What Is Critical Thinking? How Can It Be Improved?

Helen Lee Bouygues

The term “critical thinking” is used a lot: by educators, politicians, journalists, and the general public. But when it comes down to saying exactly what critical thinking actually is  — and is not — there is vagueness and confusion. 

Although it’s complicated and multi-faceted, critical thinking can be defined. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes, the activities of critical thinking can be divided into three areas: reasoning, making judgments, and problem-solving. Critical thinking means becoming skilled in all three areas. It means, in brief, thinking well. 

So how can we think better? What does improved critical thinking look like? Because good thinking is so entwined in our daily lives, acquiring critical thinking skills is not as straightforward as becoming better at math or tennis. The exact skills depend on the stage of development as well as the domain in which the thinking skills are applied.

Moreover, critical thinking involves certain dispositions — curiosity, humility, independence — and values — openness, fairness, diversity — that make it more complicated than a more straightforward area of study. 

All that said, there are some general components of critical thinking that will help clarify what exactly it means to become a critical thinker. 

Below we expand on the definition of critical thinking by outlining three areas where we can all improve our thinking:

  1. Reflective thinking or what’s sometimes called “metacognition”;

  2. Objective thinking, which requires an ability to manage emotions and recognize biases;

  3. Analytical thinking, which involves skills in logic and argumentation.

Reflective Thinking

Critical thinking starts with reflection. Indeed, the American philosopher John Dewey often referred to critical thinking as “reflective thinking.” He contrasted reflective thinking, in which thoughts are consciously ordered and follow each other in a sequence, from idle thinking where our thoughts meander from point to point without any structure.

Put differently, reflective thinking involves thinking about our own thoughts in such a way that we can intentionally improve, order, and regulate them. This practice is often referred to as “metacognition.”

Metacognition involves seeing our thinking from the outside. The approach includes observing our own thought processes and thinking habits. It requires us to evaluate and employ different thinking strategies reflectively, and to notice when we are thinking irrationally or unproductively. Metacognition is the most basic component of critical thinking. 

Reflective thinking involves thinking about our own thoughts in such a way that we can intentionally improve, order, and regulate them.

Metacognition is also crucial for learning. Some research suggests that metacognitive or reflective skills can be just as important as raw intelligence in predicting student success. Children become capable of reflecting on their thinking in this way at around four, and metacognitive awareness increases with age up until early early adulthood. 

Metacognition also depends on education and practice. There’s a lot of evidence that the practice can be learned much like riding a bike. One way metacognitive skills can be nurtured is by writing. Journaling about thinking can be extraordinarily useful, for example. 

Asking lots of “why” questions can also promote metacognition: Why am I doing this? Why am I thinking this? These sorts of practices pull us outside of ourselves and give us the perspective from which we can reflect on and improve our thinking.

Objective Thinking

When people think of “objectivity,” they usually imagine thinking that is cold-blooded and perfectly rational, almost like a computer processing data. But the truth is that being objective requires a great deal of emotional intelligence, as well as honesty about our own biases.

First of all, a balanced emotional foundation is necessary for good reasoning. Critical thinking  requires both confidence and humility— the confidence to think independently of group pressures and the humility to acknowledge that we might be wrong or biased. If we’re either too susceptible to a need for peer approval or too arrogant to consider others’ opinions, we are bound to fail at being objective.

We are all limited by our own experiences and backgrounds. To be more objective, we must learn to identify particular thought patterns that lead us into error or misinterpretation.

It is therefore crucial that emotional management skills be developed at a young age, and renewed continually throughout our lives. Trying new activities and taking on new challenges — like learning a new language, for example — may seem far removed from critical thinking. But they are crucial to developing feelings of competence, openness to challenges, and the ability to cope with failure that are crucial to high-level reasoning across all domains.

Another substantial barrier to objectivity is bias. We are all inherently limited by our own experiences and backgrounds. But these subjective biases do not need to determine how we think. To be more objective, we must learn to identify particular thought patterns that lead us into error or misinterpretation.

Biases include not just those derived from our personal experience, but general cognitive biases we all suffer from. For example, it is easy to think that past events were easily predictable all along (hindsight bias) or that if a coin turns up heads five times in a row, it’s more likely to be tails next time (Gambler’s fallacy). The only way to overcome cognitive biases is to be educated about them, and strive for objectivity.

Objective thinking builds on reflective thinking. We have to be able to see our thinking from the outside, if we are to learn to control biases or emotions that can distort our reasoning. With practice, we can learn to adjust our thought processes and see the world more as it is. We are all inherently limited by our own experiences and backgrounds. But these subjective biases do not need to determine how we think. To be more objective, we must learn to identify particular thought patterns that lead us into error or misinterpretation.

Analytical Thinking

The ability to plan and regulate one’s thinking and to manage emotions and biases are necessary preconditions for higher-level logical analysis. These skills allow critical thinkers to build and evaluate information and arguments step-by-step so they can persuade others of their positions and criticize mistaken arguments. This is known as analytical thinking. 

Young children, of course, usually aren’t ready to tackle formal logic, but there are plenty of ways that parents and other adults can help stimulate their analytical thinking. They can ask them to give reasons for their opinions or how they might criticize someone else’s argument.

