?
f. How does that apply to this case (describe a case, which might well appear to be a counter example)?
g. What difference does it make?
h. What are the facts?
i. Is this what you are saying: ____________?
j. Would you say some more about that?
(The next two involve the basis for the decision.)
4. Judge the credibility of a source. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions):
b. Lack of conflict of interest
c. Agreement among sources
e. Use of established procedures
f. Known risk to reputation
g. Ability to give reasons
h. Careful habits
5. Observe, and judge observation reports. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions, except for the first):
a. Minimal inferring involved
b. Short time interval between observation and report
c. Report by the observer, rather than someone else (that is, the report is not hearsay)
d. Provision of records.
f. Possibility of corroboration
g. Good access
h. Competent employment of technology, if technology is useful
i. Satisfaction by observer (and reporter, if a different person) of the credibility criteria in Ability # 4 above.
(The next three involve inference.)
6. Deduce, and judge deduction
a. Class logic
b. Conditional logic
c. Interpretation of logical terminology in statements, including
(1) Negation and double negation
(2) Necessary and sufficient condition language
(3) Such words as "only", "if and only if", "or", "some", "unless", "not both".
7. Induce, and judge induction
a. To generalizations. Broad considerations:
(1) Typicality of data, including sampling where appropriate
(2) Breadth of coverage
(3) Acceptability of evidence
b. To explanatory conclusions (including hypotheses)
(1) Major types of explanatory conclusions and hypotheses:
(a) Causal claims
(b) Claims about the beliefs and attitudes of people
(c) Interpretation of authors’ intended meanings
(d) Historical claims that certain things happened (including criminal accusations)
(e) Reported definitions
(f) Claims that some proposition is an unstated reason that the person actually used
(2) Characteristic investigative activities
(a) Designing experiments, including planning to control variables
(b) Seeking evidence and counter-evidence
(c) Seeking other possible explanations
(3) Criteria, the first five being essential, the sixth being desirable
(a) The proposed conclusion would explain the evidence
(b) The proposed conclusion is consistent with all known facts
(c) Competitive alternative explanations are inconsistent with facts
(d) The evidence on which the hypothesis depends is acceptable.
(e) A legitimate effort should have been made to uncover counter-evidence
(f) The proposed conclusion seems plausible
8. Make and judge value judgments: Important factors:
a. Background facts
b. Consequences of accepting or rejecting the judgment
c. Prima facie application of acceptable principles
e. Balancing, weighing, deciding
(The next two abilities involve advanced clarification.)
9. Define terms and judge definitions. Three dimensions are form, strategy, and content.
a. Form. Some useful forms are:
(4) Equivalent expression
(6) Example and non-example
b. Definitional strategy
(a) Report a meaning
(b) Stipulate a meaning
(c) Express a position on an issue (including "programmatic" and "persuasive" definitions)
(2) Identifying and handling equivocation
c. Content of the definition
10. Attribute unstated assumptions (an ability that belongs under both clarification and, in a way, inference)
(The next two abilities involve supposition and integration.)
11. Consider and reason from premises, reasons, assumptions, positions, and other propositions with which they disagree or about which they are in doubt -- without letting the disagreement or doubt interfere with their thinking ("suppositional thinking")
12. Integrate the other abilities and dispositions in making and defending a decision
(The first twelve abilities are constitutive abilities. The next three are auxiliary critical thinking abilities: Having them, though very helpful in various ways, is not constitutive of being a critical thinker.)
13. Proceed in an orderly manner appropriate to the situation. For example:
a. Follow problem solving steps
b. Monitor one's own thinking (that is, engage in metacognition)
c. Employ a reasonable critical thinking checklist
14. Be sensitive to the feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others
15. Employ appropriate rhetorical strategies in discussion and presentation (orally and in writing), including employing and reacting to "fallacy" labels in an appropriate manner.
Examples of fallacy labels are "circularity," "bandwagon," "post hoc," "equivocation," "non sequitur," and "straw person."
Critical thinking is "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends (Dewey 1933: 118)."
(1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Glaser 1941, pp. 5-6).
