You will find critical thinking skills referenced in your courses, program objectives, information about job opportunities, and professional development and workplace training. What is critical thinking and why is it so important? Being able to think critically, which is evaluative rather than negative, allows us to make better decisions and solve complex problems in both personal and professional contexts. Definitions of critical thinking are not hard to find, but the following examples help us to understand the basic concept and how it applies to learning:
"Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion." – Association of American Colleges and Universities
"Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them." – CriticalThinking.org
The specific components of thinking critically involve a set of skills and characteristics that are relevant across academic disciplines and types of employment. Critical thinking is:
- Open-minded – You are willing to engage in the critical thinking process and to consider multiple options, sources, perspectives, and possible solutions.
- Self-aware – We are each subject to biased thinking based on our own values, viewpoints, and experiences. To think critically you must recognize the potential of these factors to influence your decisions both positively and negatively.
- Inquisitive – Critical thinking requires the active gathering of information through probing questions and research as a basis for making decisions and judging quality; not just accepting an initial thought or proposed solution.
- Evaluative – Critical thinking includes careful assessment of the importance, relevance, and validity of all information gathered.
- Reasoned – Before drawing any conclusions about a given situation or problem, possible solutions are considered and evaluated with the information gathered and your prior knowledge.
Critical Thinking and Online Learning
Robert H. Ennis, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois, presents 21 strategies for teaching critical thinking skills. This list highlights three underlying tactics: Reflection, Reasoning and Alternative Hypotheses. These strategies, when implemented into curricula, require you to purposefully think through your decisions, carefully weighing all of the available information. This process allows you to ask questions that encourage development of reasons for your views and those of others. You also become aware of other possible explanations and a more extended set of available, relevant resources.
Critical thinking is often included in standardized approaches to learning objectives. Take a closer look at several examples from Georgia State University, Clark State Community College, and Arizona Western College. You may find similar references in your course and program learning outcomes. These are addressed through a variety of activities and assessments such as case studies, discussion, and writing assignments. Here are a few online resources for further research on critical thinking skills in education:
- StudyGuides&Strategies.net includes a segment on critical thinking, complete with an interactive exercise that walks the user through specific steps of critical thinking as part of project development.
- The Foundation for Critical Thinking developed an Online Model for Learning the Elements and Standards of Critical Thinking that offers a detailed process for analyzing thinking. This approach provides a line of questioning for each of eight elements of thought, such as concepts, assumptions, and consequences.
- Argument mapping tools, such as TruthMapping.com and others, provide ways to dissect more complex problems and create visual representations of the components and their relationships to one another.
- The Association of American Colleges and Universities developed a Critical Thinking Value Rubric [PDF] to help assess inquiry and analysis across disciplines. Explanation, evidence, influence of context and assumptions, student perspective, and conclusions are each measured against four benchmarks.
Demonstrating Critical Thinking Skills
An infographic from Pearson Education lists specific job titles and categorizes them into three levels of critical thinking based on what is required to perform the jobs. Many vacancy announcements and job descriptions include a reference of some kind to critical thinking and related skills. How can you demonstrate your skills to a potential employer?
Describe your skills. Specifically list critical thinking examples and experience in your resume. Describe the types of decisions you made at various positions and problems you were responsible for solving. Search for job listings that include the term critical thinking for examples of descriptions and wording that might be helpful as you reflect on your own skills and abilities in these areas.
Tell a story about your skills. Prepare several brief narratives about your critical thinking skills in action. Be able to relay these stories about your experiences, and your use of critical thinking elements, in response to interview questions such as "Tell us about a current issue you are working on" and "Describe a challenging situation you faced and how you handled it." Your examples can come from a variety of experiences in school, internship, and job contexts. You can also anticipate a type of interview question that targets problem solving such as, "Why is a manhole cover round?"
Provide evidence of your skills. When possible, provide documented evidence of your critical thinking as part of a career portfolio. These artifacts may be assignments from academic courses, excerpts from reports and presentations of successful problem resolution on-the-job, and formal performance evaluations from past and current supervisors. All should illustrate or address your ability to apply critical thinking skills in the "real world."
For additional information and resources, review the 35 Dimensions of Critical Thought at CriticalThinking.org, Critical Thinking in Education presented by the American Scientific Affiliation, and creative and critical thinking resources from the U.S. Air Force's Air University website. Continue your exploration and refine your abilities to think critically.