What is critical thinking (and how to improve at it)

What is critical thinking?
(and how to become more proficient at it)

Critical thinking is a hot topic at the top of any school or university’s mission statement. In this short article you are going to learn what critical thinking is and, more importantly, how you can get better at it.

Dr. Gerald Nosich has been teaching the art and science of critical thinking since 1977 and also heads up the Foundation for Critical Thinking. According to him, there are 3 earmarks of critical thinking to be aware of:

  1. The reflective or metacognitive approach.

This means you are thinking about your thinking and not just making decisions in a whimsical fashion (even if that’s often more fun!). This mean that you need to ask yourself questions about the decisions you make.

Example: If I choose to eat low GI oats this morning instead of a McDonald’s Happy meal, will there be a noticeable difference in my levels of concentration throughout the day?

It’s not just a reflection on the decision you need to make. But you are also weighing up and thinking about HOW you get to the best decision. Creating a thinking or mind map, exploring all your ideas and options, can be a productive exercise. (Also understanding what a thinking map is and why it is important is also useful.)

But let’s say you are GREAT at spending your quiet time summoning up your powers of genius. You still run the risk of conjuring up ideas or solutions that are flawed. We therefore need more and that moves us to point number 2 of what critical thinking is:

  1. Standards:

These are concepts that are useful to the your current situation or problem. The 3 standards of critical thinking are simply: clear, accurate, and relevant to the situation at hand.

  1. Critical thinking needs to be explicit.

By this, Dr. Nosich means that you are not just making assumptions but you need to focus explicitly on what assumptions you are making. You also then need to ask yourself questions to see whether your assumptions are actually true.

So let’s do a quick recap of the 3 key ingredients needed for critical thinking:

1. You need time for REFLECTION;
2. You need to apply standards which are CLEAR, ACCURATE and RELEVANT;

and
3. Your critical thinking needs to EXPLICIT, requiring you to focus your attention on whether your facts are valid or true.

More importantly, how can you use this information to become a more proficient critical thinker?

Here are 4 quick tips based on the 3 aspects learnt above:

  1. When you are faced with a big decision, be purposeful in taking time out to think.

Remove yourself from the situation. Even if this means heading to the coffee shop, ALONE. Sip your hazelnut latte, in silence, and enjoy your much needed time of reflection.

  1. Keeping your critical thinking objective.

As difficult as this may be to do, try to see the situation from another person’s perspective. People talk themselves into terrible decisions all the time when another person can clearly see why they don’t make sense. Try to harness that external perspective.

  1. Based on all the facts at hand, make sure that your research gives you with information that is clear, accurate and relevant.

Did you notice that emotion didn’t feature here? Aunty Enid or your friend Stephen might not be the best giver of wisdom in all situations. Keep your judgement focused on these qualities.

  1. Spend a bit more time focusing now on your clear, reliable possible answers from wise counsel.

Think about your thinking once again. This will help you create more profound conclusions.

4.5 But don’t overthink it…

There is some merit to taking decisive action (and sometimes even winging it from time to time). If it feels like you’re agonising over a decision that doesn’t need this much stress, go with your gut.

Take the time needed to become a better critical thinker. Your future self will thank you for it!

Any tips or suggestions on what you do to help enhance your critical thinking abilities? Leave your comments below.

About Daren Denholm

Daren Denholm went from nearly failing University to becoming the Highest Ranked Competitor at the World Memory Championships from Africa and the Southern Hemisphere for 6 years in a row! (2006 – 2011) He was also the only person in the world to compete in ALL 6 World Memory Championships during this time.

Mind mapping is overrated … focus on these 4 strategies instead

Mind mapping is overrated … focus on these 4 strategies instead.

I dislike mind mapping with a passion, and most of the students I have worked with feel the same way. The reason being… they take SOOO much time. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this article, you will learn why the way in which mind mapping has been popularised is a completely overrated way of organising your ideas but more importantly, what you should focus on instead.

Mind mapping is a hot topic.


