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What is critical thinking?

'Critical thinking' and 'critical analysis' are terms which are consistently used by academics in explanations of what is required by students in their university work as well as in feedback about what is lacking in student assignments.

It can be defined as:

"the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generalised by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief or action [or argument]" (Scriven & Paul ,2001, p.1).

Critical thinking at university

Being critical involves making judgements and evaluations. Making judgements can involve distinguishing between fact and opinion or evaluating the validity of information sources or the validity of particular theories and/ or their application to particular situations. These judgements need to be well grounded in research, wide reading, and consideration of all possible viewpoints. Critical thinking in this sense is based on a synthesis of a number of factors, and is not just uninformed personal opinion.  It will involve constant questioning:

  • What if?
  • How could?
  • What does this mean for? etc.

Critical thinking is needed for every aspect of your course:

  • Reading (links)
  • Notemaking
  • Writing
  • Presentations
  • For students whose studies involve a practical component, your professional practice

How to be a critical thinker

Critical thinking means different things in different disciplines. If you are studying in an education discipline, for example, you will be thinking critically when you apply theory to a practical situation and then reflect on what happened as a result of your application of that particular theory in that situation.

In a discipline which has a less obviously practical application, for example some humanities areas of study, you will be thinking critically when you compare and contrast theories with each other, or when you try to work out gaps or flaws in those theories.

Your lecturers expect that even first year students can do more than just describe a theory or concept in assignments. In addition to describing, lecturers also expect students to analyse and evaluate or judge a concept, or apply a concept or theory to a practical situation.

Critical thinking is occurring and is evident when a student engages in some or all of the following actions that are part of completing an assignment.

Critical thinking involves the following:

  • Analysing tasks
  • Identifying assumptions
  • Analysing & classifying
  • Making comparisons
  • Problem solving
  • Analysing tasks
    Questioning & challenging ideas
  • Observing facts, comparing them to hypotheses & assumptions
  • Judging the validity of the source & the worth of evidence
  • Forming opinions / arguments
  • Making connections between ideas, texts, theories, frameworks, disciplines
  • Evaluating & weighing up
  • Drawing inferences
  • Making generalisations

(Partially adapted from: James et al., 1999; Grierson, 2001)

Useful resources

Plymouth University PDF on critical thinking

Video on Critical Thinking edited from video on