What do we mean by ‘critical’?

Being ‘critical’ does not mean just being negative, or pointing out what is wrong about something. At master’s level, ‘critical’ means “Fully informed, capable of supporting in-depth analysis and assessment” (Scottish credit and qualifications framework, level descriptors).

Critical’ in University work means being thoughtful, asking questions, not taking things you read (or hear) at face value. It means finding information and understanding different approaches and using them in your writing. (Williams)

Meaning of critical thinking

Critical thinking is a term that we hear a lot, but many people don’t really stop to think about what it means or how to use it. One of the authors for 21st Century Citizens; voiced that critical thinking and skills are very essential for development (Lynder, 2015). She emulated that an individual attitude is the influential key to critical thinking. Other 21st CCI members also outlined interesting factors; environmental conditions, leadership skills as well as mind-set of individual in the society. Critical thinking is seen largely as a level that an individual has to attain before displaying that thoughtful nature and being able to make informed decisions for national development. To you, what do think about this? And can this be the gap between the European Continent and the African continent? Your views are welcome.

Critical thinking can be seen in all facets of life and in human endeavors such as in education, psychology, and nursing as well as in social works.

Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions. It requires wanting to see what evidence is involved to support a particular argument or conclusion. People who use critical thinking are the ones who say things such as, ‘How do you know that? Is this conclusion based on evidence or gut feelings?’ and ‘Are there alternative possibilities when given new pieces of information?’ (DeLecce, 2014)

Critical Thinking Defined

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. 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/she knows, and he/she knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform him/herself.

Critical thinking and argument

Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being precarious 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. (Joe Lau, 2015)

Why is being critical important?

  • It affects your academic success: if you wish to achieve higher grades, being able to take an informed and analytical approach to your studies is very important. Simply memorizing and explaining concepts and ideas will not be sufficient for a strong pass at masters level. You need to be able to demonstrate knowledge of your subject and give your opinion(s) supported by evidence that you have judged to be appropriate.
  • It affects your employability: one of the main reasons students undertake postgraduate study is to improve their employment prospects. Higher-level thinking and reasoning skills can be applied across many areas of work e.g. strategic planning, trouble shooting, problem solving, and critical evaluation of projects and processes. They are therefore essential to develop and demonstrate to prospective employers after graduation.

Taking a critical approach in your studies and professional development can include behaviors such as:

  • thinking carefully about what you read and why: judging what resources are credible, reflecting on and developing your search techniques, not just looking for and reading the obvious and / or the first things you come across
  • questioning and testing what you read: do the author’s viewpoints and ideas appear justified? Why – or why not?
  • looking for connections (or disparities), and constructing your own arguments supported by a range carefully considered viewpoints, not just repeating the ideas of others
  • being inquisitive, and asking good questions – of others, and of yourself
  • spotting and challenging potential bias, distorted views, prejudice, and self-interest – in the work of others, and in your own thinking
  • challenging ideas – where appropriate, and based on credible evidence
  • looking for gaps, and suggesting new or different solutions
  • reflecting on and adapting your own professional practice based on your developing insights (Open, 2015)

Critical thinking ‘stairway’

The Open University (2009) outline a useful ‘stairway’ to help students understand the skills in thinking critically.

The lower steps are the basics that support moving to the higher-level thinking skills that can underpin taking a critical approach.

  • Process – Take in the information (i.e. in what you have read, heard, seen or done).
  • Understand – Comprehend the key points, assumptions, arguments and evidence presented.
  • Analyze – Examine how these key components fit together and relate to each other.
  • Compare – Explore the similarities, differences between the ideas you are reading about.
  • Synthesize – Bring together different sources of information to serve an argument or idea you are constructing. Make logical connections between the different sources that help you shape and support your ideas.
  • Evaluate – Assess the worth of an idea in terms of its relevance to your needs, the evidence on which it is based and how it relates to other pertinent ideas.
  • Apply – Transfer the understanding you have gained from your critical evaluation and use in response to questions, assignments and projects.
  • Justify – Use critical thinking to develop arguments, draw conclusions, make inferences and identify implications. (Open, 2015)

Core Skills (Critically processing what you read)

Critical thinking is the process of applying reasoned and disciplined thinking to a subject. The higher grades at every level of university study require some critical analysis.

You will need to develop reasoned arguments based on a logical interpretation of reliable sources information. These skills are essential if you want to obtain high grades in your university study and, like other skills, they improve with practice.

It initially involves these steps.

  • Analyze – Examine how key components within your module materials fit together and relate to each other.
  • Compare – Explore the similarities and differences between the ideas you are reading about. Do some ideas conflict with or complement each other?
  • Synthesis – Bring together different sources of information to serve an argument or idea you are constructing. Make logical connections between the different sources that help you shape and support your ideas. Are there any inferences you can draw from the material and apply to an assignment question? (The Open University)
  • Read more on critical thinking development

Here are some more other definitions of critical thinking. It can be seen that they all emphasize the importance of clarity and rationality.

