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You are here: Home White Papers What is Critical Thinking?

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking

“Thinking of thinking while you’re thinking

to improve your thinking”

In the late 1980s, the American Philosophical Association commissioned a study to better define the concept of critical thinking and how it can be recognized, taught, and assessed. Forty-six internationally recognized thinkers participated in the study through a two-year, qualitative research process known as the “Delphi method.” The panel, led by Dr. Peter Facione, published a report called “Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction;” this is often referred to as “The Delphi Report.”

The following definition of critical thinking is quoted from the Executive Summary of that report (Facione, 1990):


We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.


Facione, P. A. (1990). Executive summary: Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. Millbrae, CA: The California Academic Press. Electronic version retrieved May 1, 2009 from http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/DEXadobe.PDF

Choosing Critical Reflection

Just like any other ability you wish to develop, critical thinking entails training and practice. Equally important is your own willingness to engage in critical thinking. The resources in this section help you explore your disposition to this discipline.

The first step in becoming a critical thinker is to distinguish it from other types of thinking.

Can you decide to be a critical thinker and then practice critical thinking, sometimes referred to as critical reflection, in every situation? Find out why this might be more challenging than you expect.

Recognizing Critical Reflection

Scholars of critical thinking may use the terms “reflection” or “critical reflection” as synonyms for critical thinking, or to focus on certain aspects of critical thinking. We use these terms here to help distinguish four different thinking levels: habit, thinking, reflection, and critical reflection.

Adults perform many actions by habit. For example, most people can start up their computer or ride a bicycle without having to think about how each action or movement should be performed. You probably do simple math by habit. Moving your car out of the garage and onto the street requires a series of actions that you may complete by habit, without thinking about the steps needed. If you drive the same route to work each day, you will habitually turn at the same intersections each day without needing to think about the street names or directions.

Of course, thinking is also an important part of your daily activities. For example, as you are driving the same route to work each day, largely by habit, you think about current road conditions and the surrounding traffic, and you make choices and adjust your actions based on your observations. Thinking is foundational to learning. In your training activities, you are asked to read, write, calculate, describe, discuss, apply, paraphrase, analyze, compare, synthesize, and evaluate; these are all thinking tasks.

Reflection happens when you think about how you do things, what you think, or how you think. (Thinking about one’s own thinking is also called “metacognition.”) Reflecting on your thoughts and practices can result in changes to your ideas and ways of doing things. For example, if you have been encountering heavy traffic on your daily commute and getting to work late as a result, you might reflect on changing the time when you leave your house or taking a different route that might get you to work faster. As you reflect on your work, you might plan to revise your first draft of an assignment to express your ideas more clearly. You might reflect on how to interpret the concepts presented during training, based on what you have read in the text and what you have learned in previous sessions. After hearing responses to a discussion topics, you might reconsider your own position and think about what you might want to add or change about your initial response, or how your ideas might add to your peers’ understanding. Just as thinking is the foundation of learning, reflection enables you to build a strong structure of knowledge and understanding on that foundation.

Critical reflection focuses specifically on our premises or assumptions, the ways of thinking and viewing ourselves and the world that we have established through early learning and a lifetime of interactions with family, society, and culture. Related to the previous example, if you are sitting in your car, unmoving in congested traffic, you might see a bus move past you (on the shoulder of the road, or in a high-occupancy-vehicle lane) and think, “It’s not fair that busses are given special treatment when the rest of us are stuck in traffic!” Or, you might question your assumptions about what constitutes fairness and special treatment in this context, or about being stuck in traffic. For example:

  • Does fairness in this context mean that all vehicles should be subject to the same rules?

  • Is this a reasonable assumption, given that most cars have a single occupant while a bus typically has forty or more?

  • Looked at from this perspective, does the bus really receive special treatment?

  • Would a more reasonable assumption be that fairness should be based on how many scarce resources (like fossil fuels) each occupant is consuming?

Or if you choose to question your assumptions underlying being “stuck in traffic,” perhaps you will find that you do not have to be stuck after all. There may be a bus stop or park-and-ride lot near your home, or your town may offer transportation services that you have not considered. Maybe you could find someone with whom to carpool, and then you could legitimately use the same lane the bus uses. Perhaps you live close enough to bike to work, making your commute into your new exercise program. Maybe you could change your work hours to avoid traffic, or work from home.