Later on — in high school, college, and beyond — training in formal logic can help adults think more about how arguments are structured, whether conclusions follow from premises, and how to use logic to evaluate others’ arguments. 

Learning the logic of conditional (if-then) statements, for instance, can help students think more precisely. To take one example, the logical rule known as modus tollens states that if a conditional statement (“if p then q”) is true, and we know that the consequent (q) is false, then we can infer that the antecedent is false, too. 

Keep in mind that, while logic is a crucial part of critical thinking, there is more to critical thinking than mere logic.

So if it’s true that “If there is smoke, there is fire” and there is no fire, we can conclude that there is no smoke either. By contrast, we cannot conclude from the statement that just because there is fire, there must also be smoke. 

This close attention to the logical connections between statements is necessary for students to be able to reason well about complex issues like climate change or the size of government.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that, while logic is a crucial part of critical thinking, there is more to critical thinking than mere logic. Critical thinking also requires argumentative skills that go beyond logic. 

In a political debate, for example, two opponents may both have perfectly logical arguments but differing relative values as starting points — leading to vastly different conclusions. Similarly, if an airtight logical argument is not advanced with any rhetorical skill, it is unlikely to be persuasive. 

In other words, just as objectivity requires skills in both reasoning and emotional management, analytical or argumentative thinking requires both logical skill and an ability to understand and empathize with one’s audience. 

Parting Thoughts 

Critical thinking is, therefore, never a mere intellectual exercise, but requires an all-around ability to put reasoning into practice. It goes well beyond raw intelligence or logical skill, and involves the virtues of practical reasoning like self-awareness, humility, independence, and empathy that are cultivated and deepened over the course of a lifetime. It is not a stretch, then, to say that learning to think critically can make you a better person. 

To sum up, critical thinkers are able to reflect on and correct their own thought processes, remain objective even in overheated or deceptive circumstances, and cogently analyze information as well as the structure and logic of arguments. These skills require commitment and dedication, but the rewards — sounder judgments, better decisions, more productive work, and even healthier relationships — are well worth it.

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation.

The SHARP method

Along the way I’ll offer tips using the acronym SHARP, which I developed to help remember the core elements of thinking well. SHARP stands for:

STOP
HONE
ACCUMULATE
REASON
PERSPECTIVIZE

These steps can be applied to any scenario or problem — either in professional or personal life — that requires deep, reflective, and creative thinking. Using them can help improve decision-making and reasoning habits.

The SHARP method

1. Stop

Before we can improve thinking we have to slow it down. Metacognition involves stopping to reflect on decisions and thought processes. In order to engage in rational thought, it’s necessary to first resist conclusions based on automatic responses or raw emotions. 

The first step is to start recognizing when your thinking may be more automatic or emotional than is productive. Emotional reactions are normal and healthy parts of our lives, but they can sometimes short-circuit deeper thinking. There are several ways to prevent this from happening, but writing things down is one of the most effective. Just the action of picking up a pen forces you to stop and begin examining what you think.

The SHARP method

2. Hone.
Once we begin looking at our thinking from the outside we can start refining it. The second part of metacognition involves honing our thinking by interrogating it — asking lots of questions. What reasons do I have for thinking what I think? How do other people approach this issue? What evidence could I acquire to better back up or refine my position? 

These are all crucial questions because they force us to put our thoughts and beliefs to the test. We often find that beliefs that seemed well-grounded before we interrogate them are actually quite flimsy. Regularly engaging in this kind of questioning helps to develop genuine curiosity and openness. These can go a long way toward improving our overall reasoning abilities.

The SHARP Method

3. Accumulate.
Honing our beliefs tends to lead to new questions. We find that we don’t know as much as we thought and we want to know more. This means we need to “go deep” and start accumulating evidence. Effective thinking requires experience with a given subject matter, including exposure to well-researched ideas and facts. 

The process of accumulating evidence can’t be one-sided though. We have to be open to what we discover and let the research process guide us rather than our preconceived ideas. Gathering evidence from an array of different sources can help us root our own biases. As we do this, it’s important to develop strong media literacy and research skills, including learning how to avoid extraneous or illegitimate information.

The SHARP Method

4. Reason.
Once we have accumulated and analyzed evidence, we need to draw and refine conclusions on the basis of it. This is reasoning. 

In this step, critical thinkers use empirical evidence to confirm or refute hypotheses; they use logic to evaluate and refine arguments; and they adjust their ideas based on new evidence. It is vital to learn the basics of formal logic. These rules of reasoning determine how conclusions can be drawn legitimately from premises. 

Learning logic also exposes critical thinkers to common pitfalls and fallacies and helps them avoid falling prey to sophistical arguments. But reasoning goes beyond logic. Communication and debate are also vital.

The SHARP method

5. Perspectivize.
Reasoning never happens in a vacuum. It’s only by subjecting our ideas and arguments to the critiques of others that we can determine whether they succeed or fail, and how they can be improved. 

A key part of critical thinking is, therefore, perspectivizing: opening up our thinking to outside perspectives. Genuine critical thinkers realize that there are frequently no right answers. Human decision-making and debate cannot be reduced to perfectly logical answers that, for example, a computer might provide. 

That’s why it’s key for critical thinkers to expand perspective by looking at problems in different ways, from different vantage points. Critical thinkers test out our ideas on others, solicit outside viewpoints, and find and engage those who disagree.