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How to build your critical thinking skills in 7 steps (with examples)

Джулия Мартинс, фото автораJulia Martins
2 июля 2024 г.
13 мин. на чтение
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Summary

Critical thinking comes from asking the right questions to come to the best conclusion possible. Strong critical thinkers analyze information from a variety of viewpoints in order to identify the best course of action.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you have strong critical thinking abilities. In this article, we’ll help you build a foundation for critical thinking so you can absorb, analyze, and make informed decisions. 

What is critical thinking? 

Critical thinking is the ability to collect and analyze information to come to a conclusion. Being able to think critically is important in virtually every industry and applicable across a wide range of positions. That’s because critical thinking isn’t subject-specific—rather, it’s your ability to parse through information, data, statistics, and other details in order to identify a satisfactory solution. 

Definitions of critical thinking

Various scholars have provided definitions of critical thinking, each emphasizing different aspects of this complex cognitive process:

  • Michael Scriven, an American philosopher, defines critical thinking as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication as a guide to belief and action."

  • Robert Ennis, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, describes critical thinking as "reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do."

  • Diane Halpern, a cognitive psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, defines it as "the use of cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome."

Developing your critical thinking skills improves your problem solving skills, boosts your data-driven decision making ability, and gives you a methodology to tackle complex problems. Good critical thinkers are comfortable with ambiguity and are willing to challenge their hypotheses in order to come to the best conclusions.

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Top 8 critical thinking skills

Critical thinking is essential for success in everyday life, higher education, and professional settings. The handbook "Foundation for Critical Thinking" defines it as a process of conceptualization, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information.

In no particular order, here are eight key critical thinking abilities that can help you excel in any situation:

1. Analytical thinking

Analytical thinking involves evaluating data from multiple sources in order to come to the best conclusions. Analytical thinking allows people to reject cognitive biases and strive to gather and analyze intricate subject matter while solving complex problems. Analytical thinkers who thrive at critical thinking can:

  • Identify patterns and trends in the data

  • Break down complex issues into manageable components

  • Recognize cause-and-effect relationships

  • Evaluate the strength of arguments and evidence

Example: A data analyst breaks down complex sales figures to identify trends and patterns that inform the company's marketing strategy.

2. Open-mindedness

Open-mindedness is the willingness to consider new ideas, arguments, and information without prejudice. This critical thinking skill helps you analyze and process information to come to an unbiased conclusion. Part of the critical thinking process is letting your personal biases go, taking information at face value and coming to a conclusion based on multiple points of view .

Open-minded critical thinkers demonstrate:

  • Willingness to consider alternative viewpoints

  • Ability to suspend judgment until sufficient evidence is gathered

  • Receptiveness to constructive criticism and feedback

  • Flexibility in updating beliefs based on new information

Example: During a product development meeting, a team leader actively considers unconventional ideas from junior members, leading to an innovative solution.

3. Problem-solving

Effective problem solving is a cornerstone of critical thinking. It requires the ability to identify issues, generate possible solutions, evaluate alternatives, and implement the best course of action. This critical thinking skill is particularly valuable in fields like project management and entrepreneurship.

Key aspects of problem-solving include:

  • Clearly defining the problem

  • Gathering relevant information

  • Brainstorming potential solutions

  • Evaluating the pros and cons of each option

  • Implementing and monitoring the chosen solution

  • Reflecting on the outcome and adjusting as necessary

Example: A high school principal uses problem-solving skills to address declining student engagement by surveying learners, consulting with higher education experts, and implementing a new curriculum that balances academic rigor with practical, real-world applications.

4. Reasoned judgment

Reasoned judgment is a key component of higher order thinking that involves making thoughtful decisions based on logical analysis of evidence and thorough consideration of alternatives. This critical thinking skill is important in both academic and professional settings. Key aspects reasoned judgment include:

  • Objectively gathering and analyzing information

  • Evaluating the credibility and relevance of evidence

  • Considering multiple perspectives before drawing conclusions

  • Making decisions based on logical inference and sound reasoning

Example: A high school science teacher uses reasoned judgment to design an experiment, carefully observing and analyzing results before drawing conclusions about the hypothesis.

5. Reflective thinking

Reflective thinking is the process of analyzing one's own thought processes, actions, and outcomes to gain deeper understanding and improve future performance. Good critical thinking requires analyzing and synthesizing information to form a coherent understanding of a problem. It's an essential critical thinking skill for continuous learning and improvement.

