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Thinking Critically

If there is one thing professors like to see in student essays, it is evidence of critical thinking. Students, however, often do not know what critical thinking is, or what it looks like, or how to do it, and so their essays are a form of learning by trial and error.

To be able to think critically about a topic, you must have something to think about. Since critical thinking requires a reasonable level of content knowledge, and since we don't know specifically what you are working on, we can only provide very general guidelines here.

The critical thinking process is a question-guided process. Students often have difficulty in: asking appropriate question about their topic; finding and/or developing appropriate answers to those questions, and; presenting their findings in appropriate ways.

Critical Thinking Guidelines

Ask Questions

The following general procedure may help you ask and answer questions about your material:

  1. Write down everything you know about the topic (a concept map is a useful format for this). When you can't think of anything more, give yourself a few minutes to look for details that you may have missed. Ask yourself, "Is there anything else?" Be as inclusive as you can at this stage.
  2. Re-organize the material into categories or groupings, by asking, "How do these things fit together? What elements are related and how are they related? What general groupings are there?"
  3. Ask, "What is the significance of all this? What can it be used for? What are its implications? Is there anything that doesn't fit, or that doesn't agree with the facts, or with other theories on the topic, or with my personal experience?" You may want to write an explanation of your answers in a paragraph.

Push Past Your Limits

Remember, when you are doing these activities, that the interesting ideas are the ones you haven't thought of yet. Always push yourself past the point at which you think you have said everything that needs to be said. Always ask questions that you can't answer, and always ask more questions than you can answer.

Don't Just Think -- Write

Write down every thought you have. There are a number of reasons for this: you don't want to forget what you thought; you will be able to retrace the steps you took to get an idea, so you can learn to deliberately apply the same steps in the future when you are faced with a similar problem; you will have a pile of raw material with which to work -- good ideas often come from apparently trivial or insignificant ideas. Also, you will find that writing down ideas will encourage you to think more.

Individual Help

The strategies above might help you get started, but, as we mentioned, critical thinking is one of those things that may be most effectively addressed through individual help. If you get stuck while you are working on an essay, for example, be sure to make an appointment with David Palmer-Stone. We can help you work through your difficulty, then discuss the strategies we have used, with specific reference to your own concerns.


We offer a free Essay Writing workshop periodically, which presents strategies to foster critical thinking (an important component of essay writing). Check our schedule for this term.


The Modular Learning Skills Course contains information related to critical thinking, particularly in the sections on reading, and essay writing. Four modules cover the essay writing process.

Handouts and Books

In our Learning Library we have an excellent article by B.F. Skinner entitled, How to Discover What You Have to Say that many students have found helpful.

Also check out our library books on Concept Mapping.

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