This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Imagine this scenario: You get a mysterious, frantic email from a friend that says she is traveling in London and has lost her purse, which contained all her identification and money. She wants you to wire her $5,000 immediately so that she can get the documentation she needs to get back home. You are worried about her and want to help, but there are a few details in the email that seem strange to you. Do you send her money as fast as you can or stop and think critically about the email?
Critical thinking is often defined as thinking that is disciplined, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence. In other words, critical thinking is a structured process, and like anything, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
Look for small clues
Thinking critically does not have to be a long, labor-intensive process. In some cases, you may notice small clues that will keep you from taking information at face value. Think about the email scenario above. What if your friend is an English major and the email has a few misspelled words in it, or the day that she claims she lost her purse was a day that you saw her on campus? Are these small clues enough to get you to stop and think?
Sometimes the small clues—or more obvious red flags—are enough to motivate you to think more critically. For example, you may be searching for a website that you can use as a reference for a research paper. If the site contains numerous typos and some biased information, would you be willing to stop and think critically about the source? Could these small clues point to large issues with credibility and reliability? Learning to look for these clues is one of the first steps in developing strong critical thinking skills.
The next step to becoming a critical thinker is to ask questions so that you can gather more evidence to inform your stance or decision. In the case of the puzzling email above, you can ask questions such as “Do I know that my friend went on vacation and that she went to London?” “How will $5,000 help her get the documents she needs to return? Would she need more or less?” and “Why did she choose to contact me instead of someone else?” While thinking critically slows down the decision-making process, it can save you a lot of grief in the long run if you find that the situation is not what it seems.
When you are assigned readings or listen to lectures, critical thinking will come into play when you ask questions of what you are learning. “Is the author or speaker credible?” and “How do I know this information is true?” are good questions to begin with. Critical thinkers never assume that the information they encounter is accurate or presented fairly. Instead, they look for both small and big clues—or evidence—to determine the validity of information and the probability that what they are reading or hearing is trustworthy.
Do your homework
Although it is good to ask questions early, doing so will get you only so far in critical thinking. You will also need to do your homework, which means finding more information or using logic to determine the accuracy or fairness of the information provided. If you were to do your homework on the email above, you would contact the friend directly or locate someone you both know to determine if she really did take a recent vacation to London. You might also want to check out websites that provide information to overseas travelers who lose their passports and credit cards. Better yet, you could search on sites such as www.snopes.com to see if any scams have been reported that use emails such as the one you received.
Doing your homework in your college classes will most likely involve reviewing material in your textbooks and assigned readings, as well as using library resources to learn more about the topics you’re studying. Your professors may give you guidance on where to look, or you may need to work with the library staff to find the best resources.
Open your mind
Effective critical thinkers suspend judgment when they evaluate the information they have received, and keep an open mind during the evaluation process. They look for alternative explanations as they review their research. If, for example, you find that a computer virus has been infecting email and sending out fake distress messages such as the one you received, you may strongly consider that the email is phony. You will, however, want to weigh all the research you are able to find before coming to a conclusion.
Keeping an open mind in the classroom will allow you to look at information more objectively and more critically. While it may be hard to listen or read material impartially at first, the more your practice the earlier steps of critical thinking, the more natural it will seem. Even if you ultimately agree with the speaker or author, a healthy level of skepticism and open-mindedness to other explanations is good for developing strong critical thinking skills.
Use other types of thinking
Creative and analytical thinking are integral parts of thinking critically and problem solving. Creative thinking involves generating ideas or alternative solutions to a problem. Analytical thinking is the act of breaking down a process or a product (for example, reviewing each element of the email you supposedly received from your friend) to examine those parts more closely. When coupled with asking questions and judging the information you have received, creative and analytical thinking provide for deeper critical thinking and, most likely, better results!
When you are asked to think critically about information, be aware of the different types of thinking that are involved in the process. For example, if your business professor asks you to review a sample business plan and determine what can be done to make it better, you will need to use all three types of thinking to provide suggestions for improvement.
Stay calm and carry on with critical thinking
A final aspect to thinking critically is to remain rational. Sometimes emotions can get the best of us and they are completely appropriate in certain situations. However, practicing effective critical thinking strategies will require that you detach yourself emotionally from the information.
For instance, while you may be very passionate about ending hunger in developing nations, your global studies professor may want you to be less fervent when she assigns you a project that requires you to evaluate governmental policies regarding foreign aid to impoverished countries. That impartiality will help you make better judgments and reflect well on your critical thinking skills.
So, what did you decide to do with the email? Did you run down to a bank and wire the money? Did you email your friend for more information? Did you do your own research and use logic to determine if the email was fake? Whatever choice you made, good critical thinkers never stop thinking about their decisions. Instead, they evaluate the outcomes and use that information the next time they are faced with a situation that needs critical thinking.