Key aspects of reflective thinking include:

  • Critically examining one's own assumptions and cognitive biases

  • Considering diverse viewpoints and perspectives

  • Synthesizing information from various experiences and sources

  • Applying insights to improve future decision-making and actions

  • Continuously evaluating and adjusting one's thinking processes

Example: A community organizer reflects on the outcomes of a recent public event, considering what worked well and what could be improved for future initiatives.

6. Communication

Strong communication skills help critical thinkers articulate ideas clearly and persuasively. Communication in the workplace is crucial for effective teamwork, leadership, and knowledge dissemination. Key aspects of communication in critical thinking include:

  • Clearly expressing complex ideas

  • Active listening and comprehension

  • Adapting communication styles to different audiences

  • Constructing and delivering persuasive arguments

Example: A manager effectively explains a new company policy to her team, addressing their concerns and ensuring everyone understands its implications.

7. Research

Critical thinkers with strong research skills gather, evaluate, and synthesize information from various sources of information. This is particularly important in academic settings and in professional fields that require continuous learning. Effective research involves:

  • Identifying reliable and relevant sources of information

  • Evaluating the credibility and bias of sources

  • Synthesizing information from multiple sources

  • Recognizing gaps in existing knowledge

Example: A journalist verifies information from multiple credible sources before publishing an article on a controversial topic.

8. Decision-making

Effective decision making is the culmination of various critical thinking skills that allow an individual to draw logical conclusions and generalizations. It involves weighing options, considering consequences, and choosing the best course of action. Key aspects of decision-making include:

  • Defining clear criteria for evaluation

  • Gathering and analyzing relevant information

  • Considering short-term and long-term consequences

  • Managing uncertainty and risk

  • Balancing logic and intuition

Example: A homeowner weighs the costs, benefits, and long-term implications before deciding to invest in solar panels for their house.

7 steps to improve critical thinking

Critical thinking is a skill that you can build by following these seven steps. The seven steps to critical thinking help you ensure you’re approaching a problem from the right angle, considering every alternative, and coming to an unbiased conclusion.

Read: Convergent vs. divergent thinking: Finding the right balance

First things first: When to use the 7 step critical thinking process

There’s a lot that goes into the full critical thinking process, and not every decision needs to be this thought out. Sometimes, it’s enough to put aside bias and approach a process logically. In other, more complex cases, the best way to identify the ideal outcome is to go through the entire critical thinking process. 

The seven-step critical thinking process is useful for complex decisions in areas you are less familiar with. Alternatively, the seven critical thinking steps can help you look at a problem you’re familiar with from a different angle, without any bias. 

If you need to make a less complex decision, consider another problem solving strategy instead. Decision matrices are a great way to identify the best option between different choices. Check out our article on 7 steps to creating a decision matrix.

1. Identify the problem or question

Before you put those critical thinking skills to work, you first need to identify the problem you’re solving. This step includes taking a look at the problem from a few different perspectives and asking questions like: 

  • What’s happening? 

  • Why is this happening? 

  • What assumptions am I making? 

  • At first glance, how do I think we can solve this problem? 

A big part of developing your critical thinking skills is learning how to come to unbiased conclusions. In order to do that, you first need to acknowledge the biases that you currently have. Does someone on your team think they know the answer? Are you making assumptions that aren’t necessarily true? Identifying these details helps you later on in the process. 

2. Gather relevant information

At this point, you likely have a general idea of the problem—but in order to come up with the best solution, you need to dig deeper. 

During the research process, collect information relating to the problem, including data, statistics, historical project information, team input, and more. Make sure you gather information from a variety of sources, especially if those sources go against your personal ideas about what the problem is or how to solve it.

Gathering varied information is essential for your ability to apply the critical thinking process. If you don’t get enough information, your ability to make a final decision will be skewed. Remember that critical thinking is about helping you identify the objective best conclusion. You aren’t going with your gut—you’re doing research to find the best option

3. Analyze and evaluate data

Just as it’s important to gather a variety of information, it is also important to determine how relevant the different information sources are. After all, just because there is data doesn’t mean it’s relevant. 

Once you’ve gathered all of the information, sift through the noise and identify what information is relevant and what information isn’t. Synthesizing all of this information and establishing significance helps you weigh different data sources and come to the best conclusion later on in the critical thinking process. 

To determine data relevance, ask yourself:

  • How reliable is this information? 

  • How significant is this information? 

  • Is this information outdated? Is it specialized in a specific field? 

