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2.6 What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is essential to all aspects of university work. You'll need to apply your critical thinking skills when reading, note-taking, writing, working with other students and participating in lectures and tutorials. To bring a critical approach to every aspect of your studies will help you identify unsupported claims, like you did in the previous activity. 

But, what does critical thinking involve? Watch the video below to learn more. 

At university, you’re asked to engage in higher-level thinking. While this is something you’ve done at school or at work, there are likely to be changes in the ways that you use your thinking skills at university. Critical thinkers aim to decide which beliefs they should adopt, reject, or revise. They do that by evaluating the reasons that support their beliefs, to see if they're good reasons to believe one thing rather than another. Instead of simply stating various claims, critical thinkers try to justify their claims. And they do that by providing reasons. To provide reasons that are meant to support a claim is to give an argument. If you can give good arguments, then you will have succeeded in justifying your claims.

Two things are crucial for good arguments:
1- The reasons provided in an argument must give the appropriate logical support for the claim it’s making. Reasons provide logical support for a claim if someone would be making a mistake if they believed the reasons while they rejected the claim.
2- But of course, reasons must be true! Or at least plausible. You won’t do very well at university if you try to justify your claims by saying false things.

Here’s an example of an argument:
These days, university students pay for their classes much like customers pay for a product. Obviously, one of the first goals of a company is to make a product that pleases the customers. Therefore, one of the first goals of a university teacher should be to run a class that pleases the students.

What is the claim being made by this argument?
One of the first goals of a university teacher should be to run a class that pleases the students.

And what reasons are provided in support of this claim?
1- University students pay for their classes much like customers pay for a product.
2- The first goal of a company is to make a product that pleases the customers.

Are these reasons true? And do they really support the claim? It might be true that a teachers’ priority is to run classes that please their students, but is it because students paid for the classes? A better reason might be that students are more likely to learn the material if it is presented in a pleasing way.

That’s the art of critical thinking: to find the best reasons in support of your claims. You’ll need critical thinking at university when you’re reading articles and books, to guard against bad arguments, and look for good ones. And you’ll need critical thinking when you have to write essays, to try and do your best to provide good arguments for your claims. Likewise, you’ll need to give good arguments when you’re discussing issues in your classes, with your teachers or with your friends. But what if you can’t find good reasons? Well, in that case, you ought to be prepared to revise your beliefs. Good critical thinkers are disposed to change their beliefs when they realise that they can’t justify them. The point of critical thinking is not to win an argument, but rather to figure out which argument wins!

Critical thinking can be, and often is, about very ordinary issues. I think critically when I weigh up reasons to believe that I should take my car rather than my bicycle to go to work. I might argue that my car will be faster and safer than my bicycle. But is that true? Is my car really faster and safer than my bicycle? Are those good enough reasons to choose to go by car rather than by bicycle?

But critical thinking can also be about big questions. You might, for instance, be worried about global warming, or you might be concerned about various conflicts and wars around the world. And small and big issues are sometimes connected. Should I still take my car to work when I learn about the impact it may have on global warming? This is what we mean by critical thinking: It is the process by which we decide whether to adopt, reject, or revise reasons to believe things.




Although the word critical, as in ‘criticism’, often has a negative connotation in everyday life, in an academic context it means to be able to discern and create structured, reasoned arguments. 

                 Video under copyright. © The University of Auckland 2017. All rights reserved. 

Developing your critical thinking skills will contribute to your academic success. When reading, for example, these skills will allow you to make sense of and evaluate the information presented in your courses and discovered through independent research. And when writing, they will help you construct a clear line of reasoning - an argument with logical and plausible reasons to support your claims.

Bear in mind, though, that expectations for critical thinking may vary across subjects. 

Further reading

Developing arguments (University of Auckland)
• Argument in academic writing  (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

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