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Academic Skills

Critical Thinking

What do we mean by critical thinking?

When you are thinking critically, you are not just thinking passively and accepting everything you see and hear. You are thinking actively. You are asking questions about what you see and hear, evaluating, categorising, and finding relationships.

Some critical thinking activities are listed below:

SOME OF THE ACTIVITIES INVOLVED IN CRITICAL THINKING

Interpreting according to a framework

Relating theory to practice

Making a claim and supporting it

Using appropriate evidence

Making links between ideas

Asking questions

Evaluating

Predicting

Describing

Analysing

Synthesising

Categorising

Establishing cause and effect

Comparing and contrasting

Identifying problems and solutions

Critical thinking is the essence of tertiary learning. As a university student, you will be expected to apply mental actions such as these to all your academic reading, writing, listening and discussing.

How does critical thinking differ between disciplines?

Different disciplines are characterised by particular approaches to critical thinking, and a lage part of studying those disciplines means learning to think like an exponent of that discipline. So, for example, if you are studying geology, you will have to learn to think like a geologist. Geologists typically:

  • categorise rocks and land formations
  • explain how they evolved
  • predict what can be found in similar circumstances.

You need to work out what are the typical ways of thinking in your discipline. Talk to your lecturer or tutor about it; ask questions; copy the style and tone of writing in your discipline.

All disciplines will require you to ask questions, relate theory to practice, find and use appropriate evidence, evaluate, find links, and categorise.

Science is often concerned with interpreting within a framework, describing, explaining, predicting, and identifying cause and effect.

Management is often concerned with identifying problems and solutions, relating theories to practice, and making comparisons and contrasts.

IT is often concerned with analysing complex situations into component parts.

Literature and History are often concerned with making claims and supporting them, usually in the light of a particular framework of analysis (eg feminism, postmodernism etc).

How does critical thinking apply to academic reading?

In reading academic texts you need to develop a personal (but nevertheless academic and rational) response to the article/ theory/ chapter through:

  • developing an understanding of the content
  • evaluating and critiquing the article

Before reading a text closely, you should read the introduction or abstract and skim read the text (see Reading and Remembering for information about skim reading), to give you a preliminary idea of what it is about. Then read it closely and critically.

Some questions to help you read critically

  • What are the main points of this text?
  • Can you put them in your own words?
  • What sorts of examples are used? Are they useful? Can you think of others?
  • What factors (ideas, people, things) have been included? Can you think of anything that has been missed out?
  • Is a particular bias or framework apparent? Can you tell what 'school of thought' the author belongs to?
  • Can you work out the steps of the argument being presented? Do all the steps follow logically?
  • Could a different conclusion be drawn from the argument being presented?
  • Are the main ideas in the text supported by reliable evidence (well researched, non-emotive, logical)?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
  • What connections do you see between this and other texts?
  • Where does it differ from other texts on the same subject?
  • What are the wider implications—for you, for the discipline?

Some techniques to help you read critically

  • When you take notes, divide your notepad into two columns. Jot down the main ideas in the left hand column, and the supporting comments in the right hand column. Add your own comments in another colour, or in brackets.
  • Talk to other people (anyone who is interested!) about what you have read.
  • Relate this text to others by looking for similar or contrasting themes.
  • Think of how you might explain what the text means to, say, a high school student. What would you have to add to make it intelligible? (This will help you to see the underlying, unstated assumptions.)
  • Ask yourself: 'Is it possible to disagree with any of this?'
  • Ask yourself: 'How can I convince my peers/teachers that I understand what this is about?'

How does critical thinking apply to academic writing?

Look at the assignment question, and formulate some questions of your own (See the page on Answering the Question to help you understand how to read assignment questions).

  • Work out what sort of critical thinking will be involved—comparing? problem solving? looking for cause and effect? evaluating?
  • What is the lecturer looking for?
  • If you want to say something which is new or unusual, or which your lecturer may disagree with, make sure you have EXTRA evidence and support.
  • Make sure everything you say is backed up by evidence and references.
  • Link what you are saying into the overall field of the discipline.
  • Think about why this essay topic is worth writing about—what makes it particularly significant.
  • Look at both sides of an argument

How can I add quality to my writing?

Your writing needs to be critical in the broadest sense: categorising the factors involved, establishing cause-effect chains, making comparisons and contrasts, pointing out problems and suggesting solutions, evaluating theories and relating them to practice, and so on.

Your writing must also be rational, balanced, well-argued, and based on evidence and wide reading.

However, really excellent writing is distinguished because it says something substantial. Excellent writing is insightful and thought-provoking; it gives many relevant and interesting examples and other supporting details; and it shows evidence of deep thinking.

Your conclusion is particularly important in this regard. Use the conclusion to:

  • say why this topic is particularly important
  • make a prediction about the future (based on what you have written)
  • make an evaluation (make sure it is not too extreme and is well supported by the body of your text)
  • suggest a solution to the problems you have described
  • restate your central argument in convincing terms (make sure you have supported the argument rigorously through the body of your text).

A conclusion should never say ‘Everything is fine and beautiful’ because nothing is ever perfect. Even the best theory has flaws and is open to criticism. Your writing will be judged as simplistic if you look only at the good points (or only at the bad points, for that matter).

Critical thinking as a generic skill for life.

The skills that you develop at university in critical thinking will support you in your future professional lives. Professionals constantly need to make decisions based on critical thinking, to evaluate processes and outcomes, and to reflect upon their practice.

Good critical thinkers make good professionals.

In the end, that’s why you are at university.