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 refine the skills that drive your own critical thinking abilities.
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.
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?
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?
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 any critical thinking 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.
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.
Put your critical thinking skills to work
Critical thinking skills are 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.
Most professionals credit their time in college as having been crucial in the development of their critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking to improve your skills in a way that can impact your life and career moving forward, higher education is a fantastic venue through which to achieve that. For some of the surefire signs you’re ready to take the next step in your education, visit our article, “6 Signs You’re Ready to Be a College Student.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has since been updated.
The phrase “critical thinking skills” is often heard in business circles or seen listed in job requirements and MBA program descriptions. However, it’s not always clear what it actually means. True critical thinking involves an intervention in one’s own thought process in order to efficiently solve a problem. Unfortunately the administrative demands on today’s educators don’t leave much time to teach this process; as a result, there are an enormous amount of people in our workforce who lack this understanding.
What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?
Whenever any of us approach a problem, we bring biases to the table, often unintentionally. Prior experiences, cultural influences, assumptions about knowledge on the subject, or public opinion all play into our thought process, whether we’re aware of it or not. The challenge in critical thinking lies in first becoming aware of those biases, and then in stepping outside of them to clearly reason your way through a problem. Successful critical thinkers make better business decisions because the process allows them to gather more information, collaborate with others and evaluate a business decision with objectivity.
For example, a new solution to an old problem may be expressed during a workplace meeting. People who are naturally resistant to change may not exercise critical thinking skills, and instead respond that “We’ve always done it that way, why change it now?” Instead of shooting down a new idea without giving it any thought, the application of critical thinking could result in a more effective way of doing business. Perhaps the marketplace has changed, or new data has been made available that suggests a different direction. Successful companies are ones that take a process apart, examine its components carefully, and gather relevant information. This collaborative process encourages creative thinking and oftentimes results in very effective problem-solving.
There are several schools of thought that detail core steps in the critical thinking process. Each of them leads to intellectual analysis of the information at hand, identifies areas that require more research, and finally indicates a course of action that best solves the problem. Successful critical thinkers generally share the following characteristics:
- Open-minded. Acceptance of new ideas, even with their inherent biases, is crucial to this process. Not everyone approaches a problem with the same experience or knowledge, but that doesn’t mean their ideas are not valuable. The ability to accept that our idea may have been wrong or incompletely thought out is an extension of this open-mindedness.
- Think logically. Applying critical thinking requires that criteria must be defined for a problem’s components. Using precisely defined criteria to measure information allows for a more objective evaluation of data, removing biases and setting a standard to which all stakeholders must adhere. Replacing emotional barriers with logic can help you spot flaws in your processes that you may not have otherwise.
- Reasonable. The best decision-making involves arguments from multiple angles, including negative ones. Using carefully researched data to entertain all possible outcomes requires an unbiased approach to the information. Informed decisions are based on sound reasoning of all aspects of the problem.
- Collaborative. Loyalty to “our” idea is a human trait, but stepping outside of our own frame of reference requires conscious thought. By working with a group of individuals, each of whom has their own biases and knowledge levels, new ideas can be exposed. Good critical thinkers welcome the opportunity to make the right decision, versus inflexibly insisting on a particular solution.
How Is Critical Thinking Relevant to Business?
Effective management skills include the ability to think critically, and making the right decision under pressure is what defines successful businesspeople. Managers and staff must weigh all possible solutions; this can be time-consuming and require involving many people in the decision, but ultimately it leads to better choices. Some examples of critical thinking applied in the workplace follow.
Innovation creates successful business products, and being closed off to new ideas automatically stifles innovation. Opening up to a variety of solutions can help you create new options for your customers.
Let’s say a publisher of textbooks is informed by its sales team that educators want better options for creating exams. A manager resistant to new ideas, technology or expense may insist the company continue to provide the printed exams it always has. A critical-thinking manager instead may take the time to explore providing new, digital exam-building tools. In the first scenario, the company risks losing market share to competitors who provide its customers with better tools; in the latter, responding to direct customer requests with new offerings keeps the company competitive in a dynamic market.
Critical thinking makes it far more likely that you can create a range of products to suit your customer’s needs. Using the same example, a critical-thinking manager at the textbook publisher not only takes the time to investigate options, but is comfortable taking the problem to colleagues across other departments. The collaborative nature of this process generates ideas from individuals who might not have otherwise been involved in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the company may discover that there are cost-effective ways to offer customers choices among several digital and print exam-building tools. The critical thinking process can easily generate multiple solutions borne out of one question.
In another example, applying the critical thinking process to product development may allow for a more polished product. A company that markets to legal professionals, recognizing that their customers are required to maintain continuing education credits, decides to create an online continuing education delivery tool.
The team member who first suggested the idea is heavily invested in the product, having dreamed it up and spent long hours developing it. Launching such a product without exposing it to a critical thinking process would be unwise; namely because the original developer may be too emotionally involved to spot potential flaws in their proposal.
A lengthier process that allows colleagues to test the product can reveal glitches or inconsistencies that deserve to be addressed ahead of time. The tool may get to market later and require more funding to develop, but will ultimately stand as a better product, which in turn could solidify the company’s relationship with their customer base.
Marketing professionals especially benefit from critical thinking. A product’s packaging, message and advertising is most successful when targeted at a specific demographic. Because marketing also relies on an emotional reaction from customers, it is absolutely crucial that multiple voices and viewpoints are brought to the table. Applied critical thinking skills also drive research and preparation. Take focus groups; when properly incorporated into product development, these groups can provide invaluable feedback – feedback that could alter the course of development altogether. And while the collaborative process takes longer and costs more – focus groups, for instance, can eat up a lot of time – the findings will bring about a highly targeted, highly effective marketing campaign.