Critical Thinking Work Alikesi

No matter what walk of life you come from, what industry you’re interested in pursuing or how much experience you’ve already garnered, we’ve all seen firsthand the importance of critical thinking skills. In fact, lacking such skills can truly make or break a person’s career, as the consequences of one’s inability to process and analyze information effectively can be massive.

“The ability to think critically is more important now than it has ever been,” urges Kris Potrafka, founder and CEO of Music Firsthand. “Everything is at risk if we don’t all learn to think more critically.” If people cannot think critically, he explains, they not only lessen their prospects of climbing the ladder in their respective industries, but they also become easily susceptible to things like fraud and manipulation.

With that in mind, you’re likely wondering what you can do to make sure you’re not one of those people. Developing your critical thinking skills is something that takes concentrated work. It can be best to begin by exploring the definition of critical thinking and the skills it includes—once you do, you can then venture toward the crucial question at hand: How can I improve?

This is no easy task, which is why we aimed to help break down the basic elements of critical thinking and offer suggestions on how you can refine the skills that drive your own critical thinking abilities.

What is critical thinking?

Even if you want to be a better critical thinker, it’s hard to improve upon something you can’t define. Critical thinking is the analysis of an issue or situation and the facts, data or evidence related to it. Ideally, critical thinking is to be done objectively—meaning without influence from personal feelings, opinions or biases—and it focuses solely on factual information.

Critical thinking is a skill that allows you to make logical and informed decisions to the best of your ability. For example, a child who has not yet developed such skills might believe the Tooth Fairy left money under their pillow based on stories their parents told them. A critical thinker, however, can quickly conclude that the existence of such a thing is probably unlikely—even if there are a few bucks under their pillow.

6 Crucial critical thinking skills (and how you can improve them)

While there’s no universal standard for what skills are included in the critical thinking process, we’ve boiled it down to the following six.

1. Identification

The first step in the critical thinking process is to identify the situation or problem as well as the factors that may influence it. Once you have a clear picture of the situation and the people, groups or factors that may be influenced, you can then begin to dive deeper into an issue and its potential solutions.

How to improve: When facing any new situation, question or scenario, stop to take a mental inventory of the state of affairs and ask the following questions:

  • Who is doing what?
  • What seems to be the reason for this happening?
  • What are the end results, and how could they change? 

2. Research

When comparing arguments about an issue, independent research ability is key. Arguments are meant to be persuasive—that means the facts and figures presented in their favor might be lacking in context or come from questionable sources. The best way to combat this is independent verification; find the source of the information and evaluate.

How to improve: It can be helpful to develop an eye for unsourced claims. Does the person posing the argument offer where they got this information from? If you ask or try to find it yourself and there’s no clear answer, that should be considered a red flag. It’s also important to know that not all sources are equally valid—take the time to learn the difference between popular and scholarly articles.

3. Identifying biases

This skill can be exceedingly difficult, as even the smartest among us can fail to recognize biases. Strong critical thinkers do their best to evaluate information objectively. Think of yourself as a judge in that you want to evaluate the claims of both sides of an argument, but you’ll also need to keep in mind the biases each side may possess.

It is equally important—and arguably more difficult—to learn how to set aside your own personal biases that may cloud your judgement. “Have the courage to debate and argue with your own thoughts and assumptions,” Potrafka encourages. “This is essential for learning to see things from different viewpoints.”

How to improve: “Challenge yourself to identify the evidence that forms your beliefs, and assess whether or not your sources are credible,” offers Ruth Wilson, director of development at Brightmont Academy.

First and foremost, you must be aware that bias exists. When evaluating information or an argument, ask yourself the following:

  • Who does this benefit?
  • Does the source of this information appear to have an agenda?
  • Is the source overlooking, ignoring or leaving out information that doesn’t support its beliefs or claims?
  • Is this source using unnecessary language to sway an audience’s perception of a fact?

4. Inference

The ability to infer and draw conclusions based on the information presented to you is another important skill for mastering critical thinking. Information doesn’t always come with a summary that spells out what it means. You’ll often need to assess the information given and draw conclusions based upon raw data.

The ability to infer allows you to extrapolate and discover potential outcomes when assessing a scenario. It is also important to note that not all inferences will be correct. For example, if you read that someone weighs 260 pounds, you might infer they are overweight or unhealthy. Other data points like height and body composition, however, may alter that conclusion.

How to improve: An inference is an educated guess, and your ability to infer correctly can be polished by making a conscious effort to gather as much information as possible before jumping to conclusions. When faced with a new scenario or situation to evaluate, first try skimming for clues—things like headlines, images and prominently featured statistics—and then make a point to ask yourself what you think is going on.

