Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking” (Lau & Chan, 2015).

As Lloyd and Bahr summarize, critical thinking’s “definition, since the seminal work of Glaser (1941), has related to its being an individual cognitive skill with three distinct characteristics:

  • An attitude of being or state of mind to thoughtfully consider the problems and subjects that come within a range of one’s experiences;
  • Knowledge of the methods of logical enquiry and reasoning; and,
  • Some skill in applying those methods (Lloyd and Bahr 2010)

Although students often hear “critical” as meaning negative or argumentative, critical thinking involves measured, considered thought and evaluation of an idea or topic.

Professor Kirk McDermid offers his strategies for implementing critical thinking in class.
Critical Reasoning

Physicist Arnold Arons (1997) identified key critical reasoning abilities:

  • Consciously raising the questions “What do we know…? How do we know…? Why do we accept or believe…? What is the evidence for…?” when studying some body of material or approaching a problem.
  • Being clearly and explicitly aware of gaps in available information. Recognizing when a conclusion is reached or a decision made in absence of complete information and being able to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty. Recognizing when one is taking something on faith without having examined the “How do we know…? Why do we believe…?” questions.
  • Discriminating between observation and inference, between established fact and subsequent conjecture.
  • Recognizing that words are symbols for ideas and not the ideas themselves. Recognizing the necessity of using only words of prior definition, rooted in shared experience, in forming a new definition and in avoiding being misled by technical jargon.
  • Probing for assumption (particularly the implicit, unarticulated assumptions) behind a line of reasoning.
  • Drawing inferences from data, observations or other evidence and recognizing when firm inferences cannot be drawn. This subsumes a number of processes such as elementary syllogistic reasoning (e.g., dealing with basic prepositional “if. . .then” statements), correlational reasoning, recognizing when relevant variables have or have not been controlled.
  • Performing hypothetico-deductive reasoning; that is, given a particular situation, applying relevant knowledge of principles and constraints and visualizing, in the abstract, the plausible outcomes that might result from various changes one can imagine to be imposed on the system.
  • Discriminating between inductive and deductive reasoning; that is, being aware when an argument is being made from the particular to the general or from the general to the particular.
  • Testing one’s own line of reasoning and conclusions for internal consistency and thus developing intellectual self-reliance.
  • Developing self-consciousness concerning one’s own thinking and reasoning processes. (Arons, 1997)

Critical Thinking Activities

  • Clarify the vocabulary: The Center for Teaching and Learning at Western University advises “deconstructing” terms: “At the beginning of the course, discuss with students what you mean by terms like ‘analyse’, ‘assess,’ ‘critique,’ ‘reasoning,’ ‘fallacy,’ ‘assumptions,’ ‘logic,’ ‘compare and contrast,’ etc. Go through some very short readings in class to demonstrate the terms you want them to understand and have them ask questions about, and reflect back, what they understand about those terms.”
  • Many active learning activities cultivate critical thinking
  • Reflective writing (one-minute papers or longer)
    • Think-pair-share
    • Have students assess and debate concepts or readings.
  • Model critical analysis and reading for students, and then encourage them to practice
  • Guided social annotation (via Perusall,, or Google docs): prompt students to evaluate and reflect on key aspects of a text
Resources and References

Arons, A. B. (1997). Teaching Introductory Physics (Wiley, New York)


09.23.22 CK

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