In essence, critical thinking is a search for truth. In college and in life you’ll be confronted by a mass of information and ideas. Much of what you read and hear will seem suspect, and a lot of it will be contradictory. (If you have ever talked back to a TV commercial or doubted a politician’s campaign promises, you know this already.) How do you decide what to believe? More than one right answer to any given question might exist. The tasks are to determine which of the “truths” you read or hear are the most plausible and then draw on them to develop ideas of your own. Difficult problems practically demand that you weigh options and think through consequences before you can reach an informed decision. Critical thinking also involves improving the way you think about a subject, statement, or idea. To do that, you’ll need to ask questions, consider several different points of view, and draw your own conclusions.
The first step of thinking critically is to engage your curiosity. Instead of accepting statements and assertions at face value, question them. When you come across an idea or a “fact” that strikes you as interesting, confusing, or suspicious, ask yourself first what it means. Do you fully understand what is being said, or do you need to pause and think to make sense of the idea? Do you agree with the statement? Why or why not? Can the material be interpreted in more than one way?
Don’t stop there. Ask whether you can trust the person or institution making a particular claim, and ask whether they have provided enough evidence to back up an assertion (more on this later). Ask who might be likely to agree or disagree and why. Ask how a new concept relates to what you already know, where you might find more information about the subject, and what you could do with what you learn. Finally, ask yourself about the implications and consequences of accepting something as truth. Will you have to change your perspective or give up a long-held belief? Will it require you to do something differently? Will it be necessary to investigate the issue further? Do you anticipate having to try to bring other people around to a new way of thinking?
Once you start asking questions, you’ll typically discover a slew of different possible answers competing for your attention. Don’t be too quick to latch onto one and move on. To be a critical thinker, you need to be fair and open-minded, even if you don’t agree with certain ideas at first. Give them all a fair hearing because your goal is to find the truth or the best action, not confirm what you already believe.
You will often recognize the existence of competing points of view on your own, perhaps because they’re held by people you know personally. You might discover them in what you read, watch, or listen to for pleasure. Reading assignments might deliberately expose you to conflicting arguments and theories about a subject, or you might encounter differences of opinion as you do research for a project.
In class discussions your instructors might also present more than one valid point of view. For instance, bilingual education is a hotly debated topic. Your instructor might want you to think about which types of students would or would not benefit from bilingual teaching and provide very specific reasons for your point of view. Instructors themselves often disagree with the experts and will sometimes identify flaws in widely accepted theories. Instructors will also sometimes reinforce your personal views and ask you to elaborate on how your own life experiences help you relate to what you are reading or learning in class.
The more ideas you entertain, the more sophisticated your own thinking will become. Ultimately, you will discover not only that it is OK to change your mind, but that a willingness to do so is the mark of a reasonable, educated person.
Once you have considered different points of view, it’s up to you to reach your own conclusions, craft a new idea based on what you’ve learned, or make a decision about what you’ll do with the information you have.
This process isn’t necessarily a matter of figuring out the best idea. Depending on the goals of the activity, it might be simply the one that you think is the most fun or the most practical, or it might be a new idea of your own creation. For a business decision it might involve additional cost-benefit analysis to decide which computer equipment to purchase for your office. In a chemistry lab it might be a matter of interpreting the results of an experiment. In a creative writing workshop students might collaborate to select the most workable plot for a classmate’s short story. Or a social worker might conduct multiple interviews before recommending a counseling plan for a struggling family.
Drawing conclusions involves looking at the outcome of your inquiry in a demanding, critical way. If you are trying to solve a problem, which possible solutions seem most promising after you have conducted an exhaustive search for information? Do some answers conflict with others? Which solutions can be achieved? If you have found new evidence, what does that new evidence show? Do your original beliefs hold up? Do they need to be modified? Which notions should be abandoned? Most important, consider what you would need to do or say to persuade someone else that your ideas are valid. Thoughtful conclusions aren’t very useful if you can’t share them with others.