1. What is critical thinking?
The word “critical” can mean different things in different contexts. For example, it can refer to the importance of something, or can also mean pointing out the negative aspects of something, ie to criticise something.
However, critical thinking at university does not mean looking only for the most important aspects of a topic or just criticising ideas. It is also about not accepting what you read or hear at face value, but always questioning the information, ideas and arguments you find in your studies.
Critical thinking is a key skill that should be applied to all aspects of your studies. As a university student, you need to be able to think critically about the resources and information you use in your work. You need to ask the right questions when reading the work of others; your writing needs to show you have the ability to weigh up different arguments and perspectives and use evidence to help you form your own opinions, arguments, theories and ideas. Critical thinking is about questioning and learning with an open mind.
Critical thinking should help you to:
- interpret evidence, data, arguments, etc. and be able to identify the significance to your assignment question
- develop well-reasoned arguments of your own for your assignments
- use and draw on evidence to justify your arguments and ideas
- synthesise your thoughts and the thoughts of differing authors/researchers/theorists.
2. A model for critical thinking
Try using our critical thinking model to help you develop a more systematic and analytical approach to your studies and to develop your critical thinking, reading and writing skills.
The model shows you how to use common questioning words such as “What?”, “Who?”, “How?”, “Why?” and “What if?” to take you through the stages of description, analysis and evaluation:
- Describe what you are reading.
- Analyse the material’s core arguments and conclusions.
- Evaluate its significance and its successes / failures.
We start with the descriptive segment of the model. At this stage you should ask yourself: “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When?” and “Why?”
These questions will generate purely descriptive answers. You will gain a general understanding of who wrote the text, when it was written, and what the main ideas or arguments are.
Through answering these questions you will only be able to reiterate what an author has said, but not demonstrate your understanding of the significance of the text.
Whilst these questions are important to gain an initial understanding of an issue, topic or text, this is not thinking critically. For that we need to ask more in-depth and challenging questions.
We now move on to the analysis stage. We are not going to accept at face value what we have read, seen or heard.
We need to:
- pull it apart and explain and examine how each part fits into the whole
- give reasons, comparing and contrasting different elements
- show our understanding of relationships.
At this stage we are interested in the process or method, as well as the causes, theories and evidence. These questions, especially ‘how?’ and ‘why?’, will help you to develop more analytical answers and deeper thinking.
For example, you might ask yourself:
- How has the author reached their conclusions?
- What method has been used and was the method appropriate?
- Why does the author think what they think?
- Is relevant and reliable evidence used to support any arguments, ideas or conclusions presented?
- Does the data presented support the conclusions made?
Finally we come to the evaluative segment. This involves judging the failure or success of something, its implications, significance and/or value.
Evaluation leads us to conclusions or recommendations. This contains questions such as ‘what if?’ and ‘so what?’
Asking these questions will help you to assess the worth and significance of what you have read.
Questions might include:
- How relevant is this text to your purpose?
- What do you think about what you have read?
- What is your position on the subject?
- How does this relate to other information you have read or heard?
- Does it contradict, support or challenge other evidence?
You won’t need to think or read about everything in this much depth. Sometimes just asking the descriptive questions may be enough, for example if you are just reading something to gain a basic understanding of a topic. It is when you need to make sense of and produce assignments, in particular, that you need to engage critically with a topic and this model can be used to help you.
3. Critical reading
You will select sources and read them in different ways depending on their value to your assignment. For example, you might read to:
- get a general overview of the text, for which skimming through it may be adequate;
- look for specific information or to understand some core concepts by scanning the text; or
- examine the text in depth and actively ask questions of the source, in order to understand its relevance and reliability for your own research topic.
The last approach is particularly important for any work you submit for assessment.
You should ask yourself:
- Why am I reading this? Are you reading for a presentation, assignment, pre-reading for a lecture, or for finding ideas?
- What do I want to get out of it? Are you looking for specific facts, a general idea of the content, the author’s viewpoint?
- What do I already know?
- How will I know when I have read enough?
Select what and how to read
Usually, you can’t read all the texts you find on a topic, or even everything suggested on a long reading list. You need to make choices and be selective.
Opt for quality and not quantity, and choose reliable and current sources. We also recommend that you start with an easy text to give you an overview of the topic.
You could choose one of four main reading strategies. These are:
- Predicting: making an educated guess about what the text is about before you start to read.
- Scanning: looking through the text very quickly to look for keywords.
- Skimming: reading the introduction and the first line of each paragraph to work out what the text is about.
- Intensive reading: reading a short section of text slowly and carefully.
