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Skills for Learning

Critical Thinking

Overview

Critical thinking is perhaps the most important skill you will develop at university. 

Critical thinking is the ability to:

  • Approach new topics with an open mind, putting aside your own personal opinions and biases.
  • Identify relevant and reliable information sources for your assignments.
  • Compare and contrast what different authors say about a topic, analysing and evaluating their arguments.
  • Question information on a topic and challenge pre-existing ideas. 
  • Develop your own clear, logical arguments based on sound reasoning and evidence.  

Choosing sources for an assignment

Choosing useful and reliable information to read is the first step in demonstrating critical thinking.

Imagine a friend told you that someone had created a dinosaur in a lab. Your first question would ask where they found this information. If they had obtained it from social media or from a friend, you might question its accuracy. Similarly, your tutors will check whether the sources you’ve chosen to support your arguments are valid.

Your tutors will look at your references and bibliography to see what information sources you have used. They want to see that you have consulted up-to-date, reliable sources. If the sources you use are unreliable or inappropriate, then your arguments won’t be considered trustworthy.

To help you identify reliable sources, download the CRAAP Test Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets.

More information about finding sources for your course can be found on the Skills and Subject Support pages.

Reading critically

Reading critically means not taking information at face value. Be an active reader, analysing and evaluating what you read. As you work, you must ask questions of ('interrogate') the sources. For example:

  • Who is the author and what is the purpose of the source?
  • What is the main argument being presented?
  • When was it written?
  • Is the source still relevant or has the context changed since it was written?
  • What evidence has been presented?
  • Is the evidence persuasive?
  • Are the conclusions well-reasoned and persuasive?
  • How does it compare with other sources on the same topic?
  • What does it contribute to academic debates on this topic?
  • Are there any limitations to the source – what can’t it tell us?

It can be challenging to answer such questions. However, the more you read about a topic, the easier you will find this process.

See our topic 'Independent Learning and Time Management' for more information on effective reading techniques.

Evaluating research articles and reports

After searching for and selecting a research article or report, become a questioning reader. You will probably be most interested in the subject matter of the research. You should also be looking for information on how the study was conducted. Take a critical approach to the methods used. Then decide whether the results and conclusions of the research are credible.

Many students find the SQ3R technique helps with reading academic material. Download the SQ3R Technique Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

Break down the article or report: 

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Consider the whole of the article, dissertation or research report. 

Communication and writing style 

Look at the style of writing and language used by the author(s). Decide whether the style seems appropriate for the audience. Ask yourself whether the article or report is well written and presented. 

Bias 

Look for information on why the researcher has done the study. Is there an underlying agenda that might bias the whole study?  

Ethics 

Consider whether the report explains and meets appropriate ethical requirements.  

Research question 

This is the core of any research project: 

  • What is the question the researcher was trying to answer? 
  • Is it the right question and is it worth asking? 
  • Has the researcher answered the question? 
  • Has the appropriate approach been chosen for the research question? 
  • Do the approach and the method(s) match? 
  • Has the researcher carried out the method(s) well? 
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Title and supplementary information 

Does the title tell you what the research is about? Read the information given about the author(s) and decide if they seem qualified to conduct the study. 

Abstract 

The abstract should make you want to read further. A good abstract should give a complete overview of the project and tell you what the researcher(s) did and found.  

Introduction 

This is where the researcher(s) explain why their subject is of interest. Look for the reasons and justification for doing the research. 

Literature review 

This provides background and explains why the subject is worth investigating. For example, to research a gap in existing studies, or to update previous research. It should provide insights into current knowledge of the subject.  

  • Try to decide if the literature review seems fair and unbiased. 
  • Look at how it has been structured by the author(s). 
  • Check a sample of the citations and references for accuracy. 
  • See our topic ‘Dissertations and Literature Reviews’ for more information. 

Methodology 

Consider how the research methods have been described. Was this a good approach for the study? Could the research be replicated (repeated) by someone else using the description given. For a study conducted using people, look at the information on the research participants/subjects. How were they selected? Is the sample representative. Is it large enough? Are any ethical issues clearly addressed? 

For more information on this, see our topic ‘Research Skills’

Analysis and results 

Look at how the results were analysed. Statistical data can seem impressive. Check whether the numbers add up. Is the presentation clear? Did the researcher(s) use a reasonable tool for the analysis? 

Discussion 

This is often combined with the recommendations/conclusions. Decide whether the discussion relates to the results found. Conclusions should be clearly stated. Look again at the literature review and compare the discussion to previous studies. 

Recommendations and conclusions 

Consider whether the recommendations relate to the results. The researcher(s) should have critiqued their study. Most will comment on the limitations of the research and suggest avenues for further study or research. Is what they have suggested reasonable? 

Acknowledgements 

These can provide clues about the real purpose of the study. Note whether a commercial organisation was involved. Check for any expert assistance given to the researcher(s). 

References 

The references should be comprehensive, relevant, and up-to-date. They should also be correctly cited in the text. It is probably worth checking a few of them.  

Note-making

As you read, make notes, but avoid copying long quotes or chunks of information. Note-making should be a critical process. 

Write notes in your own words, including your own response to your reading. Download the Note Making Worksheet (Cornell notes) or Evidence Matrix Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

Your tutors want to see you examining current academic debates in your field. You should compare and contrast sources, using this evidence to develop your own argument.  

Writing critically

Tutors often tell students that their writing is too descriptive and needs to be more critical. You might be asked to analyse material more closely or explain your points more thoroughly. All of these points relate to critical thinking.

Here are our three top tips for making sure your work demonstrates your critical thinking skills:

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One mistake students sometimes make is to write everything they know about a topic, without developing their own thesis statement.*

Once you have completed some broad reading on the topic, organise your ideas. This way, you can create a clear plan for responding to the question. At this stage, you should decide what your main argument/case will be. Try to sum it up in one sentence (this will be your thesis statement).

*Your thesis statement is a sentence in your introduction that sums up your overall argument or position.

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PEAL stands for Point, Evidence, Analysis, Link. To make a strong argument, your points need to be supported by evidence. You should make it clear to the reader how the evidence helps demonstrate your point. Using the PEAL structure for writing paragraphs can help. Download the Paragraph Structure Worksheet from our Resources & Worksheets to help you.

When we write descriptively, we answer questions such as ‘Who wrote it?’, ‘What did they say?’ and ‘When did it happen?’. You will always need some descriptive writing in your assignments as it gives context. However, you should avoid too much description. Prioritise critical discussion, demonstrating your independent thinking. You will gain marks for analysing and evaluating the evidence to draw your own conclusions. Download the CRAAP Test and Critical Analysis Questions Worksheets from our Resources & Worksheets to help you. 

Improving your critical thinking skills

Critical thinking is a skill that takes time and conscious effort to develop. Here are our top tips for improving your critical thinking skills:

  • Complete set reading prior to seminars. Attend seminars with specific questions to ask or ideas to put forward. Speaking in front of a group can be a daunting prospect. However, taking part in class discussions will really help you develop your critical thinking skills.
  • Chat about key topics with friends. Discussing ideas, asking questions and debating points will strengthen your critical abilities further.
  • Check drafts of your work to see if you have a balance between description and critical thinking. Highlight areas that are just description and see if you can make them more critical. You should leave out anything that isn’t central to the development of your argument.

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