Critical Thinking

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 hone your skills and become a better critical thinker.

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. Focusing on these can put you on the path to becoming an exceptional critical thinker.

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 thinking critically during a challenging 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.

Become a better critical thinker

Thinking critically is 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.

10 Essential Critical Thinking Skills (And How to Improve Them)

Critical thinking skills allow you to understand and address situations based on all available facts and information. Typically, using critical thinking at work involves processing and organizing facts, data and other information to define a problem and develop effective solutions.

It’s a good idea to reflect on the critical thinking skills you already possess and which you may need to develop and highlight them on your resume and during interviews. In addition, you might consider setting goals and adopting practices to help you build the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in your job.

In this article, we explain what critical thinking is, why it’s important and how you can improve your skills in this area.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the act of analyzing facts to understand a problem or topic thoroughly. The critical thinking process typically includes steps such as collecting information and data, asking thoughtful questions and analyzing possible solutions. For example, if you’re working in human resources and need to resolve a conflict between two employees, you will use critical thinking to understand the nature of the conflict and what action should be taken to resolve the situation.

How to think critically

Here are steps you might take when using critical thinking for problem-solving at work:
1. Identify a problem or issue.
2. Create inferences on why the problem exists and how it can be solved.
3. Collect information or data on the issue through research.
4. Organize and sort data and findings.
5. Develop and execute solutions.
6. Analyze which solutions worked or didn’t work.
7. Identify ways to improve the solution.

Being objective is a fundamental part of critical thinking. That means analyzing the problem without allowing personal bias, emotions or assumptions to influence how you think. A strong critical thinker will only analyze a problem based on the context and facts collected after conducting thorough and impartial research.

Why critical thinking is important

Critical thinking skills are essential in every industry at every career level, from entry-level associates to top executives. Good critical thinkers can work both independently and with others to solve problems.

Issues such as process inefficiencies, management or finances can be improved by using critical thought. Because of this, employers value and seek out candidates who demonstrate strong critical thinking skills.

Related: What’s the Importance of Critical Thinking in the Workplace?

Critical Thinking Skills

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5 critical thinking skills

Here are five common and impactful critical thinking skills you might consider highlighting on your resume or in an interview:

1. Observation

Observational skills are the starting point for critical thinking. People who are observant can quickly sense and identify a new problem. Those skilled in observation are also capable of understanding why something might be a problem. They may even be able to predict when a problem might occur before it happens based on their experiences.

Improve your observation skills by slowing down your pace of processing information and training yourself to pay closer attention to your surroundings. You might practice mindfulness techniques, journaling or actively listening during and outside of work to thoroughly examine what you’re hearing or seeing. Then, consider if you notice trends in behavior, transactions or data that might be helpful for your team to address.

Related: Inductive Reasoning: Definition and How To Use It

2. Analysis

Once a problem has been identified, analytical skills become essential. The ability to analyze and effectively evaluate a situation involves knowing what facts, data or information about the problem are important. This also often includes gathering unbiased research, asking relevant questions about the data to ensure it’s accurate and assessing the findings objectively.

Improve your analytical skills by taking on new experiences. For example, you might read a book about a concept you’re unfamiliar with or take an online math class to push yourself to think in new ways and consider new ideas. Doing so can help you build the skills to interpret new information and make rational decisions based on sound analysis.

Read more: Analytical Skills: Definitions and Examples

3. Inference

Inference is a skill that involves drawing conclusions about the information you collect and may require you to possess technical or industry-specific knowledge or experience. When you make an inference, that means you are developing answers based on limited information. For example, a car mechanic may need to infer what is causing a car’s engine to stall at seemingly random times based on the information available to them.

Improve your inference skills by placing focus on making educated guesses rather than quickly drawing conclusions. This requires slowing down to carefully look for and consider as many clues as possible—such as images, data or reports—that might help you evaluate a situation.

Related: Deductive Reasoning: Definition and Examples

4. Communication

Communication skills are important when it comes time to explain and discuss issues and their possible solutions with colleagues and other stakeholders.
Improve your communication skills within the context of critical thinking by engaging in difficult discussions, for example, in situations when you and another participant may disagree about the topic. Maintain good communication habits, such as active listening and respect, to understand other points of view and to be able to explain your ideas in a calm, rational manner. Doing so can help you evaluate solutions more effectively with your colleagues.

Read more: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

5. Problem-solving

After you’ve identified and analyzed a problem and chosen a solution, the final step is to execute your solution.
Problem-solving often requires critical thinking to implement the best solution and understand whether or not the solution is working as it relates to the goal.

Improve your problem-solving skills by setting goals to acquire more industry knowledge within your field. Problem-solving at work typically becomes easier if you have a strong understanding of industry-specific information. It can also be helpful to observe how others around you solve problems at work. Take note of their techniques and ask questions about their process.

Related: The Best Ways To Strengthen Your Logical Thinking Skills

More critical thinking skills

While the five skills listed above are essential to successful critical thinking, there are several soft skills that relate to thoughtful analysis. Here are some other skills to consider when developing your critical thinking:

Read more: How To Improve Your Soft Skills in the Workplace

How to improve your critical thinking skills

While you might already have many of the skills above, it may still be helpful to consider other areas for improvement—especially for specific skills listed on a job description. You can always improve your critical thinking skills through practice and extended educational opportunities.

To further improve your critical thinking skills, consider taking some of the following steps:

  • Expand your industry-specific or technical skills to help you more easily identify problems.
  • Take additional courses in your industry that require critical thinking and analysis.
  • Actively volunteer to solve problems for your current employer.
  • Seek advice from professionals in your field or desired industry.
  • Play solo and cooperative games that require critical thinking skills, such as analysis and inference.

Asking a friend, colleague or manager to assess your current skill set can also help provide you with an objective view of your strengths. You may find it beneficial or even necessary to practice your critical thinking skills to help build your resume or advance in your career.

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