4. Evaluating information
Your work will benefit from using high-quality evidence and information. But with so much information out there, how can you decide what to use? Not everything you find, particularly on the web, is of a good standard or appropriate for academic study. You need to be able to think critically and judge what is relevant and appropriate for your purpose.
Think about each source by asking yourself:
- Who is the author and what are their interests?
- Is the material objective?
- When was the material published? Is the information up-to-date?
- What evidence is provided?
- How relevant is the material to your work?
Critical reading questions
Once you have made an initial judgement that a source appears to be useful and relevant, you then need to analyse it in more depth by asking appropriate questions of the source that determine whether the research, ideas or arguments presented are worthy of discussion in your writing.
Some of the questions you need to ask yourself are:
- What is the main purpose of this text?
- When was it written and in what context?
- Is the author an expert or academic?
- How convincing is their argument/conclusion and why (not)?
- Has something been omitted? What and why?
- How is this text significant to your research?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of this text?
- What is your position on the subject?
- Does it contradict or support other evidence?
- What else needs considering?
The questions will help you to evaluate the relevance and significance of the reading at hand to your research. You will be prompted to make the decision on how you will use the reading and what the relation is between this reading and the other information you have read.
However, this is not a comprehensive list and you may need to adapt or add your own questions for your subject, different assignments or a particular purpose.
Evaluating the author’s argument
When you have found a section of text that is directly relevant to your essay title or research, you need to slow down and read it more intensively. Critical reading is about analysing and evaluating the author’s argument, not just looking for information.
The author should outline their viewpoint clearly and provide evidence from reliable sources to back this up.
- Is the author’s argument clear? How is it presented?
- What evidence is provided? How is it used and interpreted?
- Is the argument convincing? How does it reach its conclusion?
Making effective notes
Making meaningful notes as you read can help you to clarify your thinking, organise your ideas and engage critically with the information.
5. Critical writing
Students sometimes receive feedback such as “your essay is too descriptive” or “you need to show more critical analysis”. While some description may be necessary – for instance if you are providing background information – most university assignments require you to produce work that is analytical and critical in its approach.
Your tutors want to know what you think
Your writing needs to show your interpretation of the evidence and source material, how you have used that information to demonstrate your understanding, and your subsequent position on the topic. Being critical in your writing means engaging in academic debates and research happening in your subject area.
The sources you select, the way you show how they agree or disagree with other pieces of evidence, and the way you structure your argument will all show your thought process and how you have understood the information you have read.
Use evidence to strengthen your position
You can use evidence to help you strengthen your position, answer readers’ questions, and “neutralise” opposing points of view.
Remember to keep descriptive statements to a minimum – there is no need to provide large amounts of background or historical information.
Make sure you move from description to analysis and evaluation – give your interpretation of the facts, and explain the significance, consequences and/or implications of the statements you have made.
Descriptive vs critical writing examples
The following examples demonstrate the difference between descriptive writing and critical/analytical writing. They are taken from Cottrell, S. 2003. The Study Skills Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave.
State what happened vs identify its significance
To write critically you will need to not only describe what happened, but also identify the significance of what happened.
“The data shows that the incidence (new cases) of asthma rates in children under 15 years old increased rapidly from 1977, peaking in 1993 and then declining, though rates still remain significantly higher than pre-1976 levels.”
“The trend, from 1977 until 1993, of a rapid rise in rates of asthma diagnosis in children under 15 years, suggests that one of the causal factors was particularly prevalent during this time, but has since declined in importance or effect.”
Explain the theory vs show its relevance
Descriptive writing will explain what the theory says. To write critically you need to go further and show why that theory is relevant.
“Carl Rogers’ theory of a person-centred approach focuses on the freedom of the individual to determine what values should be used to measure successful personal outcomes or benefit, and is particularly relevant for social workers when wanting to take into account the diverse needs of the client group.”
“Carl Rogers’ theory of a person-centred approach is particularly suitable for social workers wanting to work with a client group with diverse needs because it allows the client to determine what values should be used to measure successful outcomes, rather than those externally determined by, for example, the service, state or dominant culture in society.”
Note the method used vs indicate its appropriateness
Rather than simply noting the method used, which is the descriptive approach, a critical writer will show how appropriate that method was.
“In addition to competency-based questions, the candidates were asked to complete an in-tray exercise, which required them to allocate different priority levels to tasks, as an appropriate method to measure their likely performance in the actual job.”
“In addition to competency-based questions, candidates were asked to complete an in-tray task prioritisation exercise. This was because it was considered a more effective way to measure likely performance in the actual role as the majority of the job would involve similar tasks, with little interaction with customers and therefore less requirement for highly developed communication skills.”