Thinking Critically: The Most Important Skill for Student Success
July 2nd, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Despite being immersed in college classes that demand reading and writing about required topical material, students are often ill equipped to tackle higher cognitive thinking about their courses. Critical thinking – a learnable skill with educational and workplace implications – requires focused effort and conscious practice, yet it seems that they aren’t being taught to develop this important skill. And while educators and students would likely agree critical thinking is needed for a successful college career, many argue that it is not emphasized strongly enough in curricula.
The good news is that students do not have to wait until they have been taught to use this method of analysis. Once a student has a clear definition and set of techniques for use of critical thinking and analysis skills they can apply it immediately to school work and improve their overall performance.
How to Define Critical Thinking
Educator Karen I. Adsit provided a list of definitions in What is Critical Thinking?, which provides a starting point for learning about this concept:
• Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action (Scriven, 1996).
• Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation (Angelo, 1995).
• Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996).
What these definitions are based upon is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which outlines thought processes according to levels of cognitive complexity. For example, memorizing information requires minimal cognitive functioning so that is a lower order cognitive capability. The ability to work with information and process it requires higher levels of cognition and that’s the point where critical thinking occurs – at the higher end of the list of functions. The following provides a summary of the levels as defined by Bloom’s taxonomy, along with examples:
Level 1- Knowledge – You can memorize, recite, or recall information and facts.
Level 2 – Comprehension – You are able to demonstrate what you know about the information by organizing it, providing descriptions, and interpreting it.
Level 3 -Application – Now you begin to solve problems by using the information in new ways.
Level 4 – Analysis – With this level of cognition you are looking for causes and motives, making inferences, and finding evidence to support your claim.
Level 5 – Synthesis – At this stage you are putting information together in a new way to develop a new solution or proposed plan of action.
Level 6 – Evaluation – This is the highest cognitive level and the point where you make evaluative statements and value judgments about your solutions, suggestions, or plans.
A recent Forbes article provided a list of critical thinking types for business leaders that would also be applicable for the work that students complete. The reason it is helpful is that students may not need to follow the entire critical thinking process (from knowledge to evaluation) for every class project. However, there are elements of critical thinking that can be applied to almost all tasks and assignments. The following is list of these cognitive functions:
• Critical thinking – this follows the steps outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy. A situation is analyzed, a new solution developed, and the proposed solution is evaluated for its strengths, weaknesses, and long-term outcome.
• Implementation thinking – this is a type of critical thinking that involves organizing ideas and plans so they can be utilized.
• Conceptual thinking – this is a process of looking for connections and patterns between abstract ideas.
• Innovative thinking – at times you need to develop creative, new, and innovative ideas as solutions to problems.
• Intuitive thinking – with this form of critical thinking you are relying on an intuitive hunch, or something you can accept as a possible solution without seeing immediate evidence to support it.
Critical Thinking in College Classes
Not everyone believes that critical thinking is emphasized in college. Here are two recent examples:
• In a USA Today opinion column post, Forget Resume Padding; Stress Critical Thinking, it discussed the primary work of students as preparing for tests and reading textbooks but they are “not learning to think critically,” which involves “questioning assumptions or finding patterns in what they see or read outside of the classroom.”
• Attorney Doug Mataconis wrote an opinion piece, College Students Lack Critical Thinking Skills, But Who’s To Blame?, and puts the blame on the current focus of a monetary return for the college investment. Mataconis believes that “majoring in history or political science may help you to learn to think critically, and that is a skill that is valuable in fields like medicine and law, but it’s unlikely to lead to the same level of monetary reward as someone who pursues, say, a Master’s in Business Administration.”
As an educator I find these perspectives interesting as I cannot recall a time when a school I have taught for had a policy specifically in place about critical thinking. Often in traditional colleges there is an approach to teaching that emphasizes testing as a primary form of assessment, which does not always require higher levels of cognitive functioning. There is a different approach to assessment with online schools as written assignments and discussion boards are the usual form of learning activities.
Why is critical thinking necessary for use in college coursework? Students process information based upon their unique perspectives, which is formed by their experiences, level of intelligence, and existing knowledge. They may encounter something that prompts reflective thinking, such as a job loss, marriage, divorce, new career, or anything else that causes an examination of their life. While these incidents can trigger reflection and introspection it is the ability to think in a critically reflective manner that many students will not be familiar with unless they have been taught to do so.
In my post, Critical Thinking is Critical for Learning Online, I talked about the tasks you may be assigned that require you to find information, provide answers, develop solutions to a problem, consider alternatives, evaluate options, and present your findings. You can use critical thinking to improve the quality of your written assignments because it is a structured cognitive method of gathering information, comprehending the meaning of it, and then processing it so that new conclusions and ideas can be developed.
How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
The ability to move from lower-level cognitive thinking to higher-level cognitive thinking requires time, experience, and practice. It is an intentional process of cognitive development that you can begin by studying current events, issues, and challenges as a means of gaining new perspectives. If you are an online student, take time to read through your classmates’ discussion board posts. You don’t have to wait until your instructor asks you to use critical thinking skills; this is a skill that you can develop right now.
The Center for Critical Thinking provides a list of critical thinking tools in Critical Thinking in Everyday Life, which is adapted from Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life, (Paul & Elder, 2001). The most important strategy listed that I highly recommend is: A Problem a Day. Take a problem every day and work through these steps to solve it:
1. State the problem clearly and concisely.
2. Study the problem and determine if it is one that you can resolve. You only want to work on a problem that you could realistically solve.
3. Actively search for the information you need to solve it.
4. Analyze and interpret the information collected.
5. Determine short-term and long-term options. Also consider possible limitations, such as finances or time.
6. Evaluate the options by weighing advantages and disadvantages.
7. Develop and implement a strategic approach for resolution of the problem.
8. Monitor the outcome as you act and critically reflect upon the results, modifying your approach as required.
As you begin to practice using higher order cognitive functions you’ll soon discover that it is a process that gets easier to use over time. The Critical Thinking Company staff summarizes this self-development process best: “deeper analysis produces deeper understanding, resulting in better grades and higher test scores,” and that “critical thinking empowers students to be independent, innovative, and helps them succeed in school and in life.”
Students benefit from the process of critical thinking by learning to make informed decisions and developing ideas that are supported with research. For example, you can utilize logic and reasoning to evaluate assigned problems and discussion topics, search for answers to real-world issues, assess potential solutions, and weigh the credibility of your sources. As you learn to think in a critically reflective manner, you will develop another strategy that can lead to improved performance in school and in your career.
Photo © Radius Images/Corbis