29 Critical Thinking Skills

April Ring

Introduction

What you’ll learn to do: define critical thinking and its role in your education

Three students leaning over a sheet of butcher block paper, with markers in their hands

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

—Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist

By the end of this section, you will be able to explain critical thinking, describe the role that logic plays in critical thinking, and identify how critical thinking skills can be used to evaluate information. You’ll also define information literacy and describe how critical thinking skills can be used to solve problems by identifying strategies for developing yourself as a critical thinker.

Critical Thinking

Learning Objectives

  • Define critical thinking

Thinking comes naturally. You don’t have to make it happen—it just does. But you can make it happen in different ways. For example, you can think positively or negatively. You can think with your heart and you can think with rational judgment. You can also think strategically and analytically, and mathematically and scientifically. These are a few of the multiple ways in which the mind can process thought.

What are some forms of thinking you use? When do you use them and why?

As a college student, you are tasked with engaging and expanding your thinking skills. One of the most important thinking skills is critical thinking. Critical thinking is important because it relates to nearly all tasks, situations, topics, careers, environments, challenges, and opportunities. It’s a “domain-general” thinking skill—not a thinking skill that’s reserved for one subject alone or restricted to a particular subject area. Critical thinking is used in every domain, from physics to auto mechanics. It is often employed to problem solve when we are puzzled by something or to reveal that there is an error in common ways of thinking about things. Thus, critical thinking is essential for revealing biases.

For example, Galileo used a common form of reasoning called reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduce to absurdity) to show that the physics of his day was mistaken. People at that time believed that the heavier something was, the faster it would fall. Galileo knew this common conception was mistaken and he proved it both empirically and conceptually. Here is how he proved it conceptually. Suppose you have two objects, one heavier (call it B) than the other (call it A). Suppose the heavier object falls faster. When you put the lighter object under the heavier object (c), the lighter object should slow down the heavier object. On the other hand, gluing together both objects results in a heavier object (c), which should fall even faster than (b). See diagram here. The contradiction proves by reductio ad absurdum that the assumption must be false. This is just one example, but the form of reasoning (reductio ad absurdum) is the same across every domain—from science to religion to auto mechanics. The form of reasoning is just this: assume for the sake of the argument that A is true. If we can then show that A leads to a contradiction (literally where two statements are asserted that cannot possibly be true), then we prove that A is false.

Great leaders have highly attuned critical thinking skills, and you can too. In fact, you probably have a lot of these skills already. Of all your thinking skills, critical thinking may have the greatest value.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do. It means asking probing questions like, “How do we know?” or “Is this true in every case or just in this instance?” It involves being skeptical and challenging assumptions, rather than simply memorizing facts or blindly accepting what you hear or read.

Imagine, for example, that you’re reading a history textbook. You wonder who wrote it and why because you detect certain biases in the writing. You find that the author has a limited scope of research focused only on a particular group within a population. In this case, your critical thinking reveals that there are other sides to the story.

Who are critical thinkers, and what characteristics do they have in common? Critical thinkers are usually curious and reflective people. They like to explore and probe new areas and seek knowledge, clarification, and new solutions. They ask pertinent questions, evaluate statements and arguments, and they distinguish between facts and opinions. They are also willing to examine their own beliefs, possessing a manner of humility that allows them to admit a lack of knowledge or understanding when needed. They are open to changing their mind. Perhaps most of all, they actively enjoy learning, and seeking new knowledge is a lifelong pursuit.

This description may well be you!

No matter where you are on the road to being a critical thinker, you can always more fully develop and finely tune your skills. Doing so will help you develop more balanced arguments, express yourself clearly, read critically, and glean important information efficiently. Critical thinking skills will help you in any profession or any circumstance of life, from science to art to business to teaching. With critical thinking, you become a clearer thinker and problem solver.

Understanding Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking IS Critical Thinking Is NOT
Questioning Memorizing
Examining assumptions Blindly following what others around you think
Requiring evidence before you accept a claim Blind acceptance of authority

The following video from Lawrence Bland presents the major concepts and benefits of critical thinking.

You can view the transcript for “Critical Thinking.wmv” here.

Supporting Claims with Evidence

Thinking and constructing analyses based on your thinking will bring you in contact with a great deal of information. Some of that information will be factual, and some will not be. You need to be able to distinguish between facts and opinions so you know how to support your arguments. Begin with the following basic definitions:

  • Fact: a statement that can be supported by objective evidence such as observation, argument, or research.
  • Opinion: a statement whose truth depends on someone’s desire(s) rather than objective evidence. Opinions that cannot be supported by objective evidence are at most subjectively true.

Of course, the tricky part is that most people do not label statements as fact and opinion, so you need to be aware and recognize the difference as you go about honing your critical thinking skills.

You probably have heard the old saying “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,” which may be true, but conversely not everyone is entitled to their own facts. Facts are true for everyone, not just those who want to believe in them. For example, “mice are mammals”  is a fact since it has been established by scientific research. In contrast, “mice make the best pets” is an opinion (since best means whatever one likes the best—and that is a matter of one’s subjective desires).