If done correctly, it is powerful. It can help you think faster and more clearly, and it can help you learn with greater levels of memory retention.

The problem is… most people focus too much on the mind map and NOT on what it aims to help them achieve.

The concept dates back to Aristotle; it can help people to be phenomenally great thinkers and narrators – but now people sometimes spend hours trying to make mind maps, most often ineffectively.


So, here are my 4 tips for making sure the time you spend organising your thoughts (mind mapping) is really worthwhile!

  1. Instead of focusing on mind mapping, focus on the goal of mind mapping… helping you become more structured and creative in your thinking.
  2. Instead of trying to create beautiful mind maps in a certain way that takes a lot of time, focus more on trying to extract key information in a useful, memorable way.
  3. Instead of trying to get mind mapping “right”, focus on trying to remember and understand more… which is what productive learning is all about. Any way of mind mapping is right if it helps you achieve this goal!
  4. Instead of following certain rules of mind mapping, like trying to make everything neat as if it’s a school project… create your own rules, go quickly, makes mistakes… be happy that your mind map doesn’t resemble a work of art and be glad that you can see the links between the information in your head and on paper.

And 4.5: Don’t focus on the mind map, focus on being engaged in your work! The more absorbed you become in the key information, the more you will remember and understand what you have learnt… and this is way more beneficial than any mind map you can create.

Do you like mind mapping? Got any tips for keeping it productive? Leave a comment below.

About Daren Denholm

Daren Denholm went from nearly failing University to becoming the Highest Ranked Competitor at the World Memory Championships from Africa and the Southern Hemisphere for 6 years in a row! (2006 – 2011) He was also the only person in the world to compete in ALL 6 World Memory Championships during this time.

7 simple and powerful ways to create mind maps

7 simple and powerful ways to create mind maps

Mind, or “thinking”, maps can be a waste of time if done incorrectly. In this article, you will learn seen simple and powerful ways that can help you get the most out of every mental mapping session you do in the future!

I have previously made a video on what a mind map is, which you can find down below.

I’ll summarise it here quickly: simply put, it is a visual representation of information done in an organised and creative way, that helps facilitate faster and more critical thinking.

Before I begin, you need to be aware of the goal you are trying to achieve through mind maps.

The goal is for you to get the main concepts of a large amount of work down in your mind map in an accessible and visual way so you can quickly review key concepts and deepen your knowledge.

Here’s another way of thinking about mind maps. Imagine the scenario:

  1. You want to put a painting up upon one of your walls at home.
  2. You got to the hardware store and buy a drill.
  3. You go home and drill a hole. And
  4. You place your new painting above the mantlepiece.

You don’t fall in love with the drill and spend all your time with the drill. The drill is the TOOL – and so is the mind map.

The goal is for your mind mapping session is to help organise critical information to make learning quicker and more effective. Not to spend hours crafting a beautiful Instagram worthy piece of art.

So, here are seven simple and powerful ways you can get the most out of every mind map you create in the future!

  1. Get a blank piece of paper.
  2. Draw the main concept, title, or overall idea in the centre of the page.
  3. Draw subheadings branching out from the central key theme in the form of arrows.
  4. Add keywords – just words right now–to represent key information. And finally–
  5. Add images from your imagination to boost your ability to remember these key ideas.
  6. Once you are finished, turn the paper upside down and see if you can remember what you created. The purpose is just to help you remember and understand what you are learning, which is the definition of productive learning.
  7. Vary between hand­written and digital mental maps to keep things creative. This will embed your ideas more effectively.

7.5 One final tip: I recommend storing your maps in an online storing mechanism such as Evernote (one of the world’s most popular note­taking apps). This is a safer way of storing your work.

What are some of your tips to help you with mental mapping? Leave your comments below!

About Daren Denholm

Daren Denholm went from nearly failing University to becoming the Highest Ranked Competitor at the World Memory Championships from Africa and the Southern Hemisphere for 6 years in a row! (2006 – 2011) He was also the only person in the world to compete in ALL 6 World Memory Championships during this time.