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Critical Thinking

Practice interrogating evidence and evaluating logic to help you construct better arguments.

By: Tom Chatfield, Editor-in-Chief

What is critical thinking - and why does it matter? In this module, we’ll explore the ways in which critical thinking skills underpin confident, critically engaged learning, and how they can help you succeed in your studies as well as in the wider world.

We’ll begin with Why Should I Care About Critical Thinking?, which looks at the fundamental principles of scepticism and critical engagement. The skill asks you to consider what it means to resist uncritical thinking, and to put claims and evidence to a meaningful test rather than accepting them at face value. We’ll also look at why these skills are vital when it comes to developing and demonstrating understanding in any field - and what it means to cultivate the habits of critical engagement and independent thought in practice.

Next, Language, Rhetoric, and Clarity looks at the ways in which the words we use can contain different kinds of bias and persuasive effect - and the importance of being able to assess these effects as impartially as possible. We’ll learn about cutting through jargon and obscurity, about the importance of clarity and close reading, and why persuasion isn’t necessarily a bad thing - so long as you understand what is being claimed (and why).

Building on this, we’ll move to Identifying and Reconstructing Arguments to look at the nature of arguments in the sense of reasoned persuasion - and why being able to offer good reasons in support of a conclusion, and to analyse others’ reasoning, is one of the most important of all study skills. We’ll look at what it means to reconstruct arguments accurately; how to analyse and test them; and (in Deductive and Inductive Reasoning) at the differences between deductive and inductive reasoning. These correspond to logical and probabilistic forms of thinking respectively, and between them describe the main ways in which reasoning and evidence are put to work across almost every academic discipline.

These foundational skills will allow us, in Fallacies and How to Spot Them, to identify a variety of types of fallacious reasoning, in which faulty hidden assumptions are smuggled into lines of reasoning - either accidentally or with the intention of manipulating or deceiving. Avoiding faulty reasoning in your own work, while being alert to its presence in others’ arguments, will stand you in good stead both for your studies and the world beyond - and should help you build rigorous, forceful arguments and analyses with confidence.

The Power of Good Explanations looks at explanations, in the sense of reasoning about why things are the way they are and analyses the ways in which both assessing and testing explanations are central to rigorous research and the scientific method. Here, you’ll explore fundamental study skills around experimental investigations, hypotheses, theories, and the reasoned analysis of everyday events - as well as what it means to compare the merits of rival explanations.

In Evaluating Evidence Effectively, we’ll look specifically at the nature of evidence, and what it means to use both primary and secondary resources with confidence in your own work. We’ll investigate different ways in which evidence can be assessed, used, and compared; how to evaluate it for such factors as relevance, authority, and authenticity; and what it means to engage with a wide variety of sources critically and confidently. We’ll also delve into the realms of online disinformation and misinformation, and what it means to identify, resist, and analyse these.

Heuristics and Cognitive Biases explores some of the most universal obstacles to critical thinking: heuristics and cognitive biases, which describe the instinctual and potentially irrational ways in which our minds make sense of the world. We’ll look at what it means both to mitigate against and make use of these factors - and the importance of engaging with universal tendencies such as confirmation, recency, and survivorship biases if you hope to succeed in your studies.

The last two skills (Overcoming Bias and Putting Critical Thinking Into Practice) focus on practical strategies for overcoming bias, working and thinking effectively, and for reflecting upon your personal preferences, needs, strengths, and aspirations. What will it mean for you to take control of your time and attention, and find focus, amid potentially overwhelming distractions and digital resources? What specific reading, writing, and research techniques will support you in demonstrating your knowledge and understanding; in delivering high quality work on time; and in identifying and engaging constructively with your unique learning needs?

By the time you finish this module, I hope you’ll have both explored and begun to answer these questions - and put in place a plan to support your ongoing development as an independent, critically-engaged thinker, student, and citizen.

Suggested Reading
  • Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s Think (OUP, 1999) offers a pocket-sized introduction to some of the biggest questions in philosophy. A great way to spark critical thoughts!
  • The podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day offers fascinating, humane reflections upon things that went wrong - and what rich, compassionate critical reflection means.
  • You’ll find a rich, regularly updated series of free articles connecting critical thinking and real-world problems at The Conversation.
  • Fact-checking charity FullFact offers some extremely useful online tools to help you spot bad and misleading information - and work out when you may be being manipulated.
  • What does constructive critical engagement with others look like? For a pithy, heartfelt guide, see How to Disagree: Negotiate Difference in a Divided World (White Lion, 2019) by Adam Ferner and Darren Chetty.
Page citation: Chatfield, T. (2022). Critical thinking. SAGE Skills: Student Success. https://sk.sagepub.com/skills/student-success/critical-thinking