Facts vs. Opinion

Determine if the following statements are facts or opinions based on just the information provided here, referring to the basic definitions above. Some people consider scientific findings to be opinions even when they are convincingly backed by reputable evidence and experimentation. However, remember the definition of fact—verifiable by research or observation. Think about what other research you may have to conduct to make an informed decision.

  • Oregon is a state in the United States. (How would this be proven?)
  • Beef is made from cattle. (See current legislation concerning vegetarian “burgers.”)
  • Increased street lighting decreases criminal behavior. (What information would you need to validate this claim?)
  • In 1952, Elizabeth became Queen of England. (What documents could validate this statement?)
  • Oatmeal tastes plain. (What factors might play into this claim?)
  • Acne is an embarrassing skin condition. (Who might verify this claim?)
  • Kindergarten decreases student dropout rates. (Think of different interest groups that may take sides on this issue.)
  • Carbohydrates promote weight gain. (Can you determine if this is a valid statement?)
  • Cell phones cause brain tumors. (What research considers this claim?)
  • Immigration is good for the US economy. (What research would help you make an informed decision on this topic?)

Defending against Bias

Once you have all your information gathered and you have checked your sources for currency and validity, you need to direct your attention to how you’re going to present your now well-informed analysis. Be careful on this step to recognize your own possible biases (metacognition). Facts are verifiable statements; opinions are statements without supporting evidence. Stating an opinion is just that. You could say, “Blue is the best color,” and that would be your opinion. In contrast, suppose you were to conduct research and find the use of blue paint in mental hospitals reduces patients’ heart rates by twenty-five percent and contributes to fewer angry outbursts from patients. In that case, the statement “blue paint in mental hospitals reduces patients’ heart rate by twenty-five percent” would be a fact supported by objective evidence.

Not everyone will accept your analysis, which can be frustrating. Most people resist change and have firm beliefs on both important issues and less significant preferences. With all the competing information surfacing online, on the news, and in general conversation, you can understand how confusing it can be to make any decisions. Look at all the reliable, valid sources that claim different approaches to be the best diet for healthy living: ketogenic, low-carb, vegan, vegetarian, low fat, raw foods, paleo, Mediterranean, etc. All you can do in this sort of situation is conduct your own serious research, check your sources, and write clearly and concisely to provide your analysis of the information for consideration. You cannot force others to accept your stance, but you can show your evidence in support of your thinking, being as persuasive as possible without lapsing into your own personal biases.

A Model for Critical Thinking

Students, scholars, and organizations looking for a framework for critical thinking frequently rely on the RED Model. The RED Model was developed by Pearson and consists of three components, (1) Recognize Assumptions; (2) Evaluate Arguments; (3) Draw Conclusions. The video below provides more information on the RED Model. [1]

Logic

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the role that logic plays in critical thinking

Critical Thinking and Logic

Critical thinking is fundamentally a process of questioning information and data. You may question the information you read in a textbook, or you may question what a politician or a professor or a classmate says. You can also question a commonly held belief or a new idea. With critical thinking, anything and everything is subject to question and examination for the purpose of logically constructing reasoned perspectives.

What Is Logic, and Why Is It Important in Critical Thinking?

The word logic comes from the ancient Greek word logike, referring to the science or art of reasoning. Using logic, a person evaluates arguments and reasoning and strives to distinguish between good and bad reasoning. Using logic, you can evaluate ideas or claims people make, make good decisions, and form sound beliefs about the world.[2]

Critical thinking involves reflective thinking, considering bias, and remaining open-minded and curious. It also demands the intellectual rigor to deconstruct and evaluate claims made by others while also making sound and strong arguments, ourselves. Logic is the study and evaluation of arguments to distinguish good reasoning from bad. When using logic in critical thinking, you will consider the logical structure in order to evaluate its quality. In the next section, we will explore what logical structure is.

Logical Structure

Suppose I argue as follows: if it is raining, then the ground is wet; but since it is not raining, it follows that the ground is not wet. This is an argument whose conclusion is the statement “the ground is not wet.” The two premises of the argument are the conditional statement “if it is raining, then the ground is not wet” and the statement “it is not raining.”  We can rewrite the argument to clearly show each of the statements—the two premises and the conclusion—like this:

  1. If it is raining, then the ground is wet.
  2. The ground is not wet.
  3. Therefore, it is not raining.

This example is a valid argument. A valid argument is an argument whose premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion. In other words, a valid argument is one such that on the assumption of the truth of the premises, it is impossible for the conclusion to be false. Think about the previous argument. Can you see that if we accept the two premises (lines 1 and 2) as true, then we must logically accept the conclusion (line 3) to be true? Valid arguments are the gold standard of reasoning in logic—it is what all arguments aspire to be. When you have constructed a valid argument, no one can argue with your reasoning (although they can still disagree with you regarding whether your premises are true). What is interesting about the concept of logical validity is that an argument can be valid (i.e., the reasoning can be good) even if the premises are obviously false or absurd. For example, consider this (slightly altered) argument from a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

  1. If this woman weighs the same as a duck, then she is is made of wood.
  2. Everything made of wood is a witch.
  3. This woman does weigh the same as a duck.
  4. Therefore, this woman is a witch.

