By George J. Hill
You need to develop critical thinking skills if you want to be successful in college. College professors are not merely interested in your ability to recall facts, though that is certainly important. Without facts to base your argument on, any exercise in critical thinking is futile. Critical thinking requires you to evaluate the facts, analyze the meaning, and then ask questions.
When I discuss critical thinking with my students, I usually have them pick a movie, and then tell me what happens in it. They typically respond by giving me a plot summary such as this: “Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fight in Cloud City and it turns out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.” While that is a brief summary of what happens at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, it lacks depth.
To help the students practice their critical thinking skills, I will lead them in a discussion by asking open-ended questions. Darth Vader is Luke’s father, but what does that mean? How does that fact affect the relationship that Vader and Luke have? How does it affect Luke’s relationship to the other characters? For example, Obi-wan told Luke that his father was dead. How does this affect their relationship? How does the knowledge affect Luke’s faith in his ability to stay on the light side?
All these questions stem from that one revealing moment in the film. My goal is to help the students see that a detailed discussion of the movie is more challenging and ultimately more intriguing than simply stating the fact that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Analysis requires thinking on a deeper level. Professors want you to engage in critical thinking because you will gain more knowledge than if you simply memorized all the facts.
To think critically, you must be able to evaluate sources. Your professors and the school librarian will help you learn the difference between scholarly work and unreliable resources. Wikipedia is not considered an acceptable source for research papers because literally anyone can go in and write anything on a Wikipedia page, regardless of whether it is true or not. Scholarly journals, research reports, and certain types of books are considered valid because they are thoroughly edited and fact-checked before publication.
In most cases, scholarly articles are “peer reviewed.” The peer review process helps make sure that the author’s reasoning and methods are valid, while also confirming that their conclusions are supported by strong evidence cited in the article. A peer reviewed article is one of the best type of articles to use in a research paper because it has been written, edited, revised, and reviewed by multiple people who are dedicated to producing solid work.
Another key element in evaluating sources is considering the author’s biases. Why did the author write the article? Is the writer providing reliable, trustworthy information? For example, if a researcher publishes a study on the effects of smoking and the study is funded by a tobacco company, you may want to question the impartiality of the study. The researcher may have been inclined to focus solely on aspects that help the tobacco company, while ignoring important data that might shine a negative light on their investor.
When thinking critically, it is also important to evaluate the strength of the evidence. Ask yourself, does the evidence clearly support what the author is saying or is the author trying to play up the significance of the data?
Besides helping to answer the questions that you already have, critical thinking should also bring up new questions to explore. You should always be asking questions. Do not take things at face value.
Ge0rge J. Hill is an Academic Advisor at Kingsborough Community College.