If you have ever applied for a job before you’ve likely encountered this requirement: critical thinking skills.
Throughout our day-to-day lives, we are constantly presented with choices that we need to make. Should I hit the snooze button? Should I wear a tie or not? Should I ask for a raise at work?
All these choices make us stop for a moment to evaluate our options. If I hit the snooze button, then I’ll get more sleep but might be late for work. If I don’t hit the snooze button I might be tired for work, but at least I’ll show up on time. This deconstruction of weighing the pros and cons is what critical thinking is all about.
According to the University of Toronto, critical thinking is the practice of using a number of different advanced thinking techniques in a variety of complex ways.
Obviously, this can sound like a fairly vague definition. In its most basic sense, critical thinking involves gathering massive amounts of information, systematically analyzing that information, and making rational and informed conclusions.
To go into more detail, we split critical thinking skills into three general components:
- it focuses on how things are proven or presented,
- it involves reflection on our decisions and the process,
- and it is discipline specific.
How is critical thinking different than regular thinking?
To examine the difference between these two thinking techniques, we need to look at three things:
- what we are focusing on,
- how do we do it,
- and what’s the ultimate goal.
With regular thinking, we focus on the facts at hand. For example, it’s 7:30 am, I’m going to be late for work.
Next, we attempt to construct relationships between different ideas and develop inferences based on those relationships.
Finally, we form a plan of action for what we are thinking about.
When it comes to critical thinking skills, the main idea is that the regular thinking process is undertaken in much more detail. We focus on different points of views or opinions and the merits of each.
Next, we examine the relationships in depth. We must evaluate not only other people’s methods of thinking, but also our own.
Finally, we use the material we have assessed to make an informed decision about what we have been thinking about, and how we thought about it.
In a sense, we are thinking about thinking.
Simple enough right?
Well, without further ado, here are 10 sure-fire ways to improve your critical thinking skills.
1. Know what question you want to ask
Before thinking about any idea critically, you want to know what question you are trying to ask.
You must approach the question with an open mind and understand the reason why you want this particular problem solved. To improve your critical thinking skills, you must examine the question from a logical standpoint, not an emotional one.
2. Be self-aware
One of the most important characteristics of people who think critically is that they are self-aware. They know that they aren’t always right.
Critical thinkers are open to the views and opinions of others and will take their input into consideration with the same weight as their own.
3. Act with integrity
Again, we are trying to improve our thinking skills, not our ability to always be right.
To be a productive thinker, one must act honestly and with integrity. It’s only by acting with integrity that eventually we can come to a rational and logical conclusion.
4. Ask simple questions
Going back to tip #1, the question you want to ask doesn’t need to be profoundly difficult. Does every earthly problem require a drawn out and elaborate thinking process?
Sometimes when we overthink things, the original question gets lost in the quagmire.
To combat this, break the overall question into smaller ones: what do I currently know about the problem? How did I come to know this information? What am I trying to solve?
5. Don’t assume things
Assuming makes an *** out of you and me. You know the old saying. Even if something is globally assumed, you should question it.
Way back in the day people assumed the Earth was flat. However, because critical thinkers don’t assume things, they analyzed the data and came to know that the Earth was a sphere.
6. Swap relationships
For example, let’s just say that excessive video game use causes us to smoke. Instead of looking at relationships from one point of view, try swapping them. Does smoking cause excessive video game use?
Although this example is merely hypothetical, switching variables in relationships allows to deconstruct these relationships and make more informed decisions.
7. Gather the information you’re presented with and evaluate it without bias
Tip #2 tells us that to be a critical thinker we must be self-aware. Aware that other people’s opinions are just as important as our own. Therefore, we need to take the information they present to us and evaluate it in the same way that we evaluate our own.
For example, if someone told you about the relationship between video games and smoking, you should ask yourself how they got this information and why.
This is the main concept behind the media reporting on a new scientific study. Every day the media tells us that some new study shows how X causes Y. But, as all scientists know, correlation does not prove causation. We need to examine who conducted the study, how they conducted it, and why they conducted it.
8. Don’t solely rely on others
Although critical thinking requires intense levels of research and analysis, don’t sell yourself short. Even if you are not an expert in the question you want answered, you should never discount your own views and ideas. Sure, you might not be an expert on Quantum Entanglement, but always include your own thoughts (however limited they may be) in the thinking process.
9. Combine all the information gathered from tips #1-#8
You’ve been open-minded, you sought others advice, you were unbiased, and you didn’t make assumptions. Now you need to combine all of this information to make a conclusion.
You have all your deconstructed ideas and opinions and now need to weigh the implications of each decision. In other words, you’re examining the pros and cons of one decision vs. the other.
You’ve done your research on Quantum Entanglement so now it’s time to decide if you are for it, or against it. Weigh the pros and the cons, examine the implications of your choice, and arrive at a logical conclusion.
10. Don’t try and think critically exclusively
Critical thinking involves massive amounts of research, information processing, and analysis. Obviously, you can’t think this way all the time. You would never get anything done!
Should you hit the snooze button? “Well, let’s examine my own rationale and the views of my co-workers, and then conduct extensive literature research on the relationship between sleeping and work productivity”.
By the time you thought about this decision critically, you already missed a full day of work and the point is moot. Save your critical thinking skills for the important decisions in life. Like that honors thesis or your investment strategy.
There you have it, 10 sure-fire ways to improve your critical thinking skills.
When it comes to improving thinking skills, the jargon can get fairly wordy and complicated. If this all seems confusing, the best course of action would be to think critically about critical thinking!
Okay, maybe that didn’t lessen the confusion.
Regardless, if you want to make informed and sound decisions in life, critical thinking is your friend. It is in your best interests to learn these tips, apply them, and get thinking about thinking!