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Successful Learning Strategies

Techniques and tools to learn more efficiently and effectively.

What is critical thinking?

Can you tie your shoelaces and multiply 75 x 24 at the same time?

You probably have to pause and focus on the problem. It's the same with critical thinking - it's a slow and challenging process (Kahneman, 2011). Critical thinking is reasoned and reflective, and involves questioning your own thought processes or long-held beliefs (Lucas & Syrett, n.d.). At university you will have to apply it in every assignment as a way of justifying any statement you make. There are several elements to critical thinking:

  • Evaluating types of arguments
  • Evaluating information sources
  • Identifying bias
  • Identifying logical fallacies

Critical thinking at university

When we describe "arguments" in university writing, we are not referring to being hostile or combative. Instead, argument is just a way of explaining why you believe a statement to be true (Van Cleave, 2016), and you must use your critical thinking skills in the process. You could look at arguments as a way of persuading people. Here are three methods of persuasion that are used in just about every argument you'll read. They all have their place, and several methods can be used in one piece of writing.

  • Ethos is about using credibility to support your argument. Some people have their own credibility to draw on (for example a doctor with 30 years experience on a topic), however most of use have to use the credibility of others. This means that you have to use sources that come from people who are knowledgeable on a topic, with a background of credible experience or education. Judge for yourself whether an author is an "expert", don't just take their word for it. For more information, see the video "What is authority?", below.
  • Pathos is about using the power of emotion to support your argument. This can be effective when writing about controversial topics. For example, if you are writing about sexual harrassment in the workplace, you could include someone's personal narrative about that experience. Use pathos sparingly; logic and credibility are the stronger forms of argument. However, pathos can make a real impact on the reader if you include it in the right place.
  • Logos is about using logic to support your argument. This involves pointing to the facts, including statistics, survey data, and study results. For example, if writing about drunk driving it can be helpful to point to the rates of drunk driving accidents in Australia.

Using credible sources is the best way to form a strong argument. Evaluating sources is also part of critical thinking - you need to determine the credibility and quality of a source to use it in your writing. One way of doing this is to remember the acronym C.R.A.A.P:

Currency:

  • Can you tell when the material was published?
  • Is the information up to date?
  • Is the information still accurate?
  • For websites
    • Is the site regularly updated?
    • When was it last updated?

Relevance:

  • What kind of information is included?
  • Is the information written at the appropriate level for your question (e.g. encyclopedia article vs. journal article)
  • Is the information relevant to your topic?
  • Do you feel comfortable citing this source in your work?

Authority:

  • Can you find the authors?
  • Are there contact details for those authors?
  • Do they provide their qualifications?
  • Are they recognised as experts?
  • Are they affiliated with a reputable organisation?
  • Is the publisher reputable?

Accuracy:

  • Are there references and citations?
  • Do the authors explain how they reached conclusions, or how they conducted their study?
  • Who is the publisher?
  • Is it peer-reviewed?
  • Is the information still up to date?

Purpose:

  • Does the information appear biased or slanted in any way?
  • Is the author or publisher:
    • Representing a group of people or organisation?
    • Selling goods or services?
    • Promoting a particular political or social viewpoint?
  • Who is the intended audience - academics, the general public, a particular demographic?

(California State University, 2010)

If you've ever observed (or participated in) arguments on the Internet, you will have encountered logical fallacies. These are points that result from poor reasoning and flawed logic. Logical fallacies are a good example of what happens when you stop thinking critically and surrender to your own biases. See the list below for some common logical fallacies:

  • Straw man fallacy: misrepresenting someone's argument to make it easier to attack.
    • Example: "So you think we should have a sexual harassment policy at all workplaces? You want to make it illegal for men and women to smile at each other!"
  • False dichotomy: pretending there are only two options in a situation when there are actually many more.
    • Example: "You are either in favour of cyclist helmet laws or you think all cyclists should die!"
  • Slippery slope fallacy: thinking that one thing will inevitably lead to another, more disastrous consequence.
    • Example: "If we lower the voting age to 16, then soon enough we'll have toddlers deciding the leaders of our country!"
  • Ad hominem fallacy: attacking the person themselves instead of their argument.
    • Example: "What would you know? You're ugly and have terrible taste in shoes!"
  • Anecdotal fallacy: using personal anecdotes or stories as evidence instead of more credible sources.
    • Example: "You might say that smoking is bad for you, but my grandma smoked a pack a day until she was 97!"

Want more examples of logical fallacies? See the document below.

References

California State University. (2010). Evaluating information - applying the CRAAP test. Retrieved from https://www.csuchico.edu/lins/handouts/eval_websites.pdf

Excelsior Online Writing Lab. (2018). Argument and critical thinking. Retrieved from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/argument-critical-thinking/view

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Toronto, Canada: Doubleday.

Lucas, L., & Syrett, H. (n.d.). Critical thinking and evaluating information. Retrieved from https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/module/25864/overview

Van Cleave, M. J. (2016). Introduction to logic and critical thinking. Retrieved from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-logic-and-critical-thinking-2