5. Determining relevance

One of the most challenging parts of any critical thinking scenario is figuring out what information is the most important for your consideration. In many scenarios, you’ll be presented with information that may seem important, but it may pan out to be only a minor data point to consider.

How to improve: The best way to get better at determining relevance is by establishing a clear direction in what you’re trying to figure out. Are you tasked with finding a solution? Should you be identifying a trend? If you figure out your end goal, you can use this to inform your judgement of what is relevant.

Even with a clear objective, however, it can still be difficult to determine what information is truly relevant. One strategy for combating this is to make a physical list of data points ranked in order of relevance. When you parse it out this way, you’ll likely end up with a list that includes a couple of obviously relevant pieces of information at the top of your list, in addition to some points at the bottom that you can likely disregard. From there, you can narrow your focus on the less clear-cut topics that reside in the middle of your list for further evaluation.

6. Curiosity

It’s incredibly easy to sit back and take everything presented to you at face value, but that can also be also a recipe for disaster when faced with a scenario that requires critical thinking. It’s true that we’re all naturally curious—just ask any parent who has faced an onslaught of “Why?” questions from their child. As we get older, it can be easier to get in the habit of keeping that impulse to ask questions at bay. But that’s not a winning approach for critical thinking.

How to improve: While it might seem like a curious mind is just something you’re born with, you can still train yourself to foster that curiosity productively. All it takes is a conscious effort to ask open-ended questions about the things you see in your everyday life, and you can then invest the time to follow up on these questions.

“Being able to ask open-ended questions is an important skill to develop—and bonus points for being able to probe,” Potrafka says.

Put your critical thinking skills to work

Critical thinking skills are vital for anyone looking to have a successful college career and a fruitful professional life upon graduation. Your ability to objectively analyze and evaluate complex subjects and situations will always be useful. Unlock your potential by practicing and refining the six critical thinking skills above. 

Most professionals credit their time in college as having been crucial in the development of their critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking to improve your skills in a way that can impact your life and career moving forward, higher education is a fantastic venue through which to achieve that. For some of the surefire signs you’re ready to take the next step in your education, visit our article, “6 Signs You’re Ready to Be a College Student.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has since been updated.

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Two years ago, the accountancy firm EY made an announcement that no doubt sent a shiver down many lecturers’ spines. After failing to find any published evidence that graduates with good degree results made for better employees, a trawl through its own data, the company revealed, similarly found “no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken”.

Instead, what predicted success at EY, defined by recruits’ performance in annual appraisals and accountancy exams, is a “mix between behavioural and cognitive attributes”, explains Dominic Franiel, head of student recruitment at the company. These attributes include many things that higher education is supposed to instil. Among them are logical thinking, ability to understand the root cause of a problem, rapid comprehension of new concepts, self-motivation, a confidence-inspiring and professional manner and a strong work ethic, Franiel explains.

Acting on these findings, the company, which recruits about 900 UK graduates alone each year, scrapped its requirement for applicants to its graduate scheme to have an upper second-class degree and 300 Ucas points (equivalent to three B grades at A level). They still need a degree, and the company “still values academic achievement”, says Franiel. But rather than relying on university grades, EY now assesses applicants using its own bespoke tests. And this has had a noticeable effect on the kinds of people being successful – with a jump in recruitment of graduates who went to state schools and who were the first in their family to go to university, says Franiel. Nearly one in five new recruits would have been excluded under the old system for having low grades, he adds.

EY’s move is part of a growing trend. Another UK-headquartered accountancy firm, Grant Thornton, also scrapped its 2:1 requirement in 2013. In the same year, Google’s internal research discovered that college grade-point averages and other test scores were “worthless” in predicting future success at the company, and scrapped its requirement for applicants to submit detailed results for everyone except brand-new graduates. And last year, the publisher Penguin Random House UK dispensed with the need for a degree altogether, saying that there was no link between having one and workplace performance. According to Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the UK’s Association of Graduate Recruiters, “there’s a growing recognition that using academic grades as a kind of binary cut-off, as a cliff edge, is no longer [effective]”.

Few would argue that universities should simply be factories for the production of trainee accountants able to fit seamlessly into the corporate world. Higher education is clearly about much more than that. But there is increasing scrutiny of graduate outcomes by both governments and students (the UK’s teaching excellence framework and Longitudinal Education Outcomes project are good examples). If higher education is not seen to be adding any value to graduates’ skill sets, that has clear implications for university enrolment and funding levels.

So what value is higher education supposed to add? And how is this different from what school or vocational education offer? When challenged on this, the stock response from university leaders is “critical thinking”. Although the term is rarely defined in great detail, it is understood to involve an ability to think independently and to question assumptions in a structured, logical way. And, quite apart from the usefulness of such an ability in the professional sphere, it is also seen by many as a crucial element of informed citizenship. Insufficient levels of it among the electorate have been blamed by some for the success of last year’s campaigns for the UK to leave the European Union and for the US to elect Donald Trump as president – which, opponents say, made claim after claim that bore scant relation to logic or truth.

