Critical Thinking

Intro to Critical Thinking

2 Lessons Intermediate

About this course

Overview of basic concepts; definition of terms & conventions used; list of key critical thinking errors

Intro to Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?

Many academic researchers define critical thinking (CT) as "Purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference”.

Critical thinking is also regarded as intellectually engaged, skillful, and responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it requires the application of assumptions, knowledge, competence, and the ability to challenge one's own beliefs and assumptions.

Critical thinking requires the use of self-correction and monitoring to judge the rationality of thinking as well as reflexivity. When using critical thinking, individuals step back and reflect on the quality of that thinking.

Identifying and challenging assumptions and analyzing assumptions for validity are essential to critical thinking skills. Because critical thinkers possess curiosity and skepticism, they are more likely to be motivated to provide solutions that resolve contradictions.

Sternberg, Ennis, and Lipman assert that critical thinking skills are not a fixed entity but a form of intelligence that can be taught.

Sternberg postulates that there are three mental processes fostering critical thinking:

1.  meta-cognition - higher-order mental processes that individuals use to plan, monitor, and evaluate what they do.

2.  performance mapping -  the actual steps taken or strategies used.

3.  knowledge-acquisition strategies - to the ways in which individuals relate old to new material and apply new material.

Lipman, like Sternberg, makes clear distinctions between ordinary thinking and critical thinking.  He explains that ordinary thinking is simplistic thinking because it does not rely upon the use of standards or criteria. Examples of ordinary thinking are guessing, believing, and assuming.

Ennis asserts that to help students develop critical thinking skills, teachers must understand the cognitive processes that constitute critical thinking and use instructional activities that will develop these processes. He recommends instructors teach students how to define and clarify information, ask appropriate questions to clarify or challenge statements or beliefs, judge the credibility of sources, and solve problems by predicting probable outcomes through logic or deduction.

Critical thinkers demonstrate particular attributes.

Critical thinkers tend to:

1.  Be capable of taking a position or changing a position as evidence dictates

2.  Remain relevant to the point

3.  Seek information as well as precision in information

4.  Be open minded

5. Take the entire situation into account

6.  Keep the original problem in mind

7.  Search for reasons

8.  Deal with the components of a complex problem in an orderly manner

9.  Seek a clear statement of the problem

10. Look for options

11.  Exhibit sensitivity to others' experience and depth of knowledge

12. Use credible sources

Critical thinkers use these skills appropriately and usually without prompting. All of these skills can be learned, and they can become second-nature if they are practiced and applied to problem-solving on a regular and consistent basis.

Instructional Strategies and Critical Thinking

If the goal is for students to use critical thinking skills, then the following opportunities should constitute the majority of learning activities:

·         Engaging in problem-based learning

·         Analyzing case-based scenarios

·         Engaging in debates, role-play, argument mapping, thinking aloud, and simulation


Exercises that can be used to develop critical thinking skills.


·         Identifying issues

·         Gathering authoritative sources

·         Identifying potential courses of action

·         Presenting competing points of view

·         Weighing options and choosing the best within context



Hendricson suggests using questions that require students to analyze problem cause and scope, compare alternative solutions, provide rationales for plans of action, and predict outcomes.

Van Gelder states that critical thinking must be deliberately practiced with the intent to improve performance; however, he states that CT is hard and human beings are not naturally critical.

Shermer agrees and describes human beings as "pattern-seeking, story-telling animals ... [who] like things to make sense, and the kinds of sense we grasp most easily are simple familiar patterns or narratives."  This penchant for the familiar affects how critical thinking should be reinforced through practice and real-world experience.


Asking particular types of questions also promotes critical thinking.

·         What other options might be considered?

·         Why have you chosen this approach?

·         Can you give me more details?

·         Can you provide some evidence that supports your recommendation?

·         How could we check that?

·         Is there another way to look at this problem?


Logical Fallacies

Three common types of fallacies are:

  1. Ambiguity of the argument

      2. False assumptions & premises

      3. Irrelevant premises or appeals to emotions

Critical thinking is difficult and requires overt practice using a variety of learning activities. It is also important to recognize the role that reflection plays in its development. Students need time to think about what they are learning and reflect upon that information. However, what they are learning must have an impact on their feelings in order for critical thinking to occur.


The amygdala is responsible for screening experiences. If something is recognized as dangerous, the amygdale will instinctively cause the body to "freeze." When a student first encounters something new, he or she may have a somewhat negative reaction. The instructor needs to find a way for the student to move into a more positive emotional territory.

Making suggestions or showing examples can remind the student what he or she already knows, and then the student can hang newly acquired knowledge on that "scaffolding." The support given by the instructor allows the student some level of success. Recognizing his or her success helps the student feel more hope, interest, and curiosity. At this point, the student is able to assume more control of the learning process. Boyd (2002) concurs and states, "emotions ... constantly regulate what we experience as reality." She also points out, "The limbic system plays an important role in processing emotion and memory and therefore appears to be important in the transfer of short-term memory into long-term memory." Engaging students emotionally and actively strengthens memory.




Stages of Critical Thinking

Paul and Elder claim that individuals progress through predictable stages of unreflective, challenged, beginning, practicing, advanced, and master thinking.

The implication for curriculum development: If instructors want students to develop critical thinking skills, then critical thinking must be integrated into the foundations of instruction.


Critical thinking is not:

·         Applying what you have learned in decision-making and treatment planning

·         Keeping students awake, interested, and motivated

·         Linear or step-by-step thinking


Critical thinking cannot be taught in a learning environment where the dental educator always lectures, tells students what ought to be undertaken during patient treatment, or shows students how to do a procedure correctly. Some habits of students who do not use critical thinking skills are:


·         Disorganization (in thought processing, preparation, and behaviors)

·         Overly simplistic thinking ("I had enough information. There was no need to ask for additional information.")

·         Use of unreasonable criteria ("If my belief is sincere, evidence to the contrary is irrelevant.")

·         Erratic use of facts (Looking only at the area of interest, he offered biased interpretations of the radiographs.)


Critical thinking skills can be developed with a modicum of effort, some regular practice and the use of exercises including structured problems and hypothetical situations that require the ability to recall useful knowledge quickly, use pattern recognition, discern pertinent information, think ahead, and anticipate outcomes. One must learn to think critically while remaining composed so that emotions do not hinder decision-making skills. However, it is important to recognize CTS do not develop spontaneously or naturally as part of the aging process. It requires intention and effort, although not a burdensome amount.

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