Critical Thinking

BloomWhatever you’re studying, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to use critical thinking. This term covers a range of things across different subjects; but, in essence, it means a willingness to ask questions. "Why has this experiment turned out the way it has?" "How might the design of this product be improved?" "What influenced this author's opinion?" 

When you think critically:

  • you don’t just accept information or situations that are given to you
  • you try to understand why they are the way they are
  • you ask what other possibilities exist, and what you might be able to do about them

Thinking critically is the pumping heart of academic work, keeping the whole business alive; if we aren’t prepared to think critically about the world around us, who will? Critical thinking is an everyday skill that we need to navigate the world around us, from advertisig to politics and fake news. Like many core skills, thinking critically in an academic environment will build on our existing capabilities but it should also stretch them. Just like physical exercise, there’s an element of necessary discomfort in this. However, the outcome will ultimately be positive, and you should leave university with a wider range of tools for thinking - and acting - critically.

The Bloom model (above) presents a hierarchy of learning that is used to develop marking criteria across university assessments. Making sure you engage with the higher critical skills of analysing, evaluating and creating are essential to achieve higher grades on your course.

You might read about critical thinking, writing or analysis in your academic feedback, but remain unsure as to how to make the change from description to critical analysis. Some description is usually necessary to set the scene in each paragraph, but you need to make sure that you aren’t just telling the story of other people’s findings and theories. Things that you could could express in your writing include: is this research or evidence credible? How could it be improved? Have other people made opposing claims? How does it relate to the other evidence in your argument?

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Here are some examples illustrating the differences between descriptive and critical analytical writing:

Descriptive writing Critical analytical writing

States what happened

Identifies the significance of something that happened

States what something is like

Evaluates its strengths and weaknesses

States the order in which things happened

Structures information in order of importance

Explains what a theory says

Discusses the importance/failings/relevance of a theory in relation to a topic/idea

Explains how something works

Indicates why something will work (best)

Notes the methods used

Evaluates whether the extent to which the methods used were fit for purpose

Says when something occurred

Identifies why timing is of importance

States the different components

Weighs up the importance of component parts

States links between items

Shows the relevance of links between pieces of information

Gives information

Draws conclusions

Adapted from: Cottrell, S., (2008) The Study Skills Handbook, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p286.

How do the experts do it?

The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank is the output of a project that examined published academic writing from across disciplines and areas of study and broke it down into the most commonly used phrases. These phrases are organised around categories such as 'being critical', 'comparing and contrastin' and 'giving examples'. Visit the Academic Phrasebank to get some ideas on how to organise and structure your critical writing.

Top Tips
  • Look for good evidence (from accredited sources with references, not anecdotal).
  • Be aware of sources of bias
  • Look for controversy/contradiction
  • Recognise that 'experts' are not always right!
Want to know more?

Internal

External

Academic Phrasebank Being Critical, Manchester University
Williams, K. (2009) Pocket Study Skills: Getting Critical. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Prepare for Success - Critical thinking
EAfAP - Reading critically
University of Toronto – Critical Reading Towards Critical Writing
Edinburgh Napier University – Critical Thinking
Learn Higher – Critical Thinking and Reflection