Clearly, the first two premises of this argument (lines 1 and 2) are false. However, if we hold them (and also the premise in line 3) true, then the conclusion follows logically. That is, this argument is a valid argument. Think about the logic of this argument for a second. If we assume that lines 1 and 3 are true, then it follows that the woman is made of wood.  And if that is true then by line 2, it follows that she is a witch, which is the conclusion stated in line 4. This silly argument illustrates that logic is first and foremost about the relationship between premises and conclusion, not the actual truth of the premises. Whether or not the premises of an argument are true is often a matter that is outside logic. For example, if one of the premises of an argument were the statement “some mammals do not give live birth,” then logic alone cannot help you figure out whether that is true. For that you need another disciplines: biology.

Let’s return to the first argument for a second to illustrate what logical structure is. That argument has a certain structure that looks like this:

  1. If A then B.
  2. Not B.
  3. Therefore, not A.

What is interesting about logic is that once we can see the form of an argument, then we can automatically know that the argument is valid without even considering or thinking about the content of the argument. Any argument that has a valid structure is a valid argument. Logic is (in part) the study of these structures. The structure that I have just identified has a name: modus tollens (which in Latin means “way of denying,” since the second premise contains a negation, “not”).  Lines 1 and 3 of the Monty Python argument above also contain a valid structure that looks like this:

  1. If A then B.
  2. A.
  3. Therefore, B.

That argument form is called modus ponens (which in Latin means “way of affirming”).

There are many different valid argument structures; however, this is not a logic course, so we will not consider them all.  The important thing to understand is that logic concerns the strength of the relationship between the premises and the conclusion, and the goal in constructing arguments is to construct valid arguments. Again, valid arguments are such that the premises of the argument leave no possibility that the conclusion could be false. In contrast, invalid arguments are ones where the premises do leave open the possibility that the conclusion is false. In other words, the premises do not imply the truth of the conclusion. If an argument is invalid, then we should be able to give a counterexample that proves the argument is invalid. A counterexample is simply a description of a possible scenario where the premises are true and yet the conclusion is false. Let’s look at an example.

  1. If the train is late, Shondra is angry.
  2. Shondra is angry.
  3. Therefore, the train is late.

If we assume the premises (lines 1 and 2) are true, is it possible for the conclusion to be false? If so, then this would show the argument is invalid. Here’s a hint if you can’t already see the answer: might Shondra be angry for some other reason and yet the train still be on time? Suppose Shondra is angry because she spilled coffee on her favorite pants. If so, then it could still be the case that any time the train is late, Shondra is angry but on this occasion, the train is actually on time. Given this scenario, let’s check line by line the argument. In this scenario are the premises true? Yes, they are—premise 1 is true since Shondra would have been angry if the train were late even though the train wasn’t late and premise 2 is true since Shondra is angry because of the coffee spill. And yet the conclusion is false since the train is not late in this scenario. Thus, we have given a counterexample: we have specified a scenario where the premises are true and yet the conclusion is false. And that means the argument is invalid.

Whereas the gold standard of deductive arguments is validity (as discussed in the last section), the standard of inductive arguments is something less than validity. A strong inductive argument is typically called a cogent argument. It is important to understand the difference between deductive and inductive arguments because you need to understand what kind of argument you are trying to make or evaluate. The main difference between inductive and deductive arguments is that whereas deductive arguments seek to establish their conclusions with absolute certainty, inductive arguments only seek to establish their arguments with a high degree of probability. Here’s an example of a strong inductive argument:

  1. All ravens that have ever been observed anywhere in the world have been black.
  2. Therefore, all ravens are black.

Notice that this argument doesn’t quite obtain the standard of validity. It is possible that there is a non-black raven somewhere in the world that hasn’t been observed. But even if that is a possibility, it seems that the “all ravens are black” conclusion is still highly likely, given the amount of confirmation that the claim possesses (i.e., the number of ravens that have been observed and that all of them have been black).

Unlike deductive arguments, there is no inductive form that is strong. Any inductive argument could be strong or weak depending on the details of the argument. In contrast, deductive arguments have valid logical structures such that any argument that possesses an inductive form is thereby a valid argument, regardless of the topic of the argument; meaning that to evaluate inductive arguments, we have to draw on our knowledge of how the world is. We can say a couple of things about strong inductive reasoning, but to further understand these concepts would require a course in logic and/or scientific reasoning. We will conclude this page with a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to inductive arguments:

  • When making inductive generalizations (such as the ravens argument), make sure that the instances in your premises are not susceptible to any kind of sampling bias. For example, even if I have observed many black ravens, if I have only observed them in one part of the world, there is a good chance that my sample of ravens is not representative of all the ravens in the world.
  • Many times inductive arguments depend on establishing correlations and we try to infer causation based on correlation. However, this inference must be done carefully. As the saying goes, correlation is not causation; a correlation is not sufficient to establish causation—just because A and B are strongly correlated, or tend to occur together, doesn’t mean that A caused B. To establish that causal claim would require both a plausible causal story we can tell and (ideally) further test to determine whether A really does cause B.
  • Another common inductive argument is an analogical argument. Analogical arguments attempt to compare two different things (A and B) and argue that since they are similar in relevant respects, if A has a certain property (x), then B must have that property as well. The thing to be on the lookout for here is whether A and B really are similar in relevant respects; because if they aren’t, the logic of the analogical argument breaks down.

