How to Improve Critical Thinking Skills

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Thinking critically doesn't mean you're thinking harder or longer. It doesn't even mean you're necessarily critical. What are critical thinking skills, then, and how can we help improve them? This lesson takes a hard look at critical thinking.

What Are Critical Thinking Skills?

Have you ever solved a complex problem or engaged in a friendly debate with a friend? Even if your topic was 'Who is the best super hero?', you were using your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking uses all of our high-level thinking skills-- analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and reasoning--to guide thought, belief or action. We use these skills in our everyday lives (like when we defend Superman) and our academic lives to show how we solved a problem. With the push for students to think more critically these days, the development of critical thinking skills has received a lot of attention. But why does it matter? Let's take a look.

Why Does Critical Thinking Matter?

Whether you're aware of it or not, you're always thinking. Our brains are machines that don't turn off. Many of our thoughts are a stream of reactions--'that tastes good,' 'I like that shirt,' etc. But sometimes we're called on to be active thinkers, especially in academic situations. In school we're taught not only what to remember and understand, but also how to think. You may not have noticed your teachers doing this, but this style of instruction molds the type of thought necessary for critical thinking. If the teacher requires you to take notes from lectures and gives simple multiple choice tests, you are only being required, and therefore taught, to think on a low recall level. Teachers who ask many questions, interact with students during instruction and require them to defend their thinking are pushing for high-level thinking.

Improving Critical Thinking

Critical thinking requires us to be metacognitive, or to think about our thinking. We do this by analyzing and assessing our thoughts. While some people come about this skill naturally, not everyone is a natural born metacognitive machine. Although there are many ways to hone critical thinking skills, the approach we will discuss in this lesson highlights three steps to take to improve critical thinking:

  • Question

Instead of just saying Superman 'is the bomb,' critical thinkers question why they think so. Instead of just accepting your thoughts and opinions as truth, critical thinkers ask themselves questions to see if what they think is supportable with reason and logic. What kinds of thoughts or behaviors do you have that haven't been questioned? Do you always eat lunch at 11:00, whether you're hungry or not? Or maybe you buy string cheese for health benefits that your sister told you about. Questioning your thoughts, behaviors and actions is step one in improving critical thinking.

  • Investigate

The thing about assumptions and opinions is they aren't proven. You may think Superman is the best, but what do you have to back that up? What evidence does your sister have that string cheese is good for you? Critical thinkers move from questioning to investigating--looking for answers to their questions. Lucky for you, the internet is a vast resource for finding answers--but be careful. Critical thinkers look for solid answers, not just something written online. Check the validity of your research and make sure it comes from a reputable source.

  • Question Again

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