4. Consider alternative points of view

One of the most useful parts of the critical thinking process is coming to a decision without bias. In order to do so, you need to take a step back from the process and challenge the assumptions you’re making. 

We all have bias—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unconscious biases (also known as cognitive biases) often serve as mental shortcuts to simplify problem solving and aid decision making. But even when biases aren’t inherently bad, you must be aware of your biases in order to put them aside when necessary. 

Before coming to a solution, ask yourself:

  • Am I making any assumptions about this information? 

  • Are there additional variables I haven’t considered? 

  • Have I evaluated the information from every perspective? 

  • Are there any viewpoints I missed?

Read: 19 unconscious biases to overcome and help promote inclusivity

5. Draw logical conclusions

Finally, you’re ready to come to a conclusion. To identify the best solution, draw connections between causes and effects. Use the facts you’ve gathered to evaluate the most objective conclusion. 

Keep in mind that there may be more than one solution. Often, the problems you’re facing are complex and intricate. The critical thinking process doesn’t necessarily lead to a cut-and-dry solution—instead, the process helps you understand the different variables at play so you can make an informed decision. 

6. Develop and communication solutions

Communication is a key skill for critical thinkers. It isn’t enough to think for yourself—you also need to share your conclusion with other project stakeholders. If there are multiple solutions, present them all. There may be a case where you implement one solution, then test to see if it works before implementing another solution. 

This process of communicating and sharing ideas is key in promoting critical thinking within a team or organization. By encouraging open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving, you create an environment that fosters the development of critical thinking skills in others.

7. Reflect and learn from the process

The seven-step critical thinking process yields a result—and you then need to put that solution into place. After you’ve implemented your decision, evaluate whether or not it was effective. Did it solve the initial problem? What lessons—whether positive or negative—can you learn from this experience to improve your critical thinking for next time? 

By engaging in this metacognitive reflective thinking process, you're essentially teaching critical thinking to yourself, refining your methodology with each iteration. This reflective practice is fundamental in developing a more robust and adaptable approach to problem-solving.

Depending on how your team shares information, consider documenting lessons learned in a central source of truth. That way, team members that are making similar or related decisions in the future can understand why you made the decision you made and what the outcome was.

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Example of critical thinking in the workplace

Imagine you work in user experience design (UX). Your team is focused on pricing and packaging and ensuring customers have a clear understanding of the different services your company offers. Here’s how to apply the critical thinking process in the workplace in seven steps: 

Step 1: Start by identifying the problem

Your current pricing page isn’t performing as well as you want. You’ve heard from customers that your services aren’t clear, and that the page doesn’t answer the questions they have. This page is really important for your company, since it’s where your customers sign up for your service. You and your team have a few theories about why your current page isn’t performing well, but you decide to apply the critical thinking process to ensure you come to the best decision for the page. 

Gather information about how the problem started

Part of identifying the problem includes understanding how the problem started. The pricing and packaging page is important—so when your team initially designed the page, they certainly put a lot of thought into it. Before you begin researching how to improve the page, ask yourself: 

  • Why did you design the pricing page the way you did? 

  • Which stakeholders need to be involved in the decision making process? 

  • Where are users getting stuck on the page?

  • Are any features currently working?

Step 2: Then gather information and research

In addition to understanding the history of the pricing and packaging page, it’s important to understand what works well. Part of this research means taking a look at what your competitor’s pricing pages look like. 

Ask yourself: 

  • How have our competitors set up their pricing pages?

  • Are there any pricing page best practices? 

  • How does color, positioning, and animation impact navigation? 

  • Are there any standard page layouts customers expect to see? 

Step 3: Organize and analyze information

You’ve gathered all of the information you need—now you need to organize and analyze it. What trends, if any, are you noticing? Is there any particularly relevant or important information that you have to consider? 

Step 4: Consider alternative viewpoints to reduce bias

In the case of critical thinking, it’s important to address and set bias aside as much as possible. Ask yourself: 

  • What assumptions am I making? 

  • Is there anything I’m missing? 

  • Have I connected with the right stakeholders? 

  • Are there any other viewpoints I should consider? 

Step 5: Determine the most logical solution for your team

You now have all of the information you need to design the best pricing page. Depending on the complexity of the design, you may want to design a few options to present to a small group of customers or A/B test on the live website.

Step 6: Communicate your solution to stakeholders

Critical thinking can help you in every element of your life, but in the workplace, you must also involve key project stakeholders. Stakeholders help you determine next steps, like whether you’ll A/B test the page first. Depending on the complexity of the issue, consider hosting a meeting or sharing a status report to get everyone on the same page. 

