‘Critical thinking’ does not mean being negative! In an academic context, being critical means that you don’t just accept things at face value. At school you might have focused on memorising the ‘right answer’, but at university there is more emphasis on being able to determine for yourself whether you should believe something and how certain you can be.
To do this, you need to go beyond just describing what other people have said, and start asking questions. There are a lot of questions you can ask, but let’s start with two big ones: “Why should I believe this?” and “What does that mean?”
Why should I believe a particular article?
It’s a sad fact that you can’t believe everything you read. This means two things for your writing:
- you need to explain why your reader should believe you
- you need to consider how credible your sources are.
So you’ve got some high-quality sources. Great! But remember, we’re trying to make an argument based on evidence, not just provide a big list of information. That means we need to link our sources back to our topic and to each other. Again, asking questions is a great way to do this:
- How does this information relate to the topic at hand?
- What conclusions can we draw from it?
- Are there any alternative explanations?
- These two sources disagree. Why is that?
- Should we believe one over the other – or perhaps they both have some merit? What are the implications of accepting one or the other?
Don’t be afraid to show original thought! If you just repeat what someone else has said, what do you accomplish? Why wouldn’t I just read the original source? Instead, you need to build on your sources and add value through analysis or critique or interpretation.
If you’re still not sure where to start, there are several resources on the web that can help!
- Dr Joe Lau at the University of Hong Kong has produced an excellent series of online tutorials which cover critical thinking and logic in detail.
- Oxford Brooks University has published a guidebook on critical thinking (PDF) which is aimed at health care students but will also be useful for others.
- If you prefer something more audio-visual, try this video introduction to critical thinking from QualiaSoup.