Critical thinking skills
The following information aims to help you understand how to approach critical thinking in an academic context.
VIDEO TRANSCRIPT (by DAVID SOTIR – VERSION 13.04.18)
Many students find it challenging to truly understand the concept of critical thinking. At university, critical thinking is an extremely important skill to cultivate and develop. It’s all about asking questions. University assessments require you to make evaluations or judgements based on information that’s presented. It’s considered a fundamental part of scholarly studies.
Critical thinking, reading and writing involves questioning ideas, theories, assumptions, or the validity of information. It’s this healthy scepticism that’s encouraged in an academic context. Critical thinking allows you to think more deeply about the subject matter which means you’re more likely to produce a higher quality of work academically.
You can approach critical thinking in three simple steps.
Firstly, ANALYSE - examine things methodically and in detail, typically in order to explain and interpret them;
Secondly, MAKE JUDGEMENTS or evaluations; ask questions of the material you’re studying for your subject or researching for your assignment – they could be from your readings, lectures, tutorials and research;
The reason you do this is to then finally DEVELOP YOUR OWN POSITION or ARGUMENT – this is the basis, or thesis, for your assignment.
Developing a critical thinking approach to your studies will help you to become more analytical. With practice, you’ll develop more confidence in completing your assignments.
Let’s recap what you’ll need to do in your next assignment to be critical in the broadest sense. You should:
- categorise the issues or arguments involved;
- establish connections between cause and effect; and
- make comparisons and contrasts. You’ll also need to …
- point out problems, implications and suggest solutions. Importantly, you need to …
- evaluate theories and relate them to practice
Your writing or presentation must be rational, balanced, well-argued, and based on evidence, examples and extensive reading using a wide range of literature. Ideally, it should be insightful and thought-provoking.
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The meaning of critical review
Critically reviewing something involves or requires making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.
There are some important underlying assumptions which you should be aware of when attempting to critically review any academic work in the area of your research:
The literature is often written in expository, not literary style, and deals with information which is arranged accordingly.
To be able to make useful comments about any topic in your field, there should at least be an underlying knowledge base which provides a context and an understanding of the breadth of the subject matter (who is important, what is their contribution, what did he/she find etc.).
The first step is to acquire that knowledge base through wide reading according to the main descriptors or concepts that you have used to find the readings in the first place.
Skills to cultivate for research and critical review
You need to scan and critique the text with some analytical questions. For example:
What is the topic or subject area of this book?
What is the main purpose of this person's writing?
Why has this person written this book? (their aims?)
What is the information structure of this writing? How is the information arranged?
What is the order of presentation? Was it according to time or topic or importance?
What are the writer’s main points and sub-points?
Who are the most important researchers mentioned?
What conclusions are reached?
Was the text easy to read? Why/why not?
Was the information arranged for easy retrieval?
Did the writer fulfill his/her aims?
How 'new' is the content? Are there other books on this subject matter?
Did the writer miss any important researchers in this field? Does it seem to be up-to-date?
Which points are of most interest to your areas of interest?
Did it stimulate your interest? Is it relevant to your situation?
For articles (journal, collection of readings and dissertations)
What were the aims of this study? Why has the researcher done this study?
What were the researcher's hypotheses? Were they clearly expressed?
What were the results of the study? What conclusions were reached?
Did this study advance the knowledge base of the discipline, confirm other research in the same area, or simply repeat what is already known by way of confirmation?
Does it suggest to you areas for further research? Did it stimulate your interest? Is it relevant to your situation?
Language for reading and writing critically
To be critical in the context of reading and writing involves being able to:
Make judgements about what you read. These judgements may be positive or negative.
- Many papers ignore factors such as X when considering the applications of Y.
- Several authors have categorised the effects of X in very useful ways.
Define a phenomenon clearly by drawing on the key aspects of definitions provided by other authors.
- The key concepts/aspects that are covered in existing definitions are A, B and C
- X is a difficult concept to define, because . . .
Establish the relative significance or importance of different aspects of what you read.
- The most frequently mentioned advantages are A, B, and C
- The most important category identified appears to be X, since . . .
- The most urgent of these questions/challenges is X, because . . .
Distinguish between contexts, and make judgments about the validity or relevance of certain ideas/information/solutions within those contexts.
- This solution has been shown to be extremely effective in small to medium enterprises, but it is debatable whether it would be appropriate in large enterprises.
Show the relationship (similarities, differences) between different ideas, information, theories.
- While X theory focuses on the role of relationships in building trust, Y theory deals primarily with the way in which the technology itself may enhance or diminish trust.
Show the implications of different ideas/theories/solutions.
- From the perspective of X (theory), then, solutions would have to address ways of building relationships in an online environment, while from the perspective of Y (theory) solutions would involve developing effective user interfaces.
Show an awareness of possible counter-claims on any issue.
- The predominant view on X is that it can best be solved by means of Y. However, it could be argued that Y would only work in the case of there being certain constraints on competition between different organisations.
Identify any gaps in the literature.
- One factor which appears to be overlooked is the influence of organisational structure on X practices.
Identify trends and patterns in existing work.
- While the value of X is being emphasised in the context of Y, there is also a trend towards considering X in the context of Z rather than Y...
- Problems relating to X are increasingly being related to the use of . . .
Sum up key issues, implications, or problems that emerge from each section that you cover.
- It would seem, then, that X leads to Y, while A usually leads to F and G. This means that, in taking a two-pronged approach, the disadvantages of introducing X can, to some extent, be mitigated by using A at the same time.
External online resources
Language and Learning Online, Monash - Reviewing books and articles (opens an external site)
Royce, T 2009, The meaning of critical review, ELSSA Centre, UTS.
Royce, T 2009, Skills to cultivate for research and critical review, ELSSA Centre, UTS.
Royce, T 2009, Reading and writing critically, ELSSA Centre, UTS.