Step 7: Reflect on the results

No process is complete without evaluating the results. Once the new page has been live for some time, evaluate whether it did better than the previous page. What worked? What didn’t? This also helps you make better critical decisions later on.

Tools and techniques to improve critical thinking skills

As the importance of critical thinking continues to grow in academic and professional settings, numerous tools and resources have been developed to help individuals enhance their critical thinking skills. Here are some notable contributions from experts and institutions in the field:

Mind mapping for better analysis

Mind mapping is a visual technique that helps organize and structure information. It's particularly useful for synthesizing complex ideas and identifying connections between different concepts. The benefits of mind mapping include:

  • Enhancing creativity by encouraging non-linear thinking

  • Improving memory and retention of information

  • Facilitating brainstorming and idea generation

  • Providing a clear overview of complex topics

Read: 4 types of concept maps (with free templates)

To create a mind map:

  • Start with a central idea or concept.

  • Branch out with related sub topics or ideas.

  • Use colors, symbols, and images to enhance visual appeal and memorability.

  • Draw connections between related ideas across different branches.

Mind mapping can be particularly effective in project planning, content creation, and studying complex subjects.

The Socratic Method for deeper understanding

The Socratic Method, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, involves asking probing questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas. This technique is widely used in higher education to teach critical thinking. Key aspects of the Socratic Method include:

  • Asking open-ended questions that encourage deeper reflection

  • Challenging assumptions and preconceived notions

  • Exploring the implications and consequences of ideas

  • Fostering intellectual curiosity and continuous inquiry

The Socratic Method can be applied in various settings:

  • In education, to encourage students to think deeply about subject matter

  • In business, it is important to challenge team members to consider multiple points of view.

  • In personal development, to examine one's own beliefs and decisions

Example: A high school teacher might use the Socratic Method to guide students through a complex ethical dilemma, asking questions like "What principles are at stake here?" and "How might this decision affect different stakeholders?"

SWOT analysis for comprehensive evaluation

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis is a strategic planning tool that can be applied to critical thinking. It helps in evaluating situations from multiple angles, promoting a more thorough understanding of complex issues. The components of SWOT analysis are:

  • Strengths: internal positive attributes or assets

  • Weaknesses: internal negative attributes or limitations

  • Opportunities: External factors that could be beneficial

  • Threats: External factors that could be harmful

To conduct a SWOT analysis:

  • Clearly define the subject of analysis (e.g., a project, organization, or decision).

  • Brainstorm and list items for each category.

  • Analyze the interactions between different factors.

  • Use the analysis to inform strategy or decision-making.

Example: A startup might use SWOT analysis to evaluate its position before seeking investment, identifying its innovative technology as a strength, limited capital as a weakness, growing market demand as an opportunity, and established competitors as a threat.

Critical thinking resources

  • The Foundation for Critical Thinking: Based in California, this organization offers a wide range of resources, including books, articles, and workshops on critical thinking.

  • The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking: This council provides guidelines and standards for critical thinking instruction and assessment.

  • University of Louisville: Their Critical Thinking Initiative offers various resources and tools for developing critical thinking skills.

  • The New York Times Learning Network provides lesson plans and activities to help develop critical thinking skills through current events and news analysis.

Critical thinking frameworks and tools

  • Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Framework: Developed by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, this framework provides a comprehensive approach to developing critical thinking skills.

  • Bloom's Taxonomy: While not exclusively for critical thinking, this classification system is widely used in education to promote higher-order thinking skills.

  • The California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory (CCTDI): This assessment tool measures the disposition to engage in problems and make decisions using critical thinking.

  • The Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test: Developed by Robert Ennis, this test assesses a person's ability to appraise an argument and to formulate a written argument.

By incorporating these tools and techniques into regular practice, individuals can significantly enhance their critical thinking capabilities, leading to more effective problem-solving, decision-making, and overall cognitive performance.

Critically successful 

Critical thinking takes time to build, but with effort and patience you can apply an unbiased, analytical mind to any situation. Critical thinking makes up one of many soft skills that makes you an effective team member, manager, and worker. If you’re looking to hone your skills further, read our article on the 25 project management skills you need to succeed.

Decision-making tools for agile businesses

In this ebook, learn how to equip employees to make better decisions—so your business can pivot, adapt, and tackle challenges more effectively than your competition.

Make good choices, fast: How decision-making processes can help businesses stay agile ebook banner image

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