Evaluating Information

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how critical thinking skills can be used to evaluate information

Evaluating information can be one of the most complex tasks you will be faced with in college. But if you utilize the following four strategies, you will be well on your way to success:

  1. Read for understanding by using text coding.
  2. Examine arguments.
  3. Clarify thinking.
  4. Cultivate habits of mind.

Read for Understanding by Using Text Coding

When you read and take notes, use the text coding strategy. Text coding is a way of tracking your thinking while reading. It entails marking the text and recording what you are thinking either in the margins or perhaps on Post-it notes. As you make connections and ask questions in response to what you read, you monitor your comprehension and enhance your long-term understanding of the material. This kind of active reading is a kind of metacognition and is importantly different from more passive reading. You will get a lot more out of your reading if you read actively.

With text coding, mark important arguments and key facts. Indicate where you agree and disagree or have further questions. You don’t necessarily need to read every word, but make sure you understand the concepts or the intentions behind what is written. Feel free to develop your own shorthand style when reading or taking notes. The following are a few options to consider using while coding text.

Coding Text
Shorthand Meaning
! Important
L Learned something new
! Big idea surfaced
* Interesting or important fact
? Dig deeper
Agree
Disagree

Examine Arguments

When you examine arguments or claims that an author, speaker, or other source is making, your goal is to identify and examine the hard facts. You can use the spectrum of authority strategy for this purpose. The spectrum of authority strategy assists you in identifying the hot end of an argument—feelings, beliefs, cultural influences, and societal influences. The cold end of an argument is the scientific influences.

The following video explains this strategy by describing a spectrum of examples involving culture, beliefs, and feelings as the hot end of the spectrum. Whereas scientific subjects such as geometry, physics, and biology are more on the cold side of this spectrum. Take notes about the examples of the spectrum of authority.

You can view the transcript for “Critical Thinking 101: Spectrum of Authority” here.

Clarify Thinking

When you use critical thinking to evaluate information, you need to clarify your thinking to yourself and likely to others. Doing this clarification well is mainly a process of asking and answering probing questions, such as the logic questions discussed earlier. Design your questions to fit your needs, but be sure to cover adequate ground. What is the purpose? What question are we trying to answer? What point of view is being expressed? What assumptions are we or others making? What are the facts and data we know, and how do we know them? What are the concepts we’re working with? What are the conclusions, and do they make sense? What are the implications?

Cultivate Habits of Mind

Habits of mind are the personal commitments, values, and standards you have about the principle of good thinking. Consider your intellectual commitments, values, and standards. Do you approach problems with an open mind, a respect for truth, and an inquiring attitude? Some good habits to have when thinking critically are being receptive to having your opinions changed, having respect for others, being independent and not accepting something is true until you’ve had the time to examine the available evidence, being fair-minded, having respect for a reason, having an inquiring mind, not making assumptions, and always questioning your own conclusions—in other words, developing an intellectual work ethic. Try to work these qualities into your daily life.

Students interested in practicing these habits of mind should explore the database Opposing Viewpoints which is available through the FSW library. This database provides viewpoint articles, as well as scholarly sources, on a wide variety of controversial topics. Reading and evaluating the arguments in viewpoint articles will allow students the opportunity to identify assumptions, recognize bias, evaluate source credibility and analyze arguments.

Problem-Solving with Critical Thinking

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how critical thinking skills can be used in problem-solving

A woman presents ideas from a poster

Most of us face problems that we must solve every day. While some problems are more complex than others, we can apply critical thinking skills to every problem by asking questions like, what information am I missing? Why and how is it important? What are the contributing factors that lead to the problem? What resources are available to solve the problem? These questions are just the start of being able to think of innovative and effective solutions. Read through the following critical thinking, problem-solving process to identify steps you are already familiar with as well as opportunities to build a more critical approach to solving problems.

Problem-Solving Process

Step 1: Define the problem

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Often, when we first hear of or learn about a problem, we do not have all the information. If we immediately try to find a solution without having a thorough understanding of the problem, then we may only be solving a part of the problem.  This is called a “band-aid fix,” or when a symptom is addressed, but not the actual problem. While these band-aid fixes may provide temporary relief, if the actual problem is not addressed soon, then the problem will continue and likely get worse. Therefore, the first step when using critical thinking to solve problems is to identify the problem. The goal during this step is to gather enough research to determine how widespread the problem is, its nature, and its importance.

Step 2: Analyze the Causes

This step is used to uncover assumptions and underlying problems that are at the root of the problem. This step is important since you will need to ensure that whatever solution is chosen addresses the actual cause, or causes, of the problem.

Asking “why” questions to uncover root causes

A common way to uncover root causes is by asking why questions. When we are given an answer to a why question, we will often need to question that answer itself. Thus the process of asking “why” is an iterative process—meaning that it is a process that we can repeatedly apply. When we stop asking why questions depends on what information we need and that can differ depending on what the goals are. For a better understanding, see the example below:

Problem: The lamp does not turn on.

