Critical Thinking: An Academic Skill

You are what you think and how you think. The manner in which you think will affect the decisions and judgments that you make.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking succinctly addresses the value of thinking well, “Whatever you are doing right now, whatever you feel, whatever you want—all are determined by the quality of your thinking. If your thinking is unrealistic, your thinking will lead to many disappointments. If your thinking is overly pessimistic, it will deny you due recognition of the many things in which you should properly rejoice. For most people, most of their thinking is subconscious, that is, never explicitly put into words. The problem is that when you are not aware of your thinking you have no chance of ”correcting“ it. When thinking is subconscious, you are in no position to see any problems in it. And, if you don’t see any problems in it, you won’t be motivated to change it.”[1]

Value of Critical Thinking

The most valuable skill that you must learn in college is critical thinking. Being able to dispassionately evaluate the material that you hear and read, without allowing your emotions, assumptions, and opinions to influence your judgment of the material is a skill that will serve you well in every course that you take. It is also a skill that employers value, even if they do not list it in the job descriptions that they post.

Whether you are studying to be a biologist, nurse, network administrator, or any other profession, you will likely have to discern and evaluate alternatives. You will have to find the best alternative out of a pool of acceptable alternatives. This means first defining what best means. You may even have to consider the ethical implications of your work. Ethics in nursing may be obvious, but have you thought about the ethics of your profession? Have you thought about how you will be required to discern the best alternative?

Critical thinking may help you to consider question such as,

  • How effective is each analgesic alternative? How will each alternative affect the patient’s recovery? What potential interactions may occur with other drugs that have already been give—or may be given?
  • Will my installing firewall software affect the users’ ability to access intranet or internet data?
  • Should I install firewall or VPN (virtual private networking)  tunneling software? Which will meet the organization’s security requirements with the least intrusion to the users’ workflow?
  • While legal, is it morally acceptable to use fetal stem cells in cancer research?
  • Am I abiding the intentions—not just the explicit statements—in my employer’s policies?

Each of these examples requires careful evaluation of data. The examples also require a fair amount of technical knowledge: medical, computer, ethical. Your professors know that they must guide you to being an effective critical thinker. This is why critical thinking is integral to every college course. Did you know that Algebra teaches more than the skills necessary to solve 3x-(4y+5k/2z)? The fundamental purpose of requiring all students to study Algebra is to engage the students in a critical thinking exercise, to teach the students how to think critically by careful analysis of all relevant data and the application of logic.

Learning to Think Critically

You have probably sat through lectures that require you to take copious notes, hoping that you do not miss important details that might show up on the final exam. You have probably joined class discussions in which the professor fired off questions that were not answered in the assigned readings. Which classroom style required more critical thinking? If you answered the second example, you’re right. Socratic questioning helps you to clarify their thoughts and, at the same time, allows the professor to evaluate how well you know the material. A well-formed Socratic question can also help you to recognize assumptions that you make.  Socratic questions help you to learn how to think critically.

Socrates, a Greek philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago (469-399 BCE), was a man who loved to ask questions.[2] He was interested in how his fellow citizens of Athens arrived at their decisions. His questions were so well focused at helping him—and his fellow citizens—better understand how and why they reached conclusions that his name is forever linked with the process of asking probing questions: Socratic questioning.

How Can Assumptions Be Bad?

You lead a busy life. You’re a college student, taking multiple courses and juggling all of the responsibilities that your courses entail. You probably have a busy social life; you may even be a parent, taking care of children, or you may be caring for an aging relative. You also likely have a job (yes, somehow you must pay your bills). You do not have the time to deeply examine every aspect of life. It is reasonable to make some assumptions. You can assume that you car will start or that the bus will arrive on time (although, I have a few students who can’t trust their cars to start, but that’s fodder for another article). You may assume that your professor will come to class; you must assume that your the sun will rise in the east. You hold these assumptions because they are part of your reality, they reflect your experiences, and you have no reason to think that they are not consistent. However, you must be cautious of making assumptions that do not reflect all relevant, current information.

Assumptions can lead to inappropriate actions and decisions when they reflect your experiences but not all of the relevant information. For example, most students enjoy the camaraderie of working in study groups but dislike being graded on group assignments. The most commonly voiced objection to group assignments is, “I do not want to get a low grade because my teammates did not pull their weight.” The unstated assumption in this statement is that the student’s teammates may—or will—not work to the same high standards as the student who voices the concern. The student may have had an experience of working with others who did not fully participate in an assignment and does not want a repeat of that experience. If he were alive, Socrates might ask the student, “How do you know that the other students will not fully participate?” He might also ask, “Why could the other students not put more effort into the project than you, thereby improving the grade that you earn?” I understand that you probably don’t want your grade to depend on other students’ efforts; you want to be the master of your own grades. However, much educational research demonstrates that students who participate in study teams and group activities learn the course material more deeply—and earn higher course grades. So, is your preference for individual grading really in your best interest?

Learning More

If you are interested in learning more about critical thinking, I recommend the following resources.


[1] Foundation for Critical Thinking. (2011). College and university students. Retrieved from

[2] Nails, D. (2009). Socrates. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from


Microsoft Word version: critical thinking-an academic skill


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