Abilities include: "(a) to recognize problems, (b) to find workable means for meeting those problems, (c) to gather and marshal pertinent information, (d) to recognize unstated assumptions and values, (e) to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity and discrimination, (f) to interpret data, (g) to appraise evidence and evaluate statements, (h) to recognize the existence of logical relationships between propositions, (i) to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, (j) to put to test the generalizations and conclusions at which one arrives, (k) to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience; and (l) to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life." (p.6)
MCC General Education Initiatives
"Critical thinking includes the ability to respond to material by distinguishing between facts and opinions or personal feelings, judgments and inferences, inductive and deductive arguments, and the objective and subjective. It also includes the ability to generate questions, construct, and recognize the structure of arguments, and adequately support arguments; define, analyze, and devise solutions for problems and issues; sort, organize, classify, correlate, and analyze materials and data; integrate information and see relationships; evaluate information, materials, and data by drawing inferences, arriving at reasonable and informed conclusions, applying understanding and knowledge to new and different problems, developing rational and reasonable interpretations, suspending beliefs and remaining open to new information, methods, cultural systems, values and beliefs and by assimilating information."
Nickerson, Perkins and Smith (1985)
"The ability to judge the plausibility of specific assertions, to weigh evidence, to assess the logical soundness of inferences, to construct counter-arguments and alternative hypotheses."
Moore and Parker, Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking is "the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim, and the degree of confidence with which we accept or reject it."
"We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society."
A little reformatting helps make this definition more comprehensible:
We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in
as well as explanation of the
considerations upon which that judgment is based.
Francis Bacon (1605)
"For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture."
A shorter version is "the art of being right."
Or, more prosaically: critical thinking is "the skillful application of a repertoire of validated general techniques for deciding the level of confidence you should have in a proposition in the light of the available evidence."
What is critical thinking and how do you do it?
Anyone involved in academic study will have asked this question - often repeatedly - and come up against the problem of getting a swift answer. While you could say that critical thinking is at the heart of academic study, it's more of a process, a way of thinking, understanding and expressing ourselves, than a single definable skill (which is why a Critical Thinking Checklist has been included).
When you're asked to 'engage critically' with texts, to 'critically evaluate' a theory or findings, to develop a ‘critical analysis' in your written work, you're being asked to employ a number of skills and demonstrate a number of qualities, at the same time. Understanding what these are - and learning to use them effectively - is something you develop over time and with the help of tutors, lecturers and peers.
Fundamentally, critical thinking is about using your ability to reason. It's about being active (as opposed to passive) in your learning. It means that when you approach an idea, you do so with scepticism and doubt, rather than with unquestioning acceptance. You're always questioning whether the ideas, arguments and findings you're coming across are the whole picture and you're open to finding that they're not. You're identifying, analysing and, where possible, solving problems systematically.
Arguments, here, are not squabbles between people - though they do evaluate other people's ideas: they are the way in which ideas are developed and organised into a line of reasoning which moves in a logical order to the conclusion and which aims to persuade the reader or listener of the validity of the point of view presented. Being able to discern and create structured, reasoned arguments is central to critical thinking.
"Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view."
Cottrell, S. (2005) Critical Thinking Skills p47 New York, Palgrave.
What all this means is that:
- You're constantly evaluating what you read, hear, think, experience and observe.
- You're assessing how well ideas, statements, claims, arguments and findings are backed up so that you can make a reasoned judgement about how convincing they are.
Chloe and Donna
Second year Geography
View Chloe and Donna's student perspective
To me critical thinking means that when I read something I don't just agree with it and I'm not just a sponge basically; I'm not just absorbing whatever I am taking in and saying ‘yeah I agree with that'. Even when I read two things saying completely different things, the arguments are polar opposites, and I have agreed with them both and I've thought, I can't agree with them both. It is easy to get lulled into just agreeing with what an academic says because they write it so persuasively and they write it so eloquently but what you need to do is establish what you think about a particular topic. So, before you start the reading, think to yourself ‘what is my point of view on this?' and think do you agree with what that author is saying or is the author using a narrow set of examples to back up their arguments? Don't be afraid to criticise people who are published, even if it's your own lecturer's book, if you don't agree with what they've written don't be afraid to say that because what that shows is that you are thinking critically.
