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How To Think Critically: Top Techniques For The Successful Student


Critical thinking is an important skill to have, whether it’s for school, your job, or your personal life. Even after educators teach us what we need to know, we have to fill in the gaps and think about things for ourselves. But critical thinking isn’t always automatic. We have to learn techniques on how to think critically in order to be successful.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the opposite of everyday, regular thinking, and it’s meant to guide our beliefs and values. It is more reflective and independent than ordinary thinking, and asks us to use strategies like conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information gathered during the critical thinking process.

Critical thinking is ultimately classified by our own way of thinking, and not influenced by how we feel others may want us to think.

The Skills We Need For Critical Thinking

Thinking is something that we naturally do every day. It allows us to make both small decisions, like what to eat for lunch, and bigger decisions, like what degree program to study at university.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, allows us to take regular thinking to the next level. In order to think critically, a person needs to possess certain skills to break down an argument, decision, idea, or thought. Some of these skills are — but are not limited to — the ability to:

  • Think about a certain topic objectively.
  • Identify various arguments there would be against a particular issue, even if you don’t agree with those arguments.
  • Evaluate how valid a point of view is based on the evidence and thought supporting it.
  • Recognize any holes in the evidence used for said argument or point of view.
  • Recognize other factors influencing an argument or point of view, such as a personal experience.
  • Always provide reasoning and support for arguments.

Someone With Critical Thinking Skills Can…

Once you’ve perfected your critical thinking skills, you’ll be able to come to the best possible conclusion and/or solution that you’ve become aware of. This is because you’ve taken the time to consider all points, arguments, and evidence supporting multiple frames of thought.

Some ways you can get to these conclusions are to:

  • Understand how different ideas connect.
  • Determine the importance and relevance of various ideas and arguments, even those different than your own.
  • Identify inconsistencies and errors in an argument.
  • Approach problems in a sensible and structured way.
  • Understand an argument’s justifications based on personal experiences, beliefs, and values.

The Critical Thinking Process

Over time, critical thinking may come naturally to someone who has had consistent practice with it. But none of us can think critically all the time, as our natural instincts, emotions, and learned behaviors can often take the lead.

This is exactly why the critical thinking process is important. In a time when we feel our emotions take over, we can take a step back and resort to the critical thinking process.

One way to do this is to ask the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, and “how” of a situation. We can also look at observations, experiences, reflections, reasonings, and communication from various sources to take us through this process.

After taking our time to do this, we can determine how the situation, argument, or point of view impacts our beliefs and values as well as our actions and, ultimately, how we may respond or react to a given situation once thinking about it critically.

Woman thinking critically over a desk, holding pen to mouth
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Why Does Critical Thinking Matter?

As mentioned before, we can’t all think critically all the time. Typically, our own mental processes and emotions (which, again, are based on our experiences, beliefs, and values), are the first things we rely on when we are faced with a decision.

But critical thinking matters because it helps us to think for ourselves. In a time when the media has so much influence over our thoughts, critical thinking allows us to effectively consider all points based on evidence, research, and also, speaking with others.

Critical thinking allows us to form our own opinions, create our own arguments, and evaluate our own work. It can also have the power to change our beliefs and values, too.

Ignorant Certainty

One reason that critical thinking matters is because of “ignorant certainty.” This is when we believe that everything is black and white; that there is a definite answer to one question or idea, or that our opinion is certain because we believe it to be. But, when you get to college, you’ll soon see that there are many ways to think about a question, and the answer is hardly ever one-sided.

Naive Realism

Another reason that critical thinking is important is due to an idea of “naive realism.” This is almost the opposite of ignorant certainty, and is a belief that all arguments are valid, equal, and truthful.

Critical thinking allows us to see that all arguments are not always valid, equal, and truthful, and we sometimes have to dissect different opinions and arguments — even if they contradict our own — in order to understand that someone’s argument may be more valid and better supported.

How To Learn to Think Critically: 7 Steps

Most of us have already had to think critically at some point in our lives. But, now that you recognize the importance of thinking critically — especially on a college campus or even at an online, tuition-free university like University of the People — you might be wondering how you can improve these skills.

1. Ask Simple Questions And Question Basic Assumptions

To start your critical thinking journey, simply ask basic questions about something — an idea, a thought, a theory, etc. What does the theory entail? Who believes in this theory? When did it happen? Just ask the very basics.

Then, question basic assumptions about this opinion or idea. Basically, look at the other side. What do other people assume about this?

