Critical thinking is a core skill that higher education students need to hone and demonstrate in their assignments. It is also central to being a scientist, researcher, academic or professional in any field.
Critical thinking was first conceptualilsed by Socrates (470BC-399BC, Athens). The Greek philosopher disputed the fact that people in authority necessarily have accurate knowledge. He would question people who thought they knew about a certain topic, and reveal flaws in the logic and evidence they relied on. Socrates established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications. Appreciating the complexities of the world, he is said to have claimed “I know that I know nothing".
In the United Kingdom, the higher your education level, the more crucial critical thinking becomes. At the postgraduate level you are expected to master critical thinking.
Critical thinking has been defined as follows: “[c]ritical thinking occurs when students attempt to make reasoned judgments based on relevant criteria.” (The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2015). Therefore, critical thinking has two main components:
After all, the English word ‘criticism’ comes from the ancient Greek verb krino meaning ‘to judge’. A ‘critic’ was a judge, who
Use critical thinking effectively in your assignments by:
Only the most repetitive tasks do not require critical thinking. Critical thinking is instead sought after by most employers and provides a key to success in your career.
Critical thinking in accountancy:
"Critical thinking has been recognized as one of the skills required by employers... there was a shift in clients’ expectations, from merely mechanical tasks to 'added-value' services. Clients now expected professional accountants to evaluate complex systems and information, as well as detect, predict, advice and recommend appropriate courses of action" (Muhamad and Sulaiman, 2013, p13).
Critical thinking in finance:
“To succeed in a competitive business environment, newly minted finance professionals must be strong critical thinkers who can analyze complex finance problems, see meanings in data, and communicate effectively with both lay and professional audiences” (Carrithers, Ling and Bean, 2008, p152).
Critical thinking in science:
“Finding appropriate solutions for problems, both within the areas of Biology, of Medicine, or of any other scientific/technological area, requires the use of [critical thinking] abilities for individuals to make decisions, based on the relevance of the reasons found, rejecting partiality and arbitrariness in the assessment of arguments” (Vieira, Tenreiro-Vieira and Martins, 2011, p46).
Critical thinking in law:
“… when we use the phrase thinking like a lawyer, we are describing no more, no less, than the critical thinking that a lawyer applies to the situations he faces in order to deal with them effectively. The two integral elements are the critical thinking skills and the ability to use those skills, not abstractly as in solving puzzles, but in dealing with real legal situations” (Mudd, 1983, p709).
One important application of critical thinking is solving problems, which is a key skill at most workplaces. UK universities commit to prepare students for their work life, and encourage students not only to gain knowledge, but to learn how to use it.
Problems can be divided into well-structured and ill-structured problems. Well-structured problems have right answers, for example mathematical problems that can be solved with deduction. Ill-structured problems have "best/better solutions", which need to be justified with evidence and argumentation. All types of problems need critical thinking to be solved.
Critical thinking for "well-structured" problems
Try solving the following problem:
Do you feel like another challenge? You can try the Wason selection task.
Thinking, fast and slow
Those problems illustrate the point that problems need to be solved with critical thinking. Only very simple problems can be solved with intuition. Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahnemann maintains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that there are two systems in our mind: System 1, which operates automatically and quickly, and System 2, which allocates attention to effortful mental activities. All too often System 1 takes initiative when it really should be System 2 to intervene. Unless the situation we are facing requires nothing but our intuition, we should try to use System 2, thinking "slowly" and carefully. “Those who avoid the sin of intellectual sloth could be called ‘engaged’. They are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions” (Kahnemann, 2011, p.46)
Ill-structured problems, which do not have right or wrong answers, but only better or worse answers, are the most common in real life. You can see some of your assignments as discussions of ill-structured problems, which require research, analysis and argumentation. Please check the sections on Critical reading and Critical writing for more guidance.
IDEALS to solve problems
Looking for an algorithm to solve problems? You can try use the Six Steps to Effective Thinking and Problem Solving, or “IDEALS” (Facione, 2007 cited in Snyder and Snyder 2008, p96):
I - Identify the Problem: What is the real question we are facing?
D - Define the Context: What are the facts that frame this problem?
E - Enumerate the Choices: What are plausible options?
A - Analyze Options: What is the best course of action?
L - List Reasons Explicitly: Why is this the best course of action?
S - Self-Correct: Look at it again … What did we miss?
Carrithers, D., Ling, T., and Bean, J.C. (2008). Messy problems and lay audiences: teaching critical thinking within the finance curriculum. Business Communication Quarterly, 71(2), 152-170.
Kahnemann, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin
Mudd, J. (1983). Thinking Critically About "Thinking Like a Lawyer". Journal of Legal Education, 33(4), 704-711. Available from www.jstor.org/stable/42897916 [Accessed 13 May 2020]
Muhamad, R and Sulaiman, A. D. (2013). Higher order or critical thinking: does accounting education need reforms? Journal of Accounting Perspectives, 6, 12-20.
Snyder L.G. and Snyder M. (2008). Teaching Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills. The Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, L(2), 90-99.
Student Learning Advisory Service, University of Kent (no date). Critical thinking and writing. University of Kent. Available from https://www.kent.ac.uk/learning/documents/student-support/value-map/valuemap1516/criticalthinkingandwriting171015alg.pdf [Accessed 16 January 2020].
The Critical Thinking Consortium (2015). Promoting critical thinking in science. The Critical Thinking Consortium. Available from https://tc2.ca/uploads/PDFs/TIpsForTeachers/Tips4Teachers_Promotingcriticalthinkinginscience.pdf [Accessed 16 January 2020]
Vieira, R., Tenreiro-Vieira, C., and Martins, I. (2011). Critical thinking: conceptual clarification and its importance in science education. Science Education International, 22(1), 43–54