Each of these possible new ways of thinking or behaving might be blocked by assumptions that could keep you from pursuing that possibility, until you question those assumptions. By questioning your assumptions about fairness in this context, you open new learning possibilities for yourself and practice critical thinking.

Challenges of Critical Thinking

As adults, we interpret new information in light of our life experiences, and our learning can be enhanced if it can be connected to these experiences. Each new learning opportunity allows us to add to and enhance our mental models of our world.

While our established perspectives are useful to help us organize and maintain stability in our mental models of the world, they can also limit our ability to learn. We have formed habits and biases through our experiences, and these habits and biases can inhibit learning.

As a learner, when you are presented with new information that does not fit your assumptions or premises, there are several ways in which you may respond. You may reject the new information as incorrect. You may accept the new information but interpret or change it to make it agree with your assumptions. Or, you may critically reflect upon your established perspectives in light of the new information, asking whether your assumptions are correct or need to be adjusted.

When we as adults think critically, reflecting upon our own assumptions, we reverse our habit of using our old, established perspectives to interpret new information. Critical thinking can help us use new perspectives to interpret new information or experiences; it can also allow us to use new perspectives to reinterpret old information and experiences. Critical thinking can lead to personal and social transformation.

Remember that habitual acting and thinking are often more comfortable than transformation. If you have decided to become a better critical thinker, you need to be willing to be challenged, ready to question yourself, and able to be comfortable with some uncertainty on your learning path.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I prepared to think in new ways that I may find difficult or demanding?

  • Am I ready to be flexible and open-minded, to question my own beliefs and assumptions?

  • If I find errors in my own thinking, am I willing to change my thinking?

  • Am I ready and willing to be changed or transformed by unfamiliar or challenging ideas?

  • Can I take responsibility for forming my own conclusions, based on the evidence?

  • At this time, what are the realistic limitations to my willingness and ability to change my thinking and to be transformed?

Growth and change can be exciting outcomes of learning new information, but they are also strenuous experiences that often move us into new and unfamiliar territory. As an adult learner, you need to honor your own experiences and respect your own limits. Timing is everything: Sometimes transformation is energizing and invigorating, sometimes it is uncomfortable, and sometimes it is both uncomfortable and energizing.

Building Skills for Critical Thinking

Just like any other ability or competence that you wish to develop, critical thinking entails specific skills that require training and practice. All of these critical thinking skill sets are important. You may find strategies blow to help you grow and excel in your daily activities.

Critical Thinking…

Socratic Problem-Solving Approach

The Socratic method is a teaching style in which the instructor asks learners a series of questions designed to stimulate more complete thinking and deeper insight. When you apply a Socratic approach to problem solving, you prompt yourself to look more closely at your ideas, question your assumptions and the premises you have accepted, and view your choices through a rigorous lens. This approach is related to the steps of performing scientific research (shown in the statements below with strong emphasis).

Learn to Apply a Socratic Approach to Problem Solving

Applying a Socratic approach to problem solving, as shown in the steps below, will help you identify gaps and improve your thinking. You may also use the questions or tactics in the table to spark new insights when responding to issues or concerns put forth by your peers or managers or for everyday interactions with people where thinking critically is important.

Step 1: Identify the elements of the problem, issue, or question.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Break the problem down into pieces, elements, or components.

  • Notice how the pieces or components are related to each other.

  • Look for missing information or gaps in what you know.

  • Make note of the information that you do not have or cannot find, or that is unavailable.

  • Separate symptoms from underlying causes.

  • Avoid judgments and premature solutions.

  • Gather information.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?

  • What are the key issues in this problem?

  • What facts do I have? (A fact is “something that actually exists; reality; truth; a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.”)

  • What evidence do I have? (Evidence is “that which tends to prove or disprove something; grounds for belief; proof.”)

  • Which pieces of information that I have are opinions? (Opinion is “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”)

  • Which pieces of information that I have are inferences? (To infer is “to derive by reasoning; conclude or judge from premises or evidence.”)

  • Are the inferences well or poorly reasoned? Can alternative inferences be drawn from the same facts or observations?

  • Which pieces of the information I have gathered are theories? (A theory is “a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena.”)

  • What do I not know?

  • What information is missing?

  • Is it possible to get the information that I do not have?

  • What are the possible sources of information?

  • What must remain unknown for now?

Step 2: Analyze/ define/ frame the problem, issue, or question.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Gather information that you need to know more about the context surrounding this problem.

  • Decide which pieces of information are important.

  • Identify your point of view.