Third year English literature
View Kalim's student perspective
So I think one thing that's important throughout all courses is critical thinking and analysing arguments. It's not an entirely new thing coming to uni but it's definitely something that I found I needed to improve and use a lot more at uni. I found that A level was a bit like GCSE in a sense, in that you had to jump through hoops and you had clear like learning objectives. Whereas at university that's not so obvious - it's not like you just have to do these things, you have to write an essay that does this and does that. There's more freedom in what you can choose to do and it's all judged by a similar kind of method of how strong your argument is, how sound your logic is or your reasoning and also how well you've evidenced things and researched things. I think since I've been at university I've learnt to make less generalisations in essays and also not just that, but to learn that things I didn't think were generalisations, are actually generalisations and you can be a lot more specific about things and it should be. And it's hard, it's really hard that's why essays take me so long to write because I love to speak about things in seminars and think about things but it's really hard constructing a really well argued, robust argument and really well expressed. It's a really hard thing to do and I think you've got to accept that and give yourself enough time to be able to do it. I'd like to say it gets easier as you go along, it doesn't necessarily get easier, I think you get better at it but it still is hard.
Second year History and Film Studies student
View Milan's student perspective
In terms of developing my critical thinking, I look at the subject or topic matter and then I try to understand the basic background first. When I go to the reading I have to keep reminding myself whilst reading what the angle is of the author who has written this. Why have they said this? What are they attempting to make us question while reading it? Are they right in what they say ? Are they wrong in what they say? And at the end of the reading you should be able to have kept those things at the back of your mind and have developed your own critical thinking which may agree with what the author has said or completely the opposite but it really depends on looking at the angles of the text, the subject matter and what the subject matter means to you.
How can I criticise what the experts say?
Initially, students often feel anxious about criticising ideas, evidence etc. that they come across in their reading or in lectures. Some may feel that it's disrespectful to criticise or challenge what established academics present in their work. What you need to remember here is that you're not being critical in the sense of being negative (although you might be!). And you're certainly not rubbishing ideas without any back-up to what you say.
Critical thinking is not just about what you think, it's about what you think and argue. You're being critical in the sense of analysing ideas, observations, experience and reasons, exploring the evidence and carefully considering whether something makes sense and is accurate.
Maybe you'll be considering whether ideas or findings can be applied in a particular context and, if so, how useful or effective this would be. A lot of the time you'll be drawing on what other academics have to say about a subject, comparing or setting these authors' ideas and reasons against each other in order to come up with your critique of the subject.
When will I need critical thinking skills?
At university you will need to demonstrate your critical thinking skills in a variety of areas:
- Critical reading - When reading, you need to ask questions about the text. This will keep you focused, and help you to develop an understanding of the text. If you have not done so you may find it helpful to visit, Reading strategies
- Evaluating arguments -When reading a text containing an argument, you need to evaluate whether it makes sense and is well supported. To practise this skill visit the Evaluating arguments page in this section.
- Critical writing - When writing, you need to make sure that your writing is clear and your argument is well structured. For help with this, visit Critical essay writing.
There's a lot of overlapping and interdependence of skills in these areas, eg effective critical writers apply their critical reading skills to their own, as well as other people's work. And it's hard to see how you could evaluate an argument if you haven't been able to discern, in your reading, exactly what the line of reasoning is.
Don't expect to become an instant expert in critical thinking. Just as critical thinking itself is a process, becoming a critical thinker is a process.
Remember - it's always all right to ask for help in understanding exactly what is being asked of you. Everyone has to learn the key academic study skills they use to think, read and write critically.
Doubting what you hear, think, believe, observe, read and experience is central to being a successful critical thinker. Keep asking those questions!
Explore ideas and observations you come across by ‘talking through' your responses, questions and criticisms with other students, friends - anyone who'll listen! (Talking into a dictaphone can work well, too.)
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