The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is a well-known psychological test of critical thinking ability. The authors of this test define critical thinking as:

… a composite of attitudes, knowledge and skills. This composite includes: (1) attitudes of inquiry that involve an ability to recognize the existence of problems and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in support of what is asserted to be true; (2) knowledge of the nature of valid inferences, abstractions, and generalizations in which the weight or accuracy of different kinds of evidence are logically determined; and (3) skills in employing and applying the above attitudes and knowledge. (Watson-Glaser)

The following excerpt comes from Dr. Peter A. Facione (1990) “Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction”, a report for the American Philosophical Association.

“We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one’s personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.” (Facione, 1990)

The last excerpt comes from a statement written by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, an organization promoting critical thinking in the US.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implications and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. (Michael Scriven, National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking) (Joe Lau, 2015)

Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

  • They are honest with themselves
  • They resist manipulation
  • They overcome confusion
  • They ask questions
  • They base judgments on evidence
  • They look for connections between subjects
  • They are intellectually independent

Text adapted with permission from The Department of History’s Study Skills booklets. (Manchester) University

Being able to think clearly is the central component of critical thinking. In order to answer a question or evaluate a claim, we have to know what the question or the claim means. In order to communicate precisely and to avoid misunderstanding, we need to watch out for vagueness or ambiguity. Of course, there are plenty of contexts where clarity and precision are unnecessary, or even undesirable. Many jokes and poems, for example, exploit the ambiguity of language. Sometimes we might also offer vague promises in order to give ourselves flexibility. But there are many situations where it is particularly important to be able to think clearly and to analyze meaning:

  • In dealing with many abstract issues, often the first task is to clarify the relevant key terms or concepts. For example, to find out whether Asian values are incompatible with human rights, we have to explain what exactly is meant by “Asian values” and “human rights”.
  • The development of science involves the introduction of new scientific theories and concepts. We need to give these concepts adequate definitions in order to know how they can be used in scientific explanations and predictions.
  • Society requires rules and regulations for the coordination of behavior. A good set of rules should be formulated clearly to avoid and resolve disputes, and so that people know what is expected of them.
  • Good communication skills involve being able to convey messages with the right meaning, and being able to understand the meaning of what has been said, or left unsaid. (Joe Lau, 2015)

Critical thinking and development

Critical thinking is a domain-general thinking skill. The ability to think clearly and rationally is important whatever we choose to do. If you work in education, research, finance, management or the legal profession, then critical thinking is obviously important. But critical thinking skills are not restricted to a particular subject area. Being able to think well and solve problems systematically is an asset for any career.

Critical thinking is very important in the new knowledge economy. The global knowledge economy is driven by information and technology. One has to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. The new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. Good critical thinking promotes such thinking skills, and is very important in the fast-changing workplace.

Critical thinking enhances language and presentation skills. Thinking clearly and systematically can improve the way we express our ideas. In learning how to analyze the logical structure of texts, critical thinking also improves comprehension abilities.

Critical thinking promotes creativity. To come up with a creative solution to a problem involves not just having new ideas. It must also be the case that the new ideas being generated are useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones and modifying them if necessary

Critical thinking is crucial for self-reflection. In order to live a meaningful life and to structure our lives accordingly, we need to justify and reflect on our values and decisions. Critical thinking provides the tools for this process of self-evaluation.

Good critical thinking is the foundation of science and a liberal democratic society. Science requires the critical use of reason in experimentation and theory confirmation. The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice. (Joe Lau, 2015)



DeLecce, T. (2014). what is critical thinking definition skills meaning. Retrieved June 12, 2015, from

Facione, D. P. (1990). Critical Thinking:A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction”. American Philosophical Association.

Joe Lau, J. C. (2015). opencourseware on critical thinking, logic and creativity. Retrieved June 12, 2015, from

Lynder, M. (2015). Critical Thinking Makes the Difference. 21st Century Citizens (pp. 31-32). Winneba: CCI.

Manchester, U. (n.d.). faculty of humanities study skills website. Retrieved June 12, 2015, from

Michael Scriven, R. P. (n.d.). National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. an organization promoting critical thinking in the US.

Michael Scriven, R. P. (n.d.). National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. an organization promoting critical thinking in the US.

Open, U. (2015, April 17 (Friday)). Skills for OU Study. Retrieved June 12, 2015, from

Watson-Glaser. (n.d.). Critical Thinking Appraisal. Psychological test of critical thinking.

Williams, K. (n.d.). Getting Critical. Pocket Study Skills, viii.


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