Being a critical thinker: Basic approaches to critical thinking


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Three steps to think critically:

  1. Decide what you think and why you think it.
  2. Seek other views and more evidence.
  3. Decide which view is most reasonable.

Step 1: Decide what you think and why you think it

Strategies and practical exercises

  1. Writing down "I think... because" sentences.
  2. Have a "garbage" draft of what you think. Without hesitating too much, allow yourself to "free associate". It provides a platform for yourself to be free and just note down what you think. Thinking is also about generating interest and expanding new horizons. It is not about staying within what you already know.
  3. Generate a list of questions (on your own or with a friend) regarding the topic and get someone else to ask you about it.
  4. Ask your peers to generate a list of questions for you as well.


What happens if I don't have any thoughts about it?

Talk to someone about it and see what he/she thinks. Then question yourself about what you think about what he/she thinks. Try to avoid saying "I don't have any thoughts about it!" But instead, ask "What do I think about this topic? What topics are related to this topic that I have some knowledge about? What do I know about this topic?"

What happens if this issue is personal and uncomfortable for me?

Do you know why you are uncomfortable about it? Sometimes, critical thinking is thinking about what you haven't thought about in the past. Thinking about topics you are uncomfortable with can help you feel more comfortable about these topics. Perhaps you could ask yourself "Is there anything about this issue that you are comfortable in discussing?"

What happens if I am uninterested in the subject matter? But because I have to take this course, I am forced to think about it.

Then make it worth your while. An interesting person in a boring situation would find ways to make the situation boring. A boring person in an interesting situation would still be bored. It's never the subject matter that is boring but how we view the subject matter that makes us uninterested in the topic. It may be interesting in finding out why you are not interested in something. Find out why you were not interested in the subject matter in the first place. You may end up to like it more.

What if I don't have the right answers? I feel that I am not smart enough to come up with the right thoughts. I don't think what I say would be profound.

Think "Everyone is smart until proven otherwise!" Thinking does not mean having the right thoughts all the time. It is an ongoing process that helps you to find what you think it's the best answer and refine your thoughts. Make a list of topics that make your uncomfortable.

Step 2: Seek other views and more evidence

Strategies and practical exercises

  1. Have you thought about this topic in another way before? Did you disagree about how you thought about this topic in the past? Why did you disagree or what led you to think otherwise? The purpose of these questions is to find other ways of thinking about this topic. 
  2. Find academic/literary sources that may provide other views regarding the topic.
  3. Speak with friends, family or professors for alternative perspectives.
  4. A little self-doubt helps. Rethink some of the conclusions you arrived at.
  5. Some questions to think about:
  • Am I too rash?
  • Am I so desperate to find a “right” answer that I just decided not to look any further?
  • Did I interpret my evidence correctly?


Does my opinion count or should I just summarize views that other people have?

Your opinion always counts. But you must know the difference between presenting your opinion without evidence and presenting your opinion after having read and thoroughly understood the ideas and views of other experts/ people. A critical thinker always supports his thoughts/views on available evidence.

How do I find other evidence?

Again, speak with people. Ask your classmates. Create a reading group or online discussion. You would be surprised that talking with your peers may generate many new ideas. In particular, speak with experts of your interest topic. The library also provides a lot of information. Librarians can help you find important sources in the library. There are numerous online resources as well. (Use the internet wisely as well! – Refer to links)

Step 3: Decide which view is most reasonable

Now that you have completed your research and collected evidence, it is time to evaluate the evidence and take a position.

Strategies and practical exercises

  1. Take your time to distinguish different perspectives. Make a list of pros and cons / likes and dislikes for each perspective. In most cases, there may be arguments that you may like and arguments that you may not agree with within each perspective.
  2. If you had a position before collecting your research, be sure to stay objective while evaluating the evidence. This means consider all the research evidence without bias. Don’t find evidence that supports your original position only. Instead, look for evidence that may conflict with your position and evaluate the evidence carefully.
  3. Evaluate the evidence you have found first and use your evaluation to form a position first. If there are important areas that are lacking within the evidence, offer reasons to why you think that these areas or views should be considered.


What if all different sides of the argument are valid?

Which is more valid? The position you take does not have to be one-sided. However, you should be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in each side of the argument. Here are some questions to help you evaluate different perspectives on an issue.

  1. Which argument convinces you?
  2. Which view(s) is/are realistic for further investigation in the near future?

What if none of the perspectives is good enough?

What makes them not good enough? Can you provide suggestions for improvement and give reasons to why they should improve as you suggested? Again, you have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in each perspective.

Do I have to find one position and “cling” to it and refute other positions?

A better position is one that you don’t “cling” to any side but one that makes an objective and detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses in each perspective. Remember that you don't necessarily have to stick exclusively to one view/one argument. Often, you may find yourself agreeing to various arguments in numerous views.


Critical thinkers are/do

  1. Critical thinkers are honest with themselves
  2. Critical thinkers take action! Critical doers.
  3. Critical thinkers never think any question is stupid.
  4. Critical thinkers overcome confusion.
  5. Critical thinkers are flexible in their thinking
  6. Critical thinkers always base their views on evidence.
  7. Critical thinkers are active users of knowledge.
  8. Critical thinkers are hard workers.
  9. Critical thinkers welcome criticisms.
  10. Critical thinkers embrace challenges all the time.

Critical thinkers do not

  1. Critical thinkers DO NOT jump to conclusions.
  2. Critical thinkers DO NOT rest on their laurels.
  3. Critical thinkers DO NOT take the easy way out.
  4. Critical thinkers DO NOT dismiss others’ ideas and thoughts.
  5. Critical thinkers DO NOT have one answer.

Additional resources

Critical Thinking - Thinking as a "way of life."

“You haven’t really thought until you thought critically.”