Seven Key Features of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking uses reflective and reasonable thought processes.
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Critical thinking is the ability to apply a clear, rational thought process using reflective and independent thinking for new knowledge. It engages open-minded learners more actively by examining ideas and concepts from many angles and accepting that answers may vary from what was originally predicted. It is a decision-making process that allows you to think comprehensively, accept sound ideas and reject flawed ones. Applying the key features of critical thinking below can foster intellectual independence.

1 Evaluate the Evidence

Evidence is crucial for debating and proving an argument, hypothesis or idea. Critical thinking examines, compares, judges and establishes the validity of evidence. Look carefully at the evidence. For example, determine if a case study or experiment is recent and has intrinsic value. An authoritative and credible source, such as an academic journal, will likely have more merit than a tabloid newspaper.

2 Ask Questions

Questions define, lead and direct your agenda. Critical thinking involves asking questions about information collected and the resulting conclusions, and it asks the right questions to determine if data is accurate and unbiased. The “right question” is one that is properly framed with an overarching objective. A position or claim must be justified, so ask powerful and probing questions that avoid one-dimensional thinking.

3 Think Analytically

Analytic thinking examines the different parts of something in order to understand or explain it. Such thinking determines how parts fit together as a whole and recognizes biases such as prejudice or deeply-held values and beliefs that might cloud an idea or argument. Analytical thinkers evaluate the strengths and shortcomings of their own thinking as well as the thoughts of others through reasoning and comparing similarities and differences of ideas.

4 Conceptualize Ideas

Conceptualizing is the understanding and ability to form an idea. It brings together observation, experience and data through mental imagery. In a paper that appeared on the Association for Academic Psychiatry website, Judith A. Sedgeman, an adjunct assistant professor at West Virginia University, described conceptualization as "the act of thinking through and seeing beyond existing ideas to discover higher order ideas from within one's own mind."

5 Draw Inferences

To infer is to “read between the lines.” People give meaning to and make sound assumptions through what they experience and learn. When you infer, you examine prior experience and knowledge and combine them with suggested facts to arrive at a new belief or course of action.

6 Keep an Open Mind

Open-mindedness is characterized by being receptive to other views and having the willingness to change views with new facts and evidence. Open-mindedness increases intellectual capabilities by allowing for new experiences and perspectives. A narrow focus, conversely, hinders problem-solving and new experiences.

7 Synthesize Information

Synthesis combines pieces of information and ideas and recasts them to form something original. In synthesis, you examine how information is connected. As you understand each piece of information separately, you enhance your understanding of them as a whole and can thus form new insight.

Based in Virginia, Susan Harlow is an adjunct English professor and writing resource coordinator. She specializes in education and technical communication. She holds a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in literacy, technology and professional writing from Northern Arizona University.