College instructors will expect that your writing does more
than report on the obvious or express what you "feel"
about a subject. Academic and professional writing must go
beyond the surface and analyze situations and problems in
depth. In writing a narration, for instance, it is important
to not only state what happened but analyze causes, comment
on effects, or speculate on the event's significance.
Effective comparisons rest on more than superficial similarities.
Cause and effect and persuasive writing demand critical thinking
to avoid making errors in logic and overlooking alternative
Strategies For Improving Critical Thinking
Observe Your Subject Closely
The first step in critical thinking is carefully examining
your subject. Avoid making immediate judgments, but accurately
and objectively record facts. You might review Samuel Scudder's
essay Take This Fish and Look at It in your textbook.
Scudder emphasizes the importance of close observation. Too
often we "look" at things but never truly "see"
Record Notes In Objective Language
In taking notes, be aware of connotations. Avoid making stereotypical
judgments. Are the people you observe gathering or
loitering in a park? Are they bums, drifters,
or the homeless? Are they victims or derelicts?
Ask yourself how other people might view your subject. In
dealing with controversial issues, you might consider recording
observations in dual notation system, pairing positive and
negative connotations. You might describe politicians as being
bold/reckless or cautious/cowardly or traditional/old-fashioned.
Avoid Making Immediate Assumptions
In studying your subject, avoid making assumptions until
you have collected and examined sufficient evidence. The fact
that a store is crowded with shoppers does not prove that
the business is profitable. The past performance of a mutual
fund does not guarantee that its value will increase in the
future. A successful teacher cannot be assumed to be an effective
Look At The Big Picture
Following the dramatic mass shooting at Columbine High School,
television news programs featured numerous commentators lamenting
about the lack of values among American young people -- ignoring
evidence that the mass of teenagers in the 1990s were less
likely to drink, take drugs, drop out of school, commit crimes,
or engage in premarital sex than their parents. Because airplane
crashes often kill hundreds in a single dramatic incident,
many people are afraid to fly. Those same people, however,
rarely show the same fear about driving -- which is far more
dangerous. Don't allow a single situation or chain
of events -- no matter how shocking or dramatic -- to shape
your perception of an issue or topic. Examine other forms
Ask Questions About Your Topic
Posing questions can help you avoid making assumptions by
suggesting alternative ways of looking at your subject and
indicating needed research. Asking questions can help sharpen
your observations. If you enter a crowded store, you might
ask yourself some questions before assuming the business is
a gold mine. How many of the shoppers are looking and how many
are actually buying? What are they purchasing -- low profit
sale items or full-priced merchandise? Does the store have
more employees or more expensive features than its competitors?
Does the store's success depend on massive advertising
or costly promotions? Is the store located in expensive location
that would inflate its overhead?
Discuss Your Ideas With Others
In order to detect blind spots in your thinking, talk to
friends or other students. Ask their opinions of your topic.
Pose a question on a computer bulletin board or use a chat
room to solicit the views of other people. Even a humorous
or sarcastic comment by a stranger may lead you to look at
your topic in new way.
Avoid These Common Errors In Critical Thinking
Don't jump to conclusions, making general statements
based on limited evidence. Having spoken to three students,
you cannot assume to have a definitive insight into the quality
of the university. Finding two or three errors in a government
report in itself is not evidence of fraud or a cover-up.
Comparisons form weak arguments. Because an educational program
works in Japan does not mean it will work in America. When
analyzing an issue, realize no two situations are alike. You
cannot argue that drugs should be legalized based solely on
the observation that Prohibition failed to curb consumption
"Post hoc" refers to a Latin phrase warning against
mistaking a time relationship for cause and effect. If you
take an aspirin and your headache fades in ten minutes, that
alone does not prove the pill worked. If a rash of crimes
follows a violent TV movie, there might or might not be a
causal relationship. Events that occur on Monday do not necessarily
cause what happens on Tuesday.
There are rarely only two options. It's not realistic
to suggest that "either we pass the new school bond issue
or we condemn our children to a life of illiteracy."
A company demand that employees accept a wage reduction or
face losing their jobs ignores other solutions to the firm's
Because an idea or position is advanced or supported by a
controversial person does not automatically discredit it.
Evaluate ideas on merit, not the personality supporting them.
Do not allow yourself to be overly impressed by endorsements
Begging The Question
Do not assume what has to be proven. If you state, "The
college's irrelevant English requirement must be dropped,"
you must first prove the requirement is no longer valid. Arguing
that a corrupt lawyer should be disbarred assumes his or her
wrongdoing. You can avoid making this error by breaking statements
into separate elements. Do you provide proof for each of your