Not only will a critical thinking exercise come up in your coursework but it is an essential skill for surviving in the work arena. Failing to grasp this concept will not only trip you up at uni., it will also make your working life much harder than it needs to be.
Things look different depending on where you stand
When you are asked to apply the basic principles of critical thinking, it is generally to help lecturers and subsequently employers see whether you have a mind of your own or whether you are in fact just letting others tell you what to think. Critical thinking requires you to think ‘out of the box’.
After coming through a school system, that in many cases teaches you the opposite i.e. learn the facts you are given and regurgitate them in order to pass the exam, this can sometimes prove difficult. If you have been bought up on this system then now is the time to shake it off. You simply can not afford to accept information at face value without questioning it in some way and the two most relevant principles that you need to apply are:
- Analyse your own beliefs and prejudices; and
- examine the facts and consider the alternatives.
Because critical thinking centres not on answering questions but on questioning answers, you job is to question, analysing and evaluating the statements you have been given. How you think is infinitely more important than what you think. As a basic rule you need to question:
- Is it true?
- How do I know it is?
- How did I reach that conclusion?
- Did I consider …. ?
- Would it be better if we …..?
- Does doing …. have any affect on that?
- What factors went into making my decision?
- Is it likely that the person making the statement knows about … ?
1. Just because the statement or belief is popular doesn’t make it true.
2. Check the source. Who wrote the article or scripted the statement? How knowledgeable is the source? Do they have a particular ‘angle’ or bias?
3. Use different sources.
4. Always favour prime sources.
5. Check the date.
6. Check the publisher, person or company funding the research and be cautious of research funded by a company with a particular aim.
7. Most statements are based on certain assumptions. Question those assumptions.
8. Be sceptical of surveys and polls.
9. Be really sceptical of information on Wikipedia or social media. Web sites like Facebook and Twitter have the capacity to spread information in minutes. Often that information is unreliable.
10. Look out for trends. If the method of measurement is consistent you may be able to detect a rise, fall or cycle.
11. Make chronological comparisons to see whether recent performance is impressive or merely continuation of a trend.
12. Make geographical comparisons.
13. Always look for evidence.
14. Be ready to change your mind if the evidence changes.
15. Always consider alternative explanations.
16. Beware of making assumptions.
17. Don’t jump to conclusions. As a wise man once said: “Some people take no mental exercise apart from jumping to conclusions”.
18. Look for cause and effect. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation.
19. Never be blindly reliant of the facts of government or corporations. The scientist Albert Einstein once remarked: “Foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth”. Remember Galileo was excommunicated for challenging the Church’s view that the sun, the planets and the stars revolved around the earth.
20. Challenge the view that “There is no alternative”. There is always an alternative – even if it is simply doing nothing and waiting to see what happens.
21. Beware of group thinking. It can be seductive especially where there is a sense of loyalty to friends or respect of an authority figure.
22. Beware of anecdotes they are not evidence.
23. On the other hand, trust your instincts.
24. Be aware that the mere presence of the report writer or knowledge that a report is being written can sometimes change the situation. A sort of placebo effect.
25. Seek out statements that actually mean something. Statements such as “I think that, if we tried harder, we may do better” or “At some stage, we may see improvements in performance” are meaningless. Look for more meaningful sentences like “We will improve sales by 10% before the end of the Financial Year”. Employers will apply the same principles to statements made in by you in your CV.
If you are going to successfully train yourself to think critically it is worth considering a SWOT analysis. This is a strategic planning method used to assess the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats involved in a project or situation. It can be a relatively quick way to weighing things up and encourages you to see things from various angles.
Finally, critical thinking should not be confused with being negative or argumentative and it isn’t a skill that you can develop overnight – but keep at it you’ll soon find yourself making better decisions, fewer mistakes and on the road to success.