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What is critical thinking and analysis in academic study?

In academic study, the use of the term ‘critical’ does not mean that you are criticising what someone else has said
A quote: Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view.“Cottrell, S. (2005) Critical Thinking Skills p47 New York, Palgrave
© University of York

Critical thinking and critical analysis are key terms you will become familiar with in your time at university. In academic study, the use of the term ‘critical’ does not mean that you are criticising what someone else has said.

What does critical thinking involve?

When you are engaged in critical thinking and critical analysis you will be engaged in some or all of the following activities:

  • Analysing and weighing up arguments
  • Evaluating evidence that has been presented
  • Distinguishing between fact and opinion
  • Reviewing the research methods used (how the data has been gathered)
  • Considering the potential for bias
  • Analysing different interpretations, viewpoints and perspectives
  • Reaching conclusions based on your own reasoning.

What is critical reading?

Developing your critical thinking skills starts with asking the right questions. Let’s look at an example:

You have been asked to read an article and to present a critical analysis of this article in your next seminar. Critically analysing an article is more than just summarising the key points. It’s all about asking questions as you are reading — critical reading.

Descriptive questions

You could start by asking descriptive questions, such as:

  • Who wrote this article and when was it written?
  • What is it about?
  • What is the main argument being presented?

These descriptive questions provide a good foundation for you to start from, but to develop your critical thinking skills, you need to go beyond these.

Analysing questions

Questions that help you to analyse the article could include:

  • How was the research carried out?
  • Are there alternative theories that could have been considered?
  • Are there other factors that were not addressed as part of the research?

Evaluating questions

You can then start to evaluate by considering questions such as ‘so what?’ and ‘what next’? These questions help you to make judgements and to develop your argument.

Blocks to thinking critically

There are lots of things that can make critical thinking more difficult. These may include:

  • Thinking that there is one right answer — looking for the ‘right’ answer can limit your thinking. There may not be a ‘right’ answer. What tutors are usually looking for is for you to acknowledge the complexity of the debate and ascertain what you think about the question.
  • Respect for authority figures. You are now part of the academic community and so can and must consider critically everything you read and hear. This is what is expected and respected in higher education.
© University of York
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