  • Why doesn’t the lamp turn on? The fuse is blown.
  • Why is the fuse blown? There was an overloaded circuit.
  • Why was the circuit overloaded? The hair dryer was on.

If one is simply a homeowner or tenant, then it might be enough to simply know that if the hair dryer is on, the circuit will overload and turn off.  However, one can always ask further why questions, depending on what the goal is. For example, suppose someone wants to know if all hair dryers overload circuits or just this one. We might continue thus:

  • Why did this hair dryer overload the circuit? Because hair dryers in general require a lot of electricity.

But now suppose we are an electrical engineer and are interested in designing a more environmentally friendly hairdryer. In that case, we might ask further:

  • Why do hair dryers require so much energy?

As you can see from this example, what counts as a root cause depends on context and interests. The homeowner will not necessarily be interested in asking the further why questions whereas others might be.

Step 3: Generate Solutions

The goal of this step is to generate as many solutions as possible. In order to do so, brainstorm as many ideas as possible, no matter how outrageous or ineffective the idea might seem at the time. During your brainstorming session, it is important to generate solutions freely without editing or evaluating any of the ideas. The more solutions that you can generate, the more innovative and effective your ultimate solution might become upon later review.

You might find that setting a timer for fifteen to thirty minutes will help you to creatively push past the point when you think you are done. Another method might be to set a target for how many ideas you will generate. You might also consider using categories to trigger ideas. If you are brainstorming with a group, consider brainstorming individually for a while and then also brainstorming together as ideas can build from one idea to the next.

Step 4: Select a Solution

Once the brainstorming session is complete, then it is time to evaluate the solutions and select the more effective one.  Here you will consider how each solution will address the causes determined in step 2. It is also helpful to develop the criteria you will use when evaluating each solution, for instance, cost, time, difficulty level, resources needed, etc. Once your criteria for evaluation are established, then consider ranking each criterion by importance since some solutions might meet all criteria, but not to equally effective degrees.

In addition to evaluating by criteria, ensure that you consider the possibilities and consequences of all serious contenders to address any drawbacks to a solution. Lastly, ensure that the solutions are actually feasible.

Step 6: Put Solution into Action

While many problem-solving models stop at simply selecting a solution, in order to actually solve a problem, the solution must be put into action. Here, you take responsibility to create, communicate, and execute the plan with detailed organizational logistics by addressing who will be responsible for what, when, and how.

Step 7: Evaluate progress

The final step when employing critical thinking to problem-solving is to evaluate the progress of the solution. Since critical thinking demands open-mindedness, analysis, and a willingness to change one’s mind, it is important to monitor how well the solution has actually solved the problem in order to determine if any course correction is needed.

While we solve problems every day, following the process to apply more critical thinking approaches in each step by considering what information might be missing; analyzing the problem and causes; remaining open-minded while brainstorming solutions; and providing criteria for, evaluating, and monitoring solutions can help you to become a better problem-solver and strengthen your critical thinking skills.

Information Literacy

Learning Objectives

  • Define information literacy

When conducting any type of thinking, you need to have a firm grasp of information literacy, or knowing how to access the sources you may need. Practicing good information literacy skills involves more than simply using a search engine such as Google, although that could be a starting point. You also engage in creative thinking (e.g., generating topics to research), analytical thinking (e.g., reading and examining the parts of sources), and critical thinking (e.g., evaluating sources for accuracy, authority, etc.). Then there is synthesis that is used when incorporating multiple sources into a research project. Information literacy utilizes all the necessary thinking skills. If you saw the name of a person on the cover of a magazine, for instance, you might assume the person did something important to merit the attention. If you were to google the person’s name, you would instantly need to use context clues to determine if the information your search produced is actually about your person and not someone else with the same or a similar name, whether the information is accurate, and if it is current. If it is not, you would need to continue your research with other sources.

How Information Becomes Knowledge

Life is a series of problems needing solutions. We need to find information that matters and then discover why it matters. Curiosity, then, is a response to an environment of exploration, manifesting in wanting to know why or how. How do you make sense of the world? How does information translate to knowledge? Connecting ideas, thinking critically, acting responsibly, and communicating effectively are all essential to lifelong learning and active engagement in today’s world. You need to become proficient, ethical users and producers of information in a globally connected world. It is important to be able to reason, manage resources, work productively with others, acquire and evaluate information effectively, organize information, interpret and communicate information, and work with an ever-evolving variety of technologies. In other words, you need to become information-savvy consumers and producers. You need to be able to adapt to, understand, evaluate, and make use of technology so you can be citizens that shape our society, rather than being its pawns. What you learn is often what you will communicate to others.

What Is Information Literacy?

Human beings are passionate, curious, and always seeking to connect with each other and make sense of things. Learning is more effective when new information is meaningful and linked to some personal experience or prior knowledge. Learning is about both context and content. It is necessary to learn how to assess, evaluate, and connect in order to make information become knowledge. Information literacy skills are the hallmark of the ability to do research. What is important is for you to learn how to find information that matters and then figure out why it might matter.

“Information literacy is the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning” (ACRL, 2015).