This will help you to see the bigger picture of something before breaking it down.

2. Evaluate Evidence Which Already Exists

The next step is to always look at evidence that already exists to support a given argument and to then evaluate it. So much of the time, we are provided with a snippet of a headline, a quote, etc., and we instantly have an opinion on it. Dig deeper — is it the original source? — and evaluate it and understand it on your own.

3. Push Yourself To Think Critically (And For Yourself)

This leads us to our next step: allowing you to think for yourself while also requiring that you think critically, too. The whole point of this is to be able to formulate your own arguments without being influenced by another person’s opinion.

At the same time, though, you’ll have to understand opposing arguments before you can be sure your argument is the “best” one.

4. Be Aware Of Your Thought Processes

This is the time to become aware of our own biases. Our brains always take shortcuts to an answer, instead of breaking down how we got there. Always consider your thought process.

5. Look For Common Thinking Mistakes

As you’re in the midst of analyzing your own thought process, give attention to common thinking errors that arise when someone formulates their argument.

Here are some examples:

  • Appeal To Authority Or Sonsensus: Choosing the argument by quoting an “expert.”
  • Argument Selectivity: Choosing certain points of an argument that fit your agenda, instead of looking at the whole issue.
  • Confusing Correlation With Causation: Thinking that two things that often happen together mean that one caused the other, instead of these things being caused by something else entirely.
  • Over-Generalization: Thinking that because something is true for one thing, it’s automatically true for something else. A lot of the time, this comes from our own biases.

6. Build On Strategies

In addition to all of these strategies, there are other specific strategies you can use to help you to think critically. Some examples are:

  • Train Your Focus: We’re often distracted and multitasking in today’s world. See how long you can stay focused on one thing.
  • Use Evidence-Based Reasoning: Always use evidence to back up your argument.
  • Identify What’s Missing: No argument is completely thorough; if it was, there’d be no reason to keep debating issues today. So, always look for what could be missing from your argument.

7. Practice A Critical Thinking Exercise

A great way to put your critical thinking skills to the test is by practicing a critical thinking exercise.

An example could be entering a debate club at school, or even looking at your own political beliefs. Why do you support the candidate or party that you do? And why do people support the other side?

Man thinking critically in front of bulletin board
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

5 Techniques For How To Think Critically

Here are some truly powerful techniques to help you learn and perfect how to think critically. Perhaps you may use these combined with the critical thinking process, or as a way to improve your own critical thinking skills.

1. Analytical Thinking

Analytical thinking involves taking a lot of information, and breaking it down into pieces that you can understand and think about more clearly. Find which evidence is most important, but be sure not to leave out anything that can also go against your argument. Consider points supporting all sides.

2. Communication

Communication plays a role in how we think critically, form our arguments, and express those arguments, opinions, and ideas to others. Always take the time to learn from people that may have opposing views (without interrupting) and also consider all mediums when doing your research. When you present your arguments, observe and listen to others, and make your statements clear.

3. Creativity

One may think that to think critically, we cannot get creative since these types of arguments should be evidence-based with supported reasoning. But that’s not true! Being creative while thinking critically simply means taking time to brainstorm and find another approach to something.

For instance, if you’re only doing your research by reading articles on the internet, consider going into your community to talk to others face-to-face.

4. Open-Mindedness

Nobody can think critically without first being open-minded. That’s how we learn about other ideas, arguments, opinions, and point of views, and take those into consideration when thinking for ourselves.

On a college campus, this could be an instance when you’re working on a group project, and you think your way is the best way to go about it. But by being open-minded, you can learn other steps to get to the same result.

5. Problem-Solving

A great way to problem solve — one of the main goals of thinking critically — is to apply powerful problem-solving techniques whenever we’re facing a problem. One way to do this is to write down all your problems, and put “why” at the beginning. This will help you see your problems laid out so you can find the root of a problem and then sort out the best solution.

Final Thoughts: We Can’t Always Think Critically, But We Can Try

All this considered, it’s important to remember that we cannot think critically all the time. But knowing how to think critically, especially as a student enrolled in college, will help you to not only do better on your assignments, but to prepare you for the outside world where people won’t think about things the same way as you.

In a world where we are constantly influenced from outside sources, thinking critically can allow us to be the best humans we can be and learn from others, as we question our own beliefs and values as well as the beliefs and values of others.

Interested in how you can put your critical thinking skills to the test? Or how you can improve on your critical thinking skills to help you prepare for the future? Then consider pursuing your tuition-free online degree at UoPeople!