Most of us learned critical thinking skills as students. They were important then and are even more important now as an adult. Once you're in charge of your own decisions, it's more important than ever to use logic and knowledge in your everyday thought process.
Evidence shows that these skills apply to your career as well. Employers covet critical reading and thinking skills in employees — especially when they are looking at who to promote. Critical thinking demonstrates your ability to process problems and issues, which in turn prepares you to best handle assumptions and come to conclusions and problem solve.
It’s always worth re-evaluating your critical thinking skills so you can strengthen your reasoning ability and decision-making process. If you’re looking to take the next step and improve, here are a few ideas to try!
1. Actively read.
Have you ever tried reading something only to realize that you have no idea what you just read because your mind wandered elsewhere? Same.
Active reading forces you to think critically about the material in a deeper way. The good news? It’s pretty easy; all you need to critically read is a pen and/or a highlighter.
Start by underlining and highlighting important ideas. That includes anything that makes you pause, question your own reasoning or feel like you just had an Oprah “a ha!” moment. Use brackets to section off larger paragraphs, draw exclamation marks when something really lands with you and sketch smiley faces if, you know, something makes you smile.
The next step is actually writing comments in the margins. Re-read sentences that made you think and write your conclusions alongside them. Treat them as a stream of conscious notes; they don’t have to make sense to anyone but you. They don’t even have to make sense to you if you go back — it’s a way for you to acknowledge any thoughts that pass through your mind, then allow them to move on.
2. Read more than just the headlines.
Headlines and first paragraphs are specifically written in a way to get your attention; the writer wants you to click on the article and read it to the end. (Hence the name "clickbait.") But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we already know that reading headlines isn’t enough to give us the information we need. How are we supposed to become "good thinkers" if we don't have all of the knowledge to critically read?
The education value of any article lies in the subsequent paragraphs. Those are the paragraphs that will make you want to ask questions, determine if sources are credible and examine your biases. All of these actions with strengthen your cognitive ability.
3. Ask questions.
My five and six-year-old nieces are not only the world’s cutest children (don’t fight me on this), they are also incredible thinkers. Their favorite response to almost anything they see, think or hear is “why?”
Critical thinking requires us to all be more like my nieces. When we read, think or hear ideas, we should question them. Not based on any assumptions or arguments that could be had, but from a place of curiosity. If you ask someone why and they don't have an answer, continue to problem solve. Keep searching for conclusions, and yes, it's okay to ask the great and powerful Google.
4. Determine the credibility of your information sources.
The strength and weakness of a Google search is that it can lead you down a rabbit hole. When you do find a source that gives you the answer you're looking for, you need to make sure that it's legitimate.
You don't need to utilize a lot of critical thinking to know that an email whose subject line reads “FW:Fw:fw:FW: THE END OF DAYS: OPEN NOW” should be taken with a grain of salt. But as you're training yourself to think critically, there are a few things you should know to check if your source is credible.
Go back to basics. Look at your information source and ask: who, what, when and where.
Who: Look to see if the piece you are reading has an author. Most credible sources want you to know who wrote what you’re reading. If there isn't an author linked to the piece, is there reasoning as to why?
What: Look at the content and the website itself. Is it easy to find information on the site? Is it organized intuitively? What about the content of the piece — is it riddled with spelling errors? Most credible sources have editors to catch spelling and grammatical issues. Serious news sites don't bury information in an unorganized website either; everything should be well-designed and clearly labeled.
When: If your source is a news site or scientific paper, look for the publication date; it can tell you a lot. If the information is old, it might be worth looking for something more current.
Where: You also want to know where the author got their information. If you’re reading something about a current event, issue or thought piece, a reputable source will use evidence and knowledge to support their arguments, not just their beliefs.
It also matters what type of source the author cites. Is it a first-person account? Another news article? A scientific paper? You should be able to determine where the information in the article came from using your critical thinking skills. If you can't find anything, look at a different source.
5. Determine biases.
Everyone has biases, but that doesn't make them bad. A bias simply means viewing the world through a certain lens. It’s important that you're recognizing and learning about your own biases, but also the biases of authors as well.
While you may be able to use enough logic to determine why you are reacting to a piece of information the way you are, it can be more difficult to determine an author’s bias. Read a few other pieces by the same author: are there any patterns or themes that emerge? Most likely there are, and your discipline process will clarify the author’s particular worldview.
You can eliminate some forms of bias by going straight to the source. If you’re reading a news story, find the original source of information and read it for yourself. From there, you can draw your own conclusions.
If the study is big or newsworthy enough, it will most likely be reported on by several different news outlets. Read all of the headlines from different news outlets and ask yourself: how do they differ from each other? How do they differ from how you interpreted the report? Comparing the ideas of other thinkers is a good exercise; answering these questions can help you think more deeply about the subject.
There is plenty of evidence that critical thinking has a large impact on your day-to-day, so be sure to use logic when making decisions as much as you can. Before you know it, you'll be a strong critical thinker — and you'll have the ability to craft arguments that will help you prove it!
Jennifer Koza is a social worker specializing in program development. By day she is a research and evaluation analyst, committed to preventing violence against women and studying the value of work and workplaces. By night she is a painter- or at least she tries to be when she's not catching up on t.v./movies (or re-watching The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or The Office).