Information literacy is a link between the life experiences of you as a student, the academic world of scholarship, and the postcollege real world of application of learning. An information-literate person has the ability to ask questions and knows the difference between ignorance and understanding. (When do I need information?) Information literacy builds a lifelong ability to determine where information is kept (Where is the best place to find this?) and in what forms knowledge is stored (Which knowledge products will likely have what I need?).

Information literacy relies on the use of a critical mind to discern credible from not credible, and valid from not valid. It is actually the core of the first-year experience. Information literacy lasts while the specifics of particular courses fade over time. After all, the nature of research, the core of higher education, is a learning process: “How do I learn about something?” Communication skills are essential to your ability to both learn and share what you’ve learned.

Verifying Source Validity

We need information almost all the time, and with practice, you’ll become more and more efficient at knowing where to look for answers on certain topics. As information is increasingly available in multiple formats, not only in print and online versions but also through audio and visual means, users of this information must employ critical thinking skills to sift through it all.

In today’s information environment, what would be the best way to find valid information about climate change? Would it be Wikipedia, NASA, a printed encyclopedia from 1985, or a report from a political campaign?

If you chose any answer except the NASA website, can you see how the other answers may have a vested interest in encouraging readers to believe a particular theory? The encyclopedia may not intentionally attempt to mislead readers; however, the write-up is not current. And Wikipedia, being an open-source site where anyone may upload information, is not reliable enough to lend full credence to the articles. A professional, government organization that does not sell items related to the topic and provides its ethics policy for review is worthy of more consideration and research. This level of critical thinking and examined consideration is the only way to ensure you have all the information you need to make decisions.

You likely know how to find some sources when you conduct research. And remember—we think and research all the time, not just in school or on the job. If you’re out with friends and someone asks where to find the best Italian food, someone will probably consult a phone app to present choices. This quick phone search may suffice to provide an address, hours, and possibly even menu choices, but you’ll have to dig more deeply if you want to evaluate the restaurant by finding reviews, negative press, or personal testimonies.

Why is it important to verify the validity of sources? The words we write (or speak) and the sources we use to back up our ideas need to be true and honest, or we would not have any basis for distinguishing facts from opinions that may be, at the least damaging level, only uninformed musings but, at the worst level, intentionally misleading and distorted versions of the truth. Maintaining strict adherence to verifiable facts is a hallmark of a strong thinker.

You probably see information presented as fact on social media daily, but as a critical thinker, you must practice validating facts, especially if something you see or read in a post conveniently fits your perception. You may be familiar with the Facebook and Instagram hoaxes requiring users to copy and paste a statement that they will not grant permission for these social media sites to make public the content from their private pages. Maybe you’ve seen any number of posts and memes that inaccurately associate famous people with memorable quotations. We may even allow ourselves to believe inaccurate claims as truth when we experience different emotions including anger, fear, or loneliness; we want to believe a claim is true because it aligns with how we are feeling, regardless of any verifiable source. Be diligent in your critical thinking to avoid misinformation!

Determining how valid a source is typically includes looking into the author’s credentials, experience, and status in the discipline; the actual content of the source material; any evidence the source presents as support; and whether any biases exist that may make the source questionable. Once you know who controls the content of the source you’ve chosen, you need to determine what biases or special interests the site or article may exhibit.

With the proliferation of information in the digital age, it is also important to understand that authority is constructed and contextual (ACRL, 2015). This statement means that in addition to the traditional understanding of authority based on credentials, experience, and status in a discipline, authority can be constructed to better reflect the expertise of a wider community. This means that a blog post may contain the same level of innovative and authoritative information that is found in a traditional, peer-reviewed scholarly journal article. It is important to confirm the accuracy of the information through a clear evaluation process. The accuracy of information can be independently confirmed through multiple sources ensuring that each source is not citing the same source of information.

Recognize information bias

Reflect on what bias the following sites may have. Without consulting the Internet, write one to two sentences on what ideas the following organizations may present. After you consider these organizations on your own, conduct a search and see if you were accurate in your assumptions about the entities.

  1. National Dairy Council
  2. Yoga Society
  3. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
  4. The American Medical Association

Whatever you write or declare based on sources should be correct and truthful. Reliable sources present current and honest information backed up with evidence you can check. Any source that essentially says you should believe the source “because I said so” isn’t a valid source for critically thinking, information-literate individuals.

Evaluating books, articles, and websites for validity presents different challenges. For books and scholarly articles, in print or online, you can typically establish if the source is current and from a reputable publisher or organization with information on the copyright page or journal publication information.

As you think about the information bias that may exist in your sources, it is also important to understand your own biases when conducting research. Confirmation bias happens when you only look for sources that confirm and prove your predetermined conclusions instead of looking for a range of information to not only challenge your assumptions but also to support your analysis of reputable information.

For a website, you should determine who owns this site. Is it a professional organization such as the American Medical Association? You can usually find this info in the About section of the site or in a copyright designation near the end of the landing page. Domain names can help you determine the purpose of the site, but you shouldn’t rely solely on this website marker.