  • Consider how your cultural values shape your perception of the problem.

  • Evaluate conflicting evidence.

  • Separate symptoms from underlying causes.

  • Avoid value judgments.

  • Avoid premature solutions.

  • Analyze arguments.

  • Identify the things you do not understand.

  • Identify the complexities of the problem.

  • Define a research problem.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • What are my goals? What am I trying to accomplish?

  • Which pieces of information that I have are the most important in relationship to this problem?

  • Is the information or evidence presented relevant to the problem?

  • Are there other ways to interpret the information?

  • How does the information relate to what I already know?

  • How does the information relate to my personal and professional experiences? (How does it support or match my experiences? How does it contradict or differ from my experiences?)

  • What information opposes my position?

  • What theories in my discipline shed light on this problem?

  • What are the values, beliefs, and assumptions that are implied in the problem statement? (Assumptions are the things that are taken for granted, and they are usually unstated.)

  • What are my own values and beliefs in relationship to this problem?

  • Am I ignoring evidence that does not fit with my beliefs?

  • Am I failing to consider or investigate evidence that might contradict the theory that I support?

  • What are my assumptions in relationship to this problem?

  • What support or evidence do I have to back up these assumptions?

  • What are the values, beliefs, and assumptions of other writers (sources of information, references) in relationship to this problem?

  • How does my culture or my world view shape my approach to this problem?

  • How would someone from another culture or world view approach this problem?

  • What are all of the possible causes of this problem?

  • What blind spots are keeping me from seeing additional causes?

  • What evidence supports my assertions? How reliable is the evidence?

  • What evidence supports the assertions of others? How reliable is the evidence?

  • What other issues are related to this problem?

  • Am I considering the complexities of this problem?

  • How important is the problem relative to other problems?

Step 3: Consider solutions, responses, or answers.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Consider the evidence for and against your theory or viewpoint.

  • Consider the evidence for and against other theories or viewpoints.

  • Analyze arguments.

  • Imagine the implications of each possible solution.

  • Formulate research questions or hypotheses.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • What theories in the discipline are related to these solutions?

  • What are all of the possible views that experts may hold on this problem?

  • Which views seem best supported by evidence?

  • What are all of the possible solutions to this problem?

  • What are the resources?

  • What are the constraints?

  • What blind spots are keeping me from seeing additional solutions?

  • What are the implications of these solutions?

  • What might be the consequences of these solutions?

  • What world view does each of these solutions imply?

Step 4: Choose a solution, response, or answer.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Evaluate your choice from alternative viewpoints (put yourself in someone else’s shoes).

  • Question your choice.

  • Consider the problems that may result from your choice

  • Choose research questions or hypotheses.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • What theories in the discipline provide support for this solution?

  • How did I reach this conclusion?

  • Is this solution aligned with my goals?

  • Does this solution address the most critical aspects of the problem?

  • Why do I prefer this solution/response/answer?

  • How is this solution/response/answer supported by the data, facts, and evidence?

  • How is this solution/response/answer supported by or dependent upon opinions or inferences?

  • What are the costs of this solution?

  • What are the possible risks of this solution?

  • How likely are those risks?

  • What are the possible benefits of this solution?

  • How likely are those benefits?

  • How do my own biases affect my choice?

  • What alternative biases might be held by others, and how would that affect their choices?

  • What assumptions does my choice imply?

  • What values does my choice imply?

  • What goals does my choice imply?

Step 5: Implement your choice.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Develop an action plan.

  • Test research questions or hypotheses.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • Is the implementation supported by theory?

  • Is the implementation supported by the facts?

  • Is the implementation consistent with my purpose?

Step 6: Evaluate the results.

Things you may do in this step:

  • Analyze the results of your actions.

  • Analyze research data and formulate new questions based on the results.

Questions you may ask in this step:

  • Did I make progress toward solving the problem?

  • What did I learn?

  • How do the results relate to existing theories?

  • How do the results shed light on the existing body of evidence?

  • What new questions are raised by the results?

Remember the quote at the beginning of this module…

Critical thinking is thinking of thinking while you’re thinking to improve your thinking.”



~~ Richard Paul



Socratic Problem-Solving References

Paul, R., & Elder., L. (2006) The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts & tools (4th ed.). Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Wertheim, E. G. (n.d.). A model for case analysis and problem solving. College of Business Administration, Northeastern University. Retrieved August 7, 2007, from http://web.cba.neu.edu/~ewertheim/introd/cases.htm