But there are two related questions around this. One is whether firms themselves really value the kind of critical thinking that academics prize. The bespoke tests that they are increasingly using to sift job applicants suggest that the kind of contemplative, expansive anatomisation of arguments that leads to high essay grades may not be what is required by successful operators in the modern, time-pressed workplace.

A further question is whether even the academic brand of critical thinking is being particularly well taught at university. According to Bryan Greetham, a philosopher and university researcher who has written several books on how students and professionals can improve their thinking, “We tend to want to do the simple thing – which is to teach students what to think, not how to think.” And it has long been an open secret in higher education that the sharpening effect, however defined, of a university education on students’ minds is far from well evidenced.

This was most famously explored in the 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The authors, American sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that 45 per cent of US undergraduates failed to significantly improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years at university. Other US-based studies have raised similar concerns. One from 2009, “Improving Students’ Evaluation of Informal Arguments”, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, warned that college and high school students have “difficulty evaluating arguments on the basis of their quality”.

But definitive studies of the issue are still lacking. There is, for instance, no university equivalent of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Pisa tests for schools, which measure reading and numeracy skills at different ages across countries. When the OECD recently trialled a programme to measure the “learning gain” of graduates, it was effectively scuppered after opposition in the UK, the US and Canada.

So, with the credibility of their credentials questioned, what can universities do to ensure that their students graduate with better cognitive skills? How can they live up to their claim that critical thinking is their unique selling point?

Some have begun explicitly teaching analytical skills. For instance, Anne Britt, a psychologist who has conducted studies into whether students can comprehend, evaluate and write arguments, runs a course at Northern Illinois University called simply “thinking”. After just half an hour of instruction, she says, most students do show significant improvement – although there is also a significant minority who make little progress even after a term.

To get the hang of certain ideas, she says, requires plenty of contact time between student and teacher. “I have many students who come in and think they’re excellent at argumentation. In fact, they’re not. Early on, they need feedback because they conflate argumentation with giving an opinion,” she says.

But if universities don’t have the resources to offer intensive classes, could they weave the teaching of critical thinking skills into regular teaching? Britt thinks that academics can easily make time for quick “check-ins” during their lectures to ensure that their students understand what they’ve been told. “It doesn’t have to take long. It could take 10 minutes at most…otherwise students are not actually thinking during the lecture,” she says. A quick intervention can make students realise: “Oh! This is how I’m supposed to be reading my book. These are the kinds of questions I’m supposed to be asking.”

High school experience, of course, varies enormously by country. In France, studying philosophy – arguably the closest that traditional disciplines get to explicit critical thinking courses – is compulsory. In England, meanwhile, the critical thinking A level has recently been scrapped. And Robert de Vries, a lecturer in quantitative sociology at the University of Kent, became “convinced pretty quickly” that many UK students need “explicit, remedial instruction in these abstract skills. I get the sense that students are used to being marked for content – ‘Have you covered this topic? Have you mentioned this fact from the textbook?’ – rather than for the quality of their reasoning or argumentation.”

However, according to de Vries, university courses “often can’t devote the time needed to explicitly teach the abstract tools of critical thinking: how to construct a good argument, how to spot weak evidence for a claim. They have a lot of substantive content to cover, and, to an extent, they have to assume that students will have already picked up a lot of this stuff by the time they get to university.”

This state of affairs, he says, explains why he too teaches a specific critical thinking course, which is compulsory for Kent’s sociology, social policy and social research students, and can be taken as an optional module by other students.

Another problem with assuming that students can pick up critical thinking skills during their normal studies, Britt adds, is that each subject leaves them with very different ideas about how to argue. In contrast to the scientific approach, “in history, I might never have a graph of data”, she says. Hence, when graduates start work, a historian and a scientist may begin with very different concepts of what constitutes reliable evidence, she says. So the idea that all university graduates have a generic ability to think critically may be somewhat misleading.

Moreover, widespread doubts exist that critical thinking is the be-all and end-all of employability. As previously mentioned, employers additionally value certain attitudinal traits, which their aptitude tests also seek to test. And, according to Greetham, critical thinking is not enough to enable graduates to do what their employers prize above all: the ability to come up with new ideas and concepts, and to create solutions to problems.

For him, critical thinking is useful, but it “works on the assumption that facts, right answers and certainties are out there just waiting to be discovered” by logical thinkers. “It assumes that a teacher’s role is to find these facts and transmit them, while teaching students the skills to chip away all those things that obscure them, [such as] the inconsistencies in our reasoning, irrelevant arguments and unsupported assumptions.”