Domain and User
Domain User
.edu Used by educational institutions (i.e., colleges, universities, school districts); usually reliable sources of information, but individual members of these institutions may be able to create web pages on the site under the official domain that do not reflect the values of the school
.com/.biz Used by commercial or business groups; may be valid, but also may be used to sell products, services, or ideas
.gov Used by government agencies; typically valid
.org Used by organizations, such as nonprofit groups or religious entities; may present information slanted toward a specific denomination or cause. You’ll need to conduct additional research to verify validity.
.net Originally created for networks or groups of people working on the same problem, .net is still a viable option for noncommercial sites such as personal blogs or family websites. You’ll need to conduct additional research to verify validity.
Many other domains exist Research the validity of domain names outside these most common ones.

Bias in the News: Activity

Pick one news source from each column below and read an article about the same event from the two news sites you picked.

News Sources
One Two
Mother Jones Fox News
Slate New York Post
The Huffington Post Infowars
Democracy Now! The Washington Times
Buzzfeed News The Hill
The Guardian Daily Mail

Do you notice any differences in their reporting? Write down your answers to the following questions:

  • What is the main claim of the article on each news site?
  • What assumptions does each article make?
  • What conclusions does each article draw?
  • Are there any big differences between how the two news sites report on the same event? What are they?

Finally, reflect on where you get your news. Why do you use those sources? What are you looking for when you’re choosing your news sources?

Students interested in building information literacy skills can take advantage of the various workshops offered by FSW’s knowledgeable librarians. See Bucs Corner for upcoming workshop opportunities. Another option is to complete the Library Research Tutorial on your own time. Completing the tutorial online or participating in a workshop (in person or on Zoom) will also fulfill a GPS requirement.

Resources for Thinking

When you look into books, articles, and documentaries on thinking, you will find plenty of choices. Some books or articles on thinking may seem to apply only to a narrow group of readers, such as entrepreneurs or artists. For example, the audiences for these two books about thinking seem highly selective: Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark may be mostly directed to the science community, and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong is likely of interest primarily to historians. And some chapters may focus specifically on those groups; however, most texts on thinking are also applicable to other disciplines. You may have to work a bit harder to find a common ground or generate your own examples that explain the concepts from the book, but you can still reap benefits from understanding different perspectives. Don’t immediately disregard a book or article just because it doesn’t seem to fit your thinking perspective on the surface; dig a bit more deeply to see what you can learn. Remember, being open-minded and considering as many alternate approaches as possible are two hallmarks of critical thinking.

Finding Print and Online Resources

When you need to research a topic, you probably start with a search engine. That search can be helpful, but can easily lead you down incorrect paths and waste time. Use advanced searches, filters, and other means to target your results more specifically. However, don’t limit yourself to just Internet sources; print journals, books, and articles are still significant sources of information.

Your college may have access to extensive stores of subscription-based site content, photos, videos, and other media through its library, providing more than enough information to start researching and analyzing any topic. Depending on the specific database and school, you may be able to access some of these resources remotely; others may require you to visit the library in person. Remember, when you are gathering and arranging pieces of information, keep track of the source and the URL so that you can both cite it correctly and return to learn more if needed.

The FSW library will provide you with access to print sources but also sources available online through databases. These sources provide you with access to books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, journal articles, industry reports, and a range of videos, photographs, and primary sources. While these sources are excellent to use when conducting research, there is a range of other sources you can use. Some more general places to explore educational, inspirational, and thought-provoking material follow:

  • Exploring the TED website is worth a few minutes of time. There you’ll find videos (limited to 18 minutes) of speaking demonstrations by diverse experts in fields covering all disciplines. If you are in an exploratory phase of your thinking and researching, you can scan the TED Talk topics related to your interest area.
  • You may be familiar with the Khan Academy, created in 2008 by Salman Khan, as an online learning resource for students and teachers containing tutorials, videos, and practice sets in various subjects from science and mathematics to grammar lessons.
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provided by Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity, provide learners and thinkers the chance to take courses, attend webinars and discussions, and learn about a large number of subjects, often free of charge. Much of the content is provided by major universities, and the courses are often facilitated by faculty.
  • For-profit companies and nonprofit groups such as the Foundation for Critical Thinking (FCT) can also help you hone your thinking. The FCT presents materials, seminars, and conferences to help people think with “clarity, relevance, logic, accuracy, depth, significance, precision, breadth, and fairness.”

Creating a System for Managing Resources

You could have all the money (or time or cars or great ideas) in the world, but that won’t do you any good if you haven’t also created a system for managing all your resources. In the same way, you might feel overwhelmed with all the choices when a waiter gives you a book-sized menu with hundreds of options, you can stall your thinking if you don’t have an effective and efficient way to access all the great articles, websites, books, podcasts, webinars, and other idea resources you can amass for the life of a project or during a college course or for a life event.

Systems to manage your ideas and thoughts don’t need to be elaborate. The best idea-management system is the one that gets used, so you need to be comfortable with what all is involved in managing these thoughts. Keep in mind, once you get into the swing of researching for and keeping good ideas, you’re going to end up with resources in many different formats. Gone are the days when one shelf of a bookcase near your desk could contain all your thinking resources on a topic. You may still find books, so you don’t need to discard the bookcase just yet, but very likely, you’ll also have online resources including search results, document files, websites, blogs, audio files, videos, and more. You can use filing folders, binders, online folders, boxes, or computer systems to organize your ideas.

