September 8, 2021, by khyx2lyn

Critical Thinking 101: A guide for students

This piece is written by Nicole Koh, a year 2 psychology student.


The Problem

Let’s face it, you clicked on this article because you wanted to learn how to write better essays. Even after reading through the feedback your TA or lecturers gave, you still do not quite understand what they mean by “lacking critical thinking”. You can barely grasp the concept of “critical thinking” (as vague of a term that may be), let alone figure out how to apply it into your academic essays. Even knowing the definition of critical thinking alone gives little direction as to HOW one can begin to put themselves in the headspace needed for critical thinking.

What the heck is “critical thinking” and how do I express it in my essays?

This article will try to break it down into simple, small steps so that you actually know how to reliably apply critical thinking into your arguments for future assignments and hopefully impress your lecturers in the process! *wink wink* 😉

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What is Critical Thinking?

Although the definition of critical thinking has been widely debated across the years, the general consensus is that it is not merely a single skill (Fisher, 2011). Rather, it is an accumulative set of skills and attitudes which jointly produce the type of arguments we associate with critical thinking. According to Siegal (1988), critical thinking includes skills such as:

  • The ability to analyse the validity of arguments through evidential reasoning. Is something true or falsely misleading?
  • How easy it is for one (disposition) to engage in critical thinking
  • Habits of the mind

Note how Siegal mentions “Habits of the mind”.

In order to apply critical thinking, it would need to be an actionable, step by step process for the individual to execute repeatedly until it eventually develops into a habit. In other words, critical thinking is a habit, involving various thinking patterns if you will.

Another definition that is helpful to include would be the ability to conduct reasonable thinking based on reflective scepticism (Ennis, 1985; McPeck, 1981). Reflecting upon the statements made by researchers and your own personal interpretation of it would be part of the critical thinking process — basically meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking.

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How do you do “Critical Thinking”?

You, me and every other undergrad: Tips on CT ??? (PLEASE OH GOD HELP ME)

1) Be Sceptical about EVERYTHING

When I say sceptical, I mean “Do these psychologists even know what they are arguing about?” level of scepticism. Take each argument and try to imagine an alternative reality where it is false. Maybe psychologists have been approaching the subject in a misguided fashion. What if (insert topic here) was not how we thought it worked? What other alternative explanations could possibly explain this phenomenon?

It is kind of a fun practice to do and it generates questions that direct you towards finding evidence to support your alternative explanation. Furthermore, it forces you to evaluate the validity of research data to craft well-structured, critical arguments (ah hah!). I use the term “craft” as I believe it is much easier to approach CT as a process requiring multiple revisions before you actually develop a solid and well-reasoned argument.

This is especially true when you are trying to justify why you got “non-significant results” in your practical lab report’s discussion section. Which brings me to my next point…

2) RELATE RELATE RELATE

Just like that one family relative that makes you perplexed each time you wonder how you are related, your reader is going to think the same way if your alternative explanations just pop out of nowhere, completely disconnected from the previous points.

This is where you could use the “So what does x mean?” statement to help you draw connections back to your first point.

Simply stating factual data does not show the reader how it is relevant to your main argument. You have to explicitly show them how the research can be interpreted to support your point. This statement recentres your attention to the big picture and forces you to justify why readers should care about your writing.

How is x finding significant? How does that affect me, the targeted population or the research field? What can people do with this new finding? What is the point that I should care about?

This is really the hardest part of scientific writing and the CT process: trying to come up with a theoretical argument that may highlight unventured areas of the research field. This does require some creative muscle thinking so try to be imaginative.

3) Compare and Contrast different explanations

Lastly, identify key differences and similarities between various explanations. Drawing a table helps! This includes different interpretations of a theory and assumptions made by respective researchers. From there, identify missing ideas or unaddressed questions that could aid in formulating your alternative explanation.

Using such key differences, you can attempt to challenge pre-existing assumptions regarding a research topic, even though everyone might be agreeing on the same thing for decades. Obviously, you should back up your theory with relevant supporting research. Otherwise, you will just sound like a lunatic shouting out outrageous claims on the streets (hah).

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Closing Remarks

These are just some guidelines that I have found to be beneficial whenever I need to transition into the “critical thinking mindset”. Feel free to take what resonates and adapt the concepts to fit your style of writing. As a challenge, try to refer back to your previous assignments and analyse how you can reinterpret your arguments using these concepts.

Lastly, I want to point out that background knowledge on the subject plays a part in dictating how easy it will be for you to apply critical thinking analysis into your essays (Lai, 2011).

As an undergraduate, most of the concepts introduced in research papers would still be new to you. This makes it challenging to come up with convincing explanations for your study, given that you will spend half of your research time trying to understand the basic definitions and concepts of the topic. Try not to beat yourself up too much when you struggle to conjure up critical arguments. It takes time and intentional practice before it becomes a natural process and I still struggle with it.

However, I hope that this piece provided clarity on how to initiate the critical thinking thought process and made it less intimidating for you. I did not cover every step involved in the critical thinking process but additional resources will be listed below if you are interested in reading further. Ganbatte! 🙂

 


References

Ennis, R. H. (1985). A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44-48.

Fisher, A. (2011). Critical thinking: An introduction (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Lai, E. R. (2011). Critical thinking: A literature review. Pearson Publishing.

McPeck, J. E. (1990). Critical thinking and subject specificity: A reply to Ennis. Educational Researcher, 19(4), 10-12. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189×019004010

Siegel, H. (1988). Educating reason: Rationality, critical thinking, and education. New York:Routledge.

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