Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

In class I like to do a critical thinking skills evaluation on my students.

I usually do it a week into the course. By that time, my students have had the time to read some of the material on the topic that we will focus on. So, let’s say our topic is globalisation.

I’ll ask a question, like, “Globalisation is mostly beneficial for all countries.

And then it’s the moment of truth…

The students have to stand at one side of the room or the other. They have to make a decision:critical thinking globalisation

Do they agree with my statement… or do they disagree?

In my classes, there is no middle ground. There is no, “I’m not sure”. Some teachers think that, “I’m not sure” is lazy

Call me naive, but I don’t think that all students are lazy. Don’t get me wrong, there definitely are lazy students!

If you’re reading this, you’re not a lazy student.

The truth is, for most students, critical thinking is new and challenging. Saying “I’m not sure” is easy, but it won’t help you to write a good essay, give a good presentation, or achieve success.

This is because critical thinking is one of the most essential ingredients to success. Why?

Because it affects how well you:

  • learn English
  • read and use information
  • make arguments and points in assignments and presentations
  • self-evaluate and take criticism
  • communicate your message
  • make logical connections

But not just that, developing your critical thinking skills can also have really positive impacts on your life. You will be able to make decisions based on research and not on feelings!

So, what do you think – do you need critical thinking?

Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • What critical thinking is
  • The mindset you need to be a critical thinker
  • The key questions to ask yourself while read
  • The number one question you can ask at any time to be more critical
  • Why Pokemon is like writing an essay

Quick Tip before you start: this is an intermediate level text and should take 10-15 minutes to read.

What are Critical Thinking Skills?

An article published this year (2016) by Nisbah Shaheen, features various teachers’ thoughts on what critical thinking actually means. Here are some of these thoughts. Critical thinking:

  • “is an ability to analyse text and engage in a critical way…”
  • “involves the skills of analysis of given information in order to show their broad understanding and knowledge of the subject…”
  • “is intellectual engagement and evaluation of the arguments/ideas, which includes challenging ideas and assessing claims.”
  • “means an in-depth understanding of the content you are studying and supporting your opinion with logical argumentation.”
  • “includes challenging ideas/arguments/theories that have been presented at university (lecture, books, seminars etc), demonstrating a deep understanding that there are arguments for and against many of these, and to be able to intellectually engage with those arguments and make judgements about the validity of the cases.”

I also asked the question on my Facebook page and there were many different answers:

What is critical thinking? 1 What is critical thinking? 2

 

I’m going to use critical thinking skills to summarise all of that for you here.

Critical thinking skills are the combination of:

  • Finding and understanding useful & relevant information
  • Using the information to create an argument or decision or to solve a problem.

I think the best way to give you an example of critical thinking skills is by using Pokemon. Yes – Pokemon has been all over the news recently (and I’ve already sent an email out to the English For Study newsletter about it!), but Pokemon taught me about critical thinking from the age of 8 or 9:

Pokemon & Critical Thinking Skills

If you don’t know what Pokemon is, it’s a Japanese cartoon and video game where people capture small creatures, raise them and battle them.

These creatures are called Pokemon, and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. In addition, you can only carry six Pokemon with you at one time.

This means you have to be prepared for any situation with these six Pokemon. You need to build your team around strengths and weaknesses, which requires... critical thinking skills!

Here’s what usually happens:

  • You play the game collecting Pokemon
  • You progress quite easily for a while
  • You encounter a boss (or ‘gym leader’) whose Pokemon are strong against yours
  • You lose against this boss = this is the problem
  • You research which Pokemon you can use to defeat the boss (this is the research) (Here’s an example of strengths and weakness by my friend Liam – turn on captions)
  • You catch and train the Pokemon which can defeat the boss = this is the solution
  • You defeat the boss & repeat!

It’s simple, but this is how essays and assignments work: You have a problem (writing an essay) which you need to solve (through research). 

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So how do we do the research? There are two requirements:

#1 Mindset – being ready to research critically

#2 Asking the right questions – knowing which questions to ask

We’re going to look at them both now.

Putting On Your “Critical Thinking Cap”: Mindset

Critical thinking skills

We have a saying in English: “put on your thinking cap”. It means to start “thinking of a solution”.

Well, I want you to put on your ‘critical thinking cap’ every time you read something.

Before you start reading and article, you need to be ready! Being ready means that you are prepared to read and you know why you’re reading.

When you have done that, you need to read actively. As you’re reading question anything that you think is important.

You can use reading skills, like skimming and scanning, to find the parts of the text which are useful.

Having the correct mindset is important to start, but as you read, you need to ask questions. In the next section, there are 17 questions to help you think critically about what you are reading.

Developing Your Critical Thinking Skills: Questions

So far we have discovered three things:

  1. Critical thinking is important for self development AND getting good grades at university.
  2. Critical thinking has many definitions.
  3. Critical thinking needs to be actively developed.
Now let’s look at some questions. I recommend that you print these questions out and use them while you read articles:

  • Who is the author?
  • What is the author’s background?
  • Does the author have an opinion?
  • What is this opinion based on? Research or feelings?
  • What are the main ideas in the text?
  • How are the ideas organised?
  • Is there an argument in the text?
  • Does the author use examples to show his/her opinion?
  • Are these examples effective?
  • Does the author use evidence?
  • Does this evidence seem reliable?
  • Does the author make any points which are similar to other points I’ve read?
  • Do I agree with the author? Why/ Why not?
  • Are the points important?
  • How can I use each point?
  • Can I use any of the points to support my argument?
  • Can I use any information in this text with another text?

And finally, the number one question that you can ask is: why?

Whenever you see something interesting, ask ‘why’.

If you like to see the development of questions, this image might help:

Critical Thinking Skills Questions

This isn’t a complete list of questions, but it should be enough to start with.

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What next?

Well hopefully now you have a better understanding of what critical thinking is and how you can develop your critical thinking skills. By using critical thinking, you can make better judgements in your life as well as get better grades.

After you’ve made notes from your reading, the next step will be to plan and write an essay.

For now, though, here’s what you should do next:

#1 Add your own critical thinking question in the comments section

#2 Share this post with a friend who needs to get better at making decisions

#3 If you’re serious about improving your English & getting better grades: join the English For Study newsletter:

Click here to join

About the Author Sam

Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also a lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.

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