A word about stacking papers and clutter: don’t. Clutter impedes creativity, steals focus, and represents procrastination. Fight the temptation to allow clutter to overwhelm your projects and workspace. File or trash anything you are not using right at the moment; this daily practice will save you a tremendous amount of time that you could waste looking for papers or articles you saved for later review.

Like physical clutter, a messy online environment can stall productivity and clear thinking. One key to effective information and idea management is a simple, consistent labeling system. Some companies call this a naming protocol or naming convention, a standard way all online files, folders, and drives are labeled for easier retrieval and long-term storage. If you don’t think through a file name with this forward-looking approach and then you don’t access that file for several months, you aren’t likely to remember which file is which, and you may end up wasting valuable time opening random files in an attempt to find the one you need. This isn’t a very efficient way to operate, and in some work environments would not be acceptable on large-scale and important projects. For example, if you were taking an upper-level literature course studying poetry and remember you filed an excellent summary of one of the poems a few years earlier in your freshman composition class, you won’t be too happy when you have seventy-eight documents called Notes. Great idea—lousy document/idea management system.

If your searches will take place on multiple devices—a laptop and a tablet, for example, you could use a notetaking app such as Evernote, which contains a wealth of organizational tools and has various levels of access. You can access the same note regardless of where you’re searching. In the same way, you could even use a series of Google Docs or Sheets, as long as you consider the file naming and organizational conventions mentioned above. For example, if you needed to put together a research paper requiring twenty data sources, you could use a spreadsheet to keep track of the source article name, author, topics, potential data points you plan to use, the source, and the URL. Even if you didn’t incorporate everything into the final paper, such a method would save you a lot of time trying to track down small pieces of information. (The sheet would also be a great reference when you write your bibliography.)

Finding print and online sources demands a great deal of time and effort. Understanding how different approaches to thinking are appropriate for various situations as you research will help you be more creative and critical as you identify and verify your sources.

Developing Yourself as a Critical Thinker

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify strategies for developing yourself as a critical thinker

Photo of a group of students standing around a poster on the wall, where they're adding post-it notes with handwriting on them

Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture. —Francis Bacon, philosopher

Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for college students, but it should also be a lifelong pursuit. Below are additional strategies to develop yourself as a critical thinker in college and in everyday life:

  • Reflect and practice: always reflect on what you’ve learned. Is it true all the time? How did you arrive at your conclusions?
  • Use wasted time: It’s certainly important to make time for relaxing, but if you find you are indulging in too much of a good thing, think about using your time more constructively. Determine when you do your best thinking and try to learn something new during that part of the day.
  • Redefine the way you see things: It can be very uninteresting to always think the same way. Challenge yourself to see familiar things in new ways. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider things from a different angle or perspective. If you’re trying to solve a problem, list all your concerns: what you need in order to solve it, who can help, what some possible barriers might be, etc. It’s often possible to reframe a problem as an opportunity. Try to find a solution where there seems to be none.
  • Analyze the influences on your thinking and in your life: Why do you think or feel the way you do? Analyze your influences. Think about who in your life influences you. Do you feel or react a certain way because of social convention or because you believe it is what is expected of you? Try to break out of any molds that may be constricting you.
  • Express yourself: Critical thinking also involves being able to express yourself clearly. Most important in expressing yourself clearly is stating one point at a time. You might be inclined to argue every thought, but you might have a greater impact if you focus just on your main arguments. This focus will help others to follow your thinking clearly. For more abstract ideas, assume that your audience may not understand. Provide examples, analogies, or metaphors where you can.
  • Enhance your wellness: It’s easier to think critically when you take care of your mental and physical health. Try taking ten-minute activity breaks to reach thirty to sixty minutes of physical activity each day. Try taking a break between classes and walk to the coffee shop that’s farthest away. Scheduling physical activity into your day can help lower stress and increase mental alertness.
  • Strategically plan your hardest work: Do your most difficult work when you have the most energy. Think about the time of day you are most effective and have the most energy. Plan to do your most difficult work during these times. And be sure to reach out for help. If you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health, talk to a counselor or visit a doctor.

Resources for Critical Thinking

glossary

critical thinking: clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do, often as a result of challenging assumptions

opinionsstatements offered without supporting evidence

deductive argument: one whose conclusions can be established with absolute certainty, often as a result of their form

inductive argument: one whose conclusions can only be established with a high degree of probability

logic: the study and evaluation of arguments to distinguish good reasoning from bad

valid argument: one whose premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion

habits of mind: the personal commitments, values, and standards you have about the principle of good thinking

text coding: an active reading practice where one takes notes and poses questions to keep track of one’s evolving understanding of the material

iterative process: one that can be repeatedly applied

information literacy: knowing how to access the sources you need to gain knowledge and complete a research project

 


  1. Pearson, 2013. "Tips on Critical Thinking" [Online]. Available: https://admissions.apu.ac.jp/resource/load/documents/Tips_on_Critical_Thinking.pdf [2023, January].
  2. "logike." Wordnik, https://www.wordnik.com/words/logic.
definition

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Critical Thinking Skills Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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