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;

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.