Critical thinking at university

At school you might have focused on learning the “right” answer, but in the real world things aren’t always so clear-cut. That’s why it’s essential to develop your ability to think and write critically. By Clinton Bell

The world is complex, and filled with conflicting information. It’s not always clear what’s true, and even ideas which seem plausible and are widely accepted can turn out to be wrong (the geocentric model of the solar system is a famous example). Often there is no answer which is objectively correct - only different approaches with different benefits and tradeoffs.

Because of this uncertainty, it’s important that we don’t just accept information or ideas at face value. Instead, we need to establish how strongly they are supported by evidence, what the alternatives are, and what the broader implications of accepting an idea might be.

This kind of evidence-seeking and analysis is what we call “critical thinking”. It’s also what your lecturers want when they say your work is “too descriptive” or that you need to “show more analysis”!
Evaluating sources of evidence

When you’re looking at the evidence for a position, you’ll often rely on information from sources such as research articles, media reports, and others. However, not all sources provide the same level of evidence, and no single source ever provides all the evidence you need. This means you need to look at a variety of sources and carefully consider what evidence they provide.
One way to evaluate your sources is to ask “What, Who, Why, How, and When?”
  • What is this source?
    • What type of source is it - opinion piece, research article, statistical information, case study, something else?
    • What does it say?
    • What doesn’t it say?
  • Who created this source?
    • Do they have any expertise in this field?
    • Do they have biases or interests which might influence their work?
  • Why was this source created?
    • What is its purpose?
    • Who is it aimed at?
  • How did the creators of this source formulate their position?
    • What evidence do they use to support it?
    • Are there any weaknesses or limitations in that evidence?
    • If they conducted research, was it done in a rigorous manner?
      • If they refer to other sources, are those sources reliable? Are they represented accurately and fairly?
      • Are their conclusions logical, based on the evidence they’ve used?
  • When was this created?
    • Is it still relevant?
    • Are there more recent sources or events which cast doubt on its findings?
(Adapted from Woolliams, M, Williams, K, Butcher, R & Pye, J, 2009, ‘Be more critical!’: a practical guide for health and social care students, School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brooks University, Oxford.)

Putting things together

As well as being able to compile and evaluate evidence, you also need to be able to interpret what you’ve found. This means considering how each piece of information relates to the others, as well as developing an overall assessment of what you’ve discovered and how it relates to the topic at hand.
Some key questions might be:
  • What are the alternatives you’ve identified?
    • Are there any similarities between them?
    • What are the major differences?
  • On the whole, how strong is the evidence for each alternative?
    • Are some better supported than others?
    • Is there strong evidence for any of them?
  • If there are conflicting opinions or evidence, why might that be?
  • Based on your analysis, what actions should we take, or what viewpoint should we adopt?
    • What result do you expect from those actions, or what are the implications of that viewpoint?

If you’re writing an essay or a report, don’t be afraid to show original thought when performing this analysis. While you need to ground your work with the evidence you’ve found, in most units you’re expected to build on what you’ve learned rather than simply describing it.

Want to know more?

If you want to know how critical thinking is like choosing an apartment, check out this video on being a critical student from the University of Leicester.
If you prefer the written word, try this helpful introduction to critical thinking from Edinburgh Napier University.
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