Level Up: Critical Thinking and Writing
Resources for Upper-Year Students
What do we mean by critical thinking?
Good question. Critical thinking requires us to slow down and ask questions. Although the term suggests that we not accept information at face value or assume its validity, it does not necessarily mean that we criticize or dismiss all ideas we encounter. Critical thinking is an essential skill for learning, discussing, and applying complex concepts and ideas.
This approach to thinking requires a person to move beyond basic understanding of an idea. To truly understand something, we should define it, break it down, consider examples and context, and assess its fit with our existing understanding. In other words, we move from our initial exploration of an idea where we may ask factual questions like what, where, when, and who to questions that allow us to explain, apply, assess, support, refute, or alter an idea and connect it to other ideas.
Critical thinking scholarship is grounded in the fields of philosophy, which present steps for assessing reason, and psychology and education, which propose stages of learning from initial understanding to synthesis and creation. Approaches to critical thinking are also rooted in disciplinary conventions, scholarly paradigms, and individual epistemologies and experiences.
We engage in critical thinking when we present one side of a debate, articulate an argument, or discuss the merits or shortcomings of a course reading. A key aspect of critical thinking is a recognition of multiple perspectives and a comfort with nuance; a thinker should appreciate that knowledge has conditions, contexts, details that change assessments or applications. Essentialist thinking (it is black or white) can limit a person’s ability to consider other interpretations and understand their merits or shortcomings, and how they fit with, extend, or oppose one’s current understanding.
Critical thinking requires focus and time, which are rewarded with meaningful conversations and clarified thinking that informs your writing and use of sources.
Build on Foundations
In the first years of your degree, you became familiar with your field or major. You learned a new vocabulary, foundational concepts and theories, essential methods, and important conventions for your discipline. This knowledge frames your approach to and understanding of new ideas you will encounter in your upper years. Be sure to consider how new knowledge interacts with and builds on these foundational blocks. Balance your open-mindedness with skepticism. Take time to assess or evaluate new ideas to consider their logic and value. Use your critical reading strategies to evaluate and consolidate these new ideas.
Consider how you can bridge the perspective and knowledge of your discipline with your own worldview. In what ways does that knowledge reflect your experience, culture, values?
Ask good questions
Questions are essential prompts for critical thinking. They are useful as you read and assess a text, but they are also important for the development of your own opinions and ideas. They encourage you to consider the logic of an argument and the validity of evidence or the rationality of an interpretation. Questions lead you to consider the broader context, possible connections, potential applications of an idea. You may find it helpful to start with factual questions, so you have a clearer picture of a topic or idea. Then it is important to ask more questions to dig deeper and understand the topic in your own way.
Broad topic: Mind and body connections
- What is the relationship between personality and physical health? (All aspects of personality? All aspects of physical health?)
- What is the relationship between personality and susceptibility to physical disease? (All aspects of personality?)
- Are certain personality traits correlated with more or less susceptibility to physical disease? (All traits?)
- Is there a relationship between levels of neuroticism and susceptibility to physical disease? (All populations?)
Broad Topic: Radical politics
- Fighting white supremacy
- How do you fight white supremacy?
- What do I mean by fight? Strategies to reduce/eliminate white supremacy activities.
- Who comes up with these strategies? Governments, individuals, activist groups?
- Strategies – which might be the most effective? Which level of strategy is most effective – government, individual or organizational level?
See more questions to prompt your critical thinking on a topic
Reflect and Respond
You are the key component; critical thinking is the process of you carefully considering an idea and this process is rooted in your epistemology – or your way of understanding the world: culture, values, beliefs, experiences.
Take time to consider how a new idea fits with your existing knowledge. It may affirm, challenge, shift, or extend on something you already knew – or it may be so new, you have nothing to connect it to yet. Ask yourself about your initial response: What do you think about this idea? Why do you think this? What (existing knowledge, experience, view of the world, etc.) influences your response? Of course, it is important to reflect on the limits of your own knowledge and the existence of your inherent biases and assumptions.
It is also important to recognize the new questions or ideas that grow out of new learning. Further, you should reflect on changes to your thinking with consideration of new evidence or interpretation; reflect on why your thinking changed and what you can do with this information. How will it help you to analyze and interpret data or evidence? How can you apply these ideas to real world scenarios?
Communicate your thinking in a thesis
All pieces of scholarly writing have controlling messages or a thesis – it provides direction for the reader and writer, and it is the glue that holds all the ideas together. A thesis is an informed opinion or answer to a question; it is often called an argument because it presents a position that another person could oppose. Your job is to defend it.
Generally, it is most helpful to start with a clear and focused research problem or question that can direct your argument. Your response to the question is informed by evidence and your critical thinking about the evidence. Your response cannot just be a simple, factual answer; rather it must present your explanation (how do I think this idea?) and evaluation (why is this idea interesting or important; how does this idea connect to key course concepts or themes). Appreciate that questions may have complex answers. Explore a paradox; your answer might be yes, no, both, or neither. Bring nuance into your argument; explain why a perspective might apply in certain situations but not others.
Use the Academic Skills’ thesis worksheet to assess your working thesis.
These arguments should also conform to standards or conventions of the discipline; we communicate our critical thinking in different ways in a genetics class than we would for a course on transgender identities and issues. We encourage you to read not just to understand the ideas presented in a peer-reviewed article, but to take time to consider how scholars write about their thinking in these articles. One may state clearly, “I argue that” while another presents their thinking in less direct or more subtle ways. Take cues from these works to establish your own writing style that meets the conventions of the discipline and presents your own critical thinking.
Frame your analysis
Complex ideas are often best explored through the lens of a theory, concept, or framework. What is the conceptual framework or theory that informs your argument? Ideas are influenced by our worldview and the core ideas of our discipline. Consider what ideas influence your opinion on a topic or interpretation of your question. Name it and explain how it does.
Look beyond the obvious to consider outside or invisible factors that influence your topic. It is important to understand the context of your evidence and argument. There may be temporal, social, political, economic, cultural, and/or environmental factors (and other categories) that have significant influence on your topic or the evidence you’ve collected.
The way you connect evidence and bring ideas together to discuss their connections and meaning is how you demonstrate your critical thinking. In upper-year courses, your thesis should do more than simply list your supporting points; instead, it should explain how ideas relate. Can you place your points into categories or find patterns in your evidence? Some students find visual tools like concept maps, flow charts, tables, or timelines to be helpful to identify trends and to establish structure for their argument.
Some relationships to explore:
- Cause and effect
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Compare and contrast (similarities and differences)
- Application – case study
Don’t ignore arguments that oppose your perspective. Consider both their merits and their limits and take time to explain how your argument relates to these counterpoints. What does your argument consider that others do not? Why is your argument more persuasive/effective?
Evaluate your argument
As you develop your argument and write your draft, take time to evaluate your thinking. Approach as an outsider – someone new to the topic – and seek out potential gaps or assumptions that can weaken your logic. Ask how evidence demonstrates a supporting point and ensure that you have explained and linked the details and specifics of the evidence. Evaluate the connections between supporting points: have you explained how they fit together and have you addressed any limits, unknowns, or differing perspectives?