Six Steps to Help You Think Critically
February 22, 2019
Critical thinking is a common skill listed on job applications. But what does it really mean to think critically? The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as “Critical thinking is a mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” Their definition continues to describe the process of critical thinking as being rigorous in the desire for excellence, as well as a need for effective communication and problem-solving skills. In essence, critical thinking is a process where a person systematically pulls apart and dissects that which is being said, written, or proposed by others to gain a complete understanding of the matter, and then to further question it.
There are six steps to critical thinking:
Ask Yourself – Is The Speaker or Author Credible?
Do they have the expertise to talk or write about the given topic? Keep in mind, experience or knowledge is not necessarily limited to education or employment. For example, a mother who has had to navigate the insurance system to get proper medical care for her child may be considered an expert.
Does The Speaker or Author Use Valid Examples?
Just like in an argumentative essay, the speaker or author needs to present their viewpoint and support it with specific and valid examples. Without these, their topic, argument, or proposal etc., lacks depth and validity. For example, if we look again to the mother who has navigated the healthcare system. Let’s say claims insurance companies will pay for experimental procedures. If she does not provide specific examples stating how she was able to get the insurance company to pay for an experimental-phase treatment, then simply telling you it is possible, carries no weight and should be questioned.
Are There Other Similar Viewpoints?
Are there other experts in the field discussing similar ideas? We cannot immediately assume someone is not credible because there are no other experts; this one could be the first, but a lack of experts should force us to question the content or the argument and question the speaker or author.
Who Might Have Influence Over The Speaker/Author?
Are there organizations the speaker or author is aligned with that might have influence over them? For example, if an author writes about the lack of evidence to support climate change, and has received large amounts of grant money from oil companies, since oil companies have vested interest in denying the effects of climate change, one must assume the results are tainted due to the relationship with the oil companies.
It is important to ask about what is not being said. What has the speaker or author left out? Push yourself to tease out their thesis or argument to consider every aspect, not just the elements they have raised. While it can be important to take a deep dive into one part of a topic or issue, unless we understand how it all connected, we can’t fully analyze the smaller aspects. In other words, we cannot make an argument or look at a topic in a vacuum.
Are You Looking Inward?
How is your experience shaping your interpretation of the content/topic? Our experience will always inform our viewpoints and thinking, but to think critically, we must step out of our own thoughts and understand how they have been formed. This will allow us to more openly look at the viewpoint of others from a critical perspective
We all know someone who is innately curious, that kid in elementary school who always had their hand up with a thousand questions. But for those who were not born asking question after question, you can train your brain to be more critical. I did not learn to think critically until graduate school. I was one of those black and white, see what is only on the page kind of people. In graduate school, I had to read a wide variety of books, articles, etc., and I was terrified when I had to take a critical theory class. But that class taught me to think critically. The professor forced us to ask questions, think beyond the words on the page, beyond what history told us, and while the exercise was painful at first, it clicked and it became more and more natural.
Use these six steps will help you either begin to think more critically or enhance your critical thinking skills. The more you question and think and tease out details, the more critical thinking will become a habit, something you do without even thinking. Not only will it be beneficial if you are searching for a new job, but overall in both your career and personal life. Very few things are absolute, we live in the realm of gray, which means there are always different viewpoints, different ways to look at one issue, which should lead to questions, many questions.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies