Critical Thinking

Learning Objectives

  • Explore the concept of critical thinking

As a college student, you are tasked with engaging and expanding your thinking skills. One of the most important of these skills is critical thinking. Critical thinking relates to nearly all tasks, situations, topics, careers, environments, challenges, and opportunities—it’s not restricted to a particular subject area.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do. It means asking probing questions like, “How do we know?” or “Is this true in every case or just in this instance?” It involves being skeptical and challenging assumptions, rather than simply memorizing facts or blindly accepting what you hear or read.

Imagine, for example, that you’re reading a history textbook. You wonder who wrote it and why, because you detect certain assumptions in the writing. You find that the author has a limited scope of research focused only on a particular group within a population. In this case, your critical thinking reveals that there are “other sides to the story.”

Try It

Who are critical thinkers, and what characteristics do they have in common? Critical thinkers are usually curious and reflective people. They like to explore and probe new areas and seek knowledge, clarification, and new solutions. They ask pertinent questions, evaluate statements and arguments, and they distinguish between facts and opinion. They do not rely on quick, first-order level thinking, but instead use second-level or higher-order thinking skills that require them to think more deeply before jumping to conclusions. They can evaluate their own opinion and judge whether ideas are their own. They are also willing to examine their own beliefs, possessing a manner of humility that allows them to admit a lack of knowledge or understanding when needed. They are fair-minded and open to changing their mind. Perhaps most of all, they actively enjoy learning, and seeking new knowledge is a lifelong pursuit.

Sharpen Your Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills are perhaps the most fundamental skills involved in making judgments and solving problems. You use them every day, and you can continue improving them.

The ability to think critically about a matter—to analyze a question, situation, or problem down to its most basic parts—is what helps us evaluate the accuracy and truthfulness of statements, claims, and information we read and hear. It is the sharp knife that, when honed, separates fact from fiction, honesty from lies, and the accurate from the misleading. We all use this skill to one degree or another almost every day.

For example, we use critical thinking every day as we consider the latest consumer products and why one particular product is the best among its peers. Is it a quality product because a celebrity endorses it? Because a lot of other people may have used it? Because it is made by one company versus another? Or perhaps because it is made in one country or another? These are questions representative of critical thinking.

The academic setting demands more of us in terms of critical thinking than everyday life. It demands that we evaluate information and analyze a myriad of issues. It is an environment where our critical thinking skills can be the difference between success and failure. In this environment, we must consider information in an analytical, critical manner. We must ask questions—What is the source of this information? Is this source an expert one and what makes it so? Are there multiple perspectives to consider on an issue? Do multiple sources agree or disagree on an issue? Does quality research substantiate information or opinion? Do I have any personal biases that may affect my consideration of this information?

It is only through purposeful, frequent, intentional questioning such as this that we can sharpen our critical thinking skills and improve as students, learners, and researchers.

—Dr. Andrew Robert Baker, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom

No matter where you are on the road to being a critical thinker, you can always more fully develop your skills. Doing so will help you develop more balanced arguments, express yourself clearly, read critically, and absorb important information efficiently. Critical thinking skills will help you in any profession or any circumstance of life, from science to art to business to teaching.

Critical Thinking IS Critical Thinking is NOT
Skepticism Memorizing
Examining assumptions Going along with the group
Challenging reasoning Blind acceptance of authority
Uncovering biases Believing everything you read

Watch It

You can view the transcript for “Why Critical Thinking (Study Skills)” here (opens in new window).

Critical thinking is fundamentally a process of questioning. You may question the information you read in a textbook, or you may question what a politician or a professor or a classmate says. You can also question a commonly-held belief or a new idea. With critical thinking, anything and everything is subject to question and examination.

An Example of Critical Thinking

Let’s use a simple example of applying logic to a critical-thinking situation. In this hypothetical scenario, Professor Brown has a PhD in political science, and he works as a professor at a local college. His wife works at the college, too. They have three young children in the local school system, and their family is well known in the community.

Professor Brown is now running for political office. Are his credentials and experience sufficient for entering public office? Will he be effective in the political office? Some voters might believe that his personal life and current job, on the surface, suggest he will do well in the position, and they will vote for him.

In truth, Brown’s characteristics as described above don’t guarantee that he will do a good job. What else might you want to know? How about whether Brown has already held a political office? If so, was he effective? How about Brown’s reputation for personal integrity? Just because he works as a professor does not mean he has experience or skill with the ethical issues of public office. Does he have the leadership skills required to be an effective public leader? Just because he teaches college students does not mean Brown has effective leadership skills. In this case, we want to ask, “How much information is adequate in order to make a decision based on logic instead of assumptions?”

The following questions, presented in Figure 1, below, are ones you may apply to formulate a logical, reasoned perspective in the above scenario or any other situation:

  1. What’s happening? Gather the basic information and begin to think of questions.
  2. Why is it important? Ask yourself why it’s significant and whether or not you agree.
  3. What don’t I see? Is there anything important missing?
  4. How do I know? Ask yourself where the information came from and how it was constructed.
  5. Who is saying it? What’s the position of the speaker and what is influencing them?
  6. What else? What if? What other ideas exist and are there other possibilities?
Infographic titled "Questions a Critical Thinker Asks."

Figure 1. Critical thinkers ask questions to understand the full context of a situation.

Problem-Solving With Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is not just an academic exercise. For most people, a typical day is filled with critical thinking. We use critical thinking to solve problems all the time. For example, consider the following situation. Gisella is doing well in college, and most of her college and living expenses are covered, but there are some gaps between what she wants and what she feels she can afford. She uses critical thinking to analyze her income, savings, and budget to better calculate what she will need to stay in college and maintain her desired level of spending.

Remember, when you apply the skills of a good critical thinker to your academic work or to the problems in your life, your challenge will be less of a hurdle. If you are curious, reflective, knowledge-seeking, open to change, probing, organized, and ethical, you’ll be in a good position to find intelligent solutions.


critical thinking: clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do