What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a very important part of academic research. It involves being able to objectively evaluate different academic arguments and reach your own evidence-based conclusions after careful analysis. It’s a very important skill that is essential if you want to get high grades in your essay or dissertation.

I had to work hard at strengthening my ability to think critically – it wasn’t something that came naturally or quickly, and I think this is true of many people. So in this blog post I thought I’d share some advice about how critical thinking can be developed.

How can I critically evaluate a topic?

– Read widely from a range of reputable academic sources, especially academic journals.
– Consider opposing arguments and theories – can you identify their strengths and weaknesses?
– Can you think of limitations of the methods used in different studies? – e.g. sample size, method of data collection, type of data collected.
– How reliable is the data?
– Do you agree with how the results have been interpreted?
– Do the results answer the research questions posed?
– Have the results been used to account for a larger problem? Should they be generalised in this way?

Techniques for developing critical thinking

Read academic journal papers

This really helped me to become a better critical thinker. If you’re researching a particular topic, start by selecting a few articles written by key academics from your particular field. Look at how they structure their discussion, how they introduce and evaluate opposing arguments and then reach their own conclusions. This should also strengthen your academic writing in general because the more you read, the easier it becomes to adopt this style of writing.

Note-taking

The key is to not be a passive note-taker, simply writing down relevant quotes without critically engaging with the material. Instead, you should try to objectively consider different arguments and examine alternative perspectives. What I found very useful was to print out journal articles or photocopy book chapters, highlight key points and then write my own notes at the side – I’d often start by evaluating the methods used. You don’t have to use everything you write at the side, but just the act of critiquing what you read rather than simply accepting it as fact helps you to become a more critical thinker.

Summarise what you read

Another useful technique is to read an academic paper or book chapter and then summarise the main arguments in a couple of paragraphs. In the next paragraph you could write about the strengths and weaknesses of the methods used or the arguments put forward. Concisely evaluating an academic study really helps to refine the critical thinking process.

Mind maps of particular topics

When you’ve read widely about a topic, you could perhaps make a mind map showing how all the different (and sometimes opposing) ideas and theories relate to each other. You could also include your own arguments and conclusions on the mind map.

Participate in seminar discussions

Discussing and debating ideas with your course-mates is another really good way of becoming a better critical thinker. Different people often contribute different perspectives about a particular issue, and being able to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of certain academic arguments is a valuable experience.

Extending critical thinking to your non-academic life

Critical thinking isn’t something that’s limited to academia; it’s a transferable skill that you can practise in everyday life too. Simply being more objective and questioning what you read in the papers can help to improve your critical thinking over time.

Hope this helps, and if you have any tips on things that helped you to become a better critical thinker, please feel free to share them in the comments. :)

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