Critical Thinking Skills

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: PHIL102: Introduction to Critical Thinking and Logic
Book: Critical Thinking Skills
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 12:15 PM


Read these four tutorials on critical thinking. As you read, compare the abilities that a person acquires after becoming a critical thinker with your own goals as a student, as well as with your future career and life goals.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas;
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments;
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning;
  • solve problems systematically;
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas;
  • reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values.

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.

Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks. Critical thinking can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories, and strengthen arguments. We can use critical thinking to enhance work processes and improve social institutions.

Some people believe that critical thinking hinders creativity because it requires following the rules of logic and rationality, but creativity might require breaking rules. This is a misconception. Critical thinking is quite compatible with thinking "out-of-the-box", challenging consensus and pursuing less popular approaches. If anything, critical thinking is an essential part of creativity because we need critical thinking to evaluate and improve our creative ideas.

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§2. The future of critical thinking

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum issued a report "The Future of Jobs". It says:

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, and genetics and biotechnology, will cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets over the next five years, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.

Exercise 1

The top three skills that supposed to be most relevant are thinking skills related to critical thinking, creativity, and their practical application. 

Try to predict the top 10 skills in 2020. 

Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Defining Critical Thinking

There are many different definitions of critical thinking. Here we list some of the well-known ones. It can be seen that they all emphasize the importance of clarity and rationality. Here we will look at some well-known definitions in chronological order.

Many people traced the importance of critical thinking in education to Dewey. But Dewey did not make very extensive use of the term "critical thinking". Instead, in his book How We Think, he argued for the importance of what he called "reflective thinking":

... [when] the ground or basis for a belief is deliberately sought and its adequacy to support the belief examined. This process is called reflective thought; it alone is truly educative in value ...
Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought.

There is however one passage where Dewey explicitly uses the term "critical thinking":

The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment; and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution. This, more than any other thing, transforms mere inference into tested inference, suggested conclusions into proof.
Dewey (1910) How We Think, p74.

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Improve our Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is a metacognitive skill. What this means is that it is a higher-level cognitive skill that involves thinking about thinking. We have to be aware of the good principles of reasoning, and be reflective about our own reasoning. In addition, we often need to make a conscious effort to improve ourselves, avoid biases, and maintain objectivity. This is notoriously hard to do. We are all able to think but to think well often requires a long period of training. The mastery of critical thinking is similar to the mastery of many other skills. There are three important components: theory, practice, and attitude.


If we want to think correctly, we need to follow the correct rules of reasoning. Knowledge of theory includes knowledge of these rules. These are the basic principles of critical thinking, such as the laws of logic, and the methods of scientific reasoning, etc.

Also, it would be useful to know something about what not to do if we want to reason correctly. This means we should have some basic knowledge of the mistakes that people make. First, this requires some knowledge of typical fallacies. Second, psychologists have discovered persistent biases and limitations in human reasoning. An awareness of these empirical findings will alert us to potential problems.


However, merely knowing the principles that distinguish good and bad reasoning is not enough. We might study in the classroom about how to swim, and learn about the basic theory, such as the fact that one should not breathe under water. But unless we can apply such theoretical knowledge through constant practice, we might not actually be able to swim.

Similarly, to be good at critical thinking skills it is necessary to internalize the theoretical principles so that we can actually apply them in daily life. There are at least two ways. One is to do lots of good-quality exercises. Exercises include not just exercises in classrooms and tutorials. They also include exercises in the form of discussion and debates with other people in our daily life. The other method is to think more deeply about the principles that we have acquired. In the human mind, memory and understanding are acquired through making connections between ideas.


Good critical thinking skills require not just knowledge and practice. Persistent practice can bring about improvements only if one has the right kind of motivation and attitude. The following attitudes are not uncommon, but they are obstacles to critical thinking:

    • I prefer being given the correct answers rather than figuring them out myself.
    • I do not like to think a lot about my decisions as I rely only on gut feelings.
    • I do not usually review the mistakes I have made.
    • I do not like to be criticized.

To improve our thinking we have to recognize that the importance of reflecting on the reasons for belief and action. We should also be willing to engage in debate, break old habits, and deal with linguistic complexities and abstract concepts.

The California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory is a psychological test that is used to measure whether people are disposed to think critically. It measures seven different thinking habits listed below, and it is useful to ask ourselves to what extent they describe the way we think:

  1. Truth-seeking - Do you try to understand how things really are? Are you interested in finding out the truth?
  2. Open-mindedness - How receptive are you to new ideas, even though intuitively they do not agree with you? Do you give them a fair hearing?
  3. Analyticity - Do you try to understand the reasons behind things? Do you act impulsively or do you evaluate the pros and cons of your decisions?
  4. Systematicity - Are you systematic in your thinking? Do you break down a complex problem into parts?
  5. Confidence in Reasoning - Do you always defer to other people? How confident are you in your own judgment? Do you have reasons for your confidence? Do you have a way to evaluate your own thinking?
  6. Inquisitiveness
  7. Maturity of Judgment - Do you jump to conclusions? Do you try to see things from different perspectives? Do you take other people's experiences into account?

Finally, as mentioned earlier, psychologists have discovered over the years that human reasoning can be easily affected by all kinds of cognitive biases. For example, people tend to be over-confident of their abilities, and focus too much on evidence that supports their pre-existing opinions. We should be alert to these biases in our attitudes towards our own thinking.

Teaching Critical Thinking

In a survey conducted by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 99.6% of university teachers agreed that critical thinking is an "very important" or "essential" goal for undergraduate education. (HERI (2009) The American College Teacher: National Norms for 2007–2008. Higher Education Research Institute, University of California.)

But how should critical thinking be taught? There are lots of different issues to be investigated, such as:

    • Should critical thinking be taught as a separate subject on its own, or should it be taught in combination with other specific subjects that the students are studying?
    • Which are the topics that are most crucial? How useful are lessons in formal logic or Venn diagrams? How should we go about designing a curriculum?

Research from education psychology and cognitive science are very much relevant when designing an effective pedagogy for teaching critical thinking. Here is a research article on this topic commissioned by our website:

Tim van Gelder (2004) "Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science"

A later version is published as van Gelder, T. J. (2005). Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science. College Teaching, 53, 41-6.

Abstract: This article draws six key lessons from cognitive science for teachers of critical thinking. The lessons are: acquiring expertise in critical thinking is hard; practice in critical thinking skills themselves enhances skills; the transfer of skills must be practiced; some theoretical knowledge is required; diagramming arguments ("argument mapping") promotes skill; and students are prone to belief preservation. The article provides some guidelines for teaching practice in light of these lessons.