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13 September 2017

Think critically!

Do you ever receive assignments back with the comment: “your essay is too descriptive” or “more critical analysis needed”? Learning Skills Adviser Bei-En Zou writes about what it means to be critical and how to go about developing your critical thinking skills. 


One of the key skills you want to develop during your time as a university student is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking is not only a skill for life but a quality that is becoming increasingly sought after in the workforce. 


What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not about being a critical person! Rather, in the academic context, it is about thinking in a way that does not take what you read or hear at its face value. Critical thinkers look at the evidence behind expert opinions, weigh up ideas against each other and make their own reasoned judgments about how compelling an author's explanations are for certain phenomena.


Practising critical thinking

Good critical thinking begins with asking questions. When faced with a new idea or piece of information, in a journal article or a book, begin by asking the big ‘W’ questions to orientate yourself:
  • What is the main idea?
  • Who wrote this?
  • When was this written? And what was happening at that time?
  • Where was it written?
  • What evidence does the writer provide to support his/her main point? 

Once you’ve done that, critical thinkers go a step further, by taking that information, and asking if any of it affects the credibility of the material presented. Here are some examples of things to look out for:
  • Scientific articles published more than five years ago might be relying on outdated methods and data. 
  • Research that is funded by corporations like this one might publish biased results designed to support a corporation's product instead of presenting their results impartially.
  • Legitimate sounding publications such as the Journal of Historical Review which are actually avenues to push forward a particular political ideology.  

Analysing Arguments

Next, focus on what the author is saying: their key point (this is also called an argument). Ask yourself:
  • Does the writer use evidence to back up their claims?
  • What is the quality of the evidence used? (How recent is it? Does it come from reputable, scholarly sources?)
  • Does the writer make any assumptions?
  • Does the writer go from point A to point B in a logical way? Is the overall flow of the argument clear and logical?
  • How convincing is the overall argument? What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? And why?

These questions will help you evaluate and critically analyse the strength of a particular argument.

Critical thinking is a journey

Thinking critically is difficult and will take time. It’s a skill to develop over the course of your degree. However, if you take anything away from your university studies, the ability to think and act critically is invaluable. Becoming a critical thinker will make your life much more rich and exciting!



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