But, this, Greetham says, is a flawed picture of reality. Rather than creative thinking, he says, students need to be taught what he calls “smart thinking”. This requires lecturers to allow far more discussion in class, and to guide students in how to analyse and synthesise concepts. “You need to lose control in the classroom in a way – because you’ve got to say: ‘Let’s have your ideas,’” he argues. Instead of requiring students to present their ideas to the class, followed by a discussion, lecturers need to get students to analyse the meaning of concepts, “recording their ideas on a whiteboard as they shape and reshape them”, and guide them in “reinterpreting and adapting their solutions”. This kind of teaching, he maintains, genuinely develops creative and conceptual skills.

But, Greetham warns, such change is unlikely to be possible while academics continue to be recruited on their research record, as opposed to their teaching ability.

As well as calls for critical thinkers and smart thinkers, there are also frequent demands from politicians for more “entrepreneurial” university graduates – who, instead of joining graduate recruitment programmes at large employers, might start their own businesses. Exactly what this means is hard to pin down, but it generally involves an emphasis on less theory and more practical experience.

Indeed, there is a general move across the world to align higher education more closely with vocational training. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Germany. “Years ago, the two education sectors were following different, opposite, logics – scientific versus practical orientation – and were addressing strictly separated job markets,” says Ulrich Mueller, head of policy studies at the Centre for Higher Education, a German thinktank. “The situation now is different: there is a big overlap between academic and practical education.” There are now very job-focused academic courses, he says, as well as vocational programmes with lots of academic content. The overlap is such that graduates of these two streams now compete for the same jobs in some areas, such as medicine and computer science. “I am sure that in 15 or 20 years there will be an [integrated] system of post-secondary education,” Mueller concludes.

In such a world, of course, there would be no need for higher education to define itself in a particular way, in contrast to other forms of education. But in the meantime, pinning down the unique skills of university graduates remains moot – especially when accessing higher education can be so much more expensive than vocational alternatives.

It is possible to overstate the level of concern about the issue. The US National Association of Colleges and Employers, for instance, says that it hasn’t seen a shift away from degrees towards employer-designed tests, suggesting that US firms largely still see college GPA as a reliable indicator of the kinds of skills they are looking for. And, in the US, getting a college degree is arguably more crucial than ever in terms of being competitive in the job market.

Yet, paradoxically, the bigger the graduate cohort becomes, the more employers are likely to question exactly what, if anything, having a degree really indicates. And that, in turn, could require universities to ask hard questions about how much – or how little – their courses really change how their students think. 


Think fast: what do graduate recruitment tests actually involve?

Having taken several of the bespoke tests that firms are now using to put their graduate applicants through their paces, it’s probably fair to say that I shouldn’t give up the day job.

But I suspect that I am not the only degree-holder who would struggle: the tests assess skills rather different from those required to pass university exams. Some questions involve numbers, shapes or text, but all are broadly designed to gauge mental agility. In abstract reasoning tests, for example, a typical question features a sequence of shapes, which you are asked to continue. Circle, square, circle, square: what next? That’s easy – but the patterns quickly get a lot more complex than that.

Another spatial reasoning test designed for recruiters by specialist firm Saville Assessments involves rotating 3D shapes in your head to see which is the odd one out. Meanwhile, a verbal reasoning section requires you to speed-read a passage about eating habits – putting any emotional or critical reaction out of your mind – and then click on the best summary of it, or choose the best synonym to replace a word. Worryingly for a journalist, I completely flunk error-checking, which involves scanning a spreadsheet at a furious pace.

It is the rapid-fire nature of the tests that most distinguishes them from university work. You rarely have more than 30 seconds to answer a question; in some cases, you have little more than
10 seconds. It’s a different form of mental activity from, say, crafting a dissertation over many months.

But perhaps the skills that these tests assess – can you quickly skim a paragraph or a screen of numbers, and then fire off an acceptable answer? – are more useful
in the modern, time-pressed office than the sustained thought that higher education is supposed to -inculcate.

That said, it is important to note that the tests aren’t used in isolation. Situational judgement tests, where applicants are presented with a real-world dilemma, are also increasingly in vogue. According to Dominic Franiel, EY’s head of student recruitment, a candidate might be asked, for instance, how they would handle a situation in which a more senior colleague was suddenly called away and they were left having to meet clients. Given a list of five choices, “there’s probably an ideal answer”, but it’s “quite nuanced”.

Moreover, applicants who get past the first online round do then have to weigh evidence and formulate their own opinions at a more leisurely pace at assessment centres, he adds.

It is also worth noting that the testers make no pretence to be assessing raw ability. They readily admit that scores can be enhanced by effective prepping – which I did not do. So perhaps there still hope for more ponderous graduates like me after all.

David Matthews

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