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WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?

Consider several definitions:
 

Critical thinkers: distinguish between fact and opinion; ask questions; make detailed observations; uncover assumptions and define their terms; and make assertions based on sound logic and solid evidence.

Ellis, D. Becoming a Master Student, 1997

 

Critical thinking is best understood as the ability of thinkers to take charge of their own thinking. This requires that they develop sound criteria and standards for analyzing and assessing their own thinking and routinely use those criteria and standards to improve its quality.

Elder , L. and Paul, R. "Critical thinking: why we must transform our teaching." Journal of Developmental Education, Fall 1994.


ATTRIBUTES OF A CRITICAL THINKER: 

  • asks pertinent questions 
  • assesses statements and arguments 
  • is able to admit a lack of understanding or information 
  • has a sense of curiosity 
  • is interested in finding new solutions 
  • is able to clearly define a set of criteria for analyzing ideas
  • is willing to examine beliefs, assumptions, and opinions and weigh them against facts 
  • listens carefully to others and is able to give feedback 
  • sees that critical thinking is a lifelong process of self-assessment 
  • suspends judgment until all facts have been gathered and considered 
  • looks for evidence to support assumption and beliefs 
  • is able to adjust opinions when new facts are found 
  • looks for proof 
  • examines problems closely
  • is able to reject information that is incorrect or irrelevant 

Ferrett, S. Peak Performance (1997). 

APPLYING CRITICAL THINKING TO READING

CRITICAL READING STRATEGIES
(
from Longview Community College, Lee's Summit, Missouri)

These seven critical reading strategies can be learned readily and then applied not only to reading selections in a Literature class, but also to your other college reading. Mastering these strategies will help you handle difficult material with confidence. 

  • Annotating: Fundamental to each of these strategies is annotating directly on the page: underlining key words, phrases, or sentences; writing comments or questions in the margins; bracketing important sections of the text; constructing ideas with lines or arrows; numbering related points in sequence; and making note of anything that strikes you as interesting, important, or questionable. 
    • Most readers annotate in layers, adding further annotations on second and third readings.
    • Annotations can be light or heavy, depending on the reader's purpose and the difficulty of the material.
       
  • Previewing: Learning about a text before really reading it. Previewing enables readers to get a sense of what the text is about and how it is organized before reading it closely. This simple strategy includes seeing what you can learn from the headnotes or other introductory material, skimming to get an overview of the content and organization, and identifying the rhetorical situation.

  • Contextualizing: Placing a text in its historical, biographical, and cultural contexts. When you read a text, you read it through the lens of your own experience.
    • Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is informed by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place. But the texts you read were all written in the past, sometimes in a radically different time and place.
    • To read critically, you need to contextualize, to recognize the differences between your contemporary values and attitudes and those represented in the text.
       

  • Questioning to understand and remember: Asking questions about the content. As students, you are accustomed to teachers asking you questions about your reading.
    • Questions are designed to help you understand a reading and respond to it more fully, and often this technique works.
    • When you need to understand and use new information though it is most beneficial if you write the questions, as you read the text for the first time.
    • With this strategy, you can write questions any time, but in difficult academic readings, you will understand the material better and remember it longer if you write a question for every paragraph or brief section.
    • Each question should focus on a main idea, not on illustrations or details, and each should be expressed in your own words, not just copied from parts of the paragraph.
       
  • Reflecting on challenges to your beliefs and values: Examining your personal responses. The reading that you do for this class might challenge your attitudes, your unconsciously held beliefs, or your positions on current issues.
    • As you read a text for the first time, mark an X in the margin at each point where you fell a personal challenge to your attitudes, beliefs, or status.
    • Make a brief note in the margin about what you feel or about what in the text created the challenge.
    • Now look again at the places you marked in the text where you felt personally challenged.
    • What patterns do you see?
       
  • Outlining and summarizing: Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words.
    • Outlining and summarizing are especially helpful strategies for understanding the content and structure of a reading selection.
    • Whereas outlining reveals the basic structure of the text, summarizing synopsizes a selection's main argument in brief.
    • Outlining may be part of the annotating process, or it may be done separately (as it is in this class).
    • The key to both outlining and summarizing is being able to distinguish between the main ideas and the supporting ideas and examples.
    • The main ideas form the backbone, the strand that hold the various parts and pieces of the text together.
    • Outlining the main ideas helps you to discover this structure.
    • When you make an outline, don't use the text's exact words.
       
  • Summarizing begins with outlining, but instead of merely listing the main ideas, a summary recomposes them to form a new text. Whereas outlining depends on a close analysis of each paragraph, summarizing also requires creative synthesis. Putting ideas together again -- in your own words and in a condensed form -- shows how reading critically can lead to deeper understanding of any text. 

  • Evaluating an argument means testing the logic of a text as well as its credibility and emotional impact. All writers make assertions that want you to accept as true.
    • As a critical reader, you should not accept anything on face value but to recognize every assertion as an argument that must be carefully evaluated.
    • An argument has two essential parts: a claim and support.
    • The claim asserts a conclusion -- an idea, an opinion, a judgment, or a point of view - that the writer wants you to accept.
    • The support includes reasons (shared beliefs, assumptions, and values) and evidence (facts, examples, statistics, and authorities) that give readers the basis for accepting the conclusion.
    • When you assess an argument, you are concerned with the process of reasoning as well as its truthfulness (these are not the same thing).
    • At the most basic level, in order for an argument to be acceptable, the support must be appropriate to the claim and the statements must be consistent with one another.
       
  • Comparing and contrasting related readings: Exploring likenesses and differences between texts to understand them better. 

Many of the authors on the subject of thinking critically approach the topic in different ways. Fitting a text into an ongoing dialectic helps increase understanding of why an author approached a particular issue or question in the way he or she did.

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APPLYING CRITICAL THINKING TO AMERICAN HISTORY

FACT, OPINION AND INFERENCE 

Being able to distinguish between a statement of fact, an opinion or an inference is an important skill to critical thinking. It involves knowing what can be proven directly, what is a legitimate implication derived from the facts, and what is fair to conclude from the historical record. 

Historians typically interweave statements of fact, inferences they derive from the facts, and statements of their own opinion into a seamless historical narrative. Critical thinkers must be able to distinguish among these three types of communication. 

  • FACT: reports information that can be directly observed or can be verified or checked for accuracy. 

  • OPINION: expresses an evaluation based on a personal judgment or belief which may or may not be verifiable. 

  • INFERENCE: a logical conclusion or a legitimate implication based on factual information. 

Generally, facts are constants in historical study. But a compendium of facts is inevitably incomplete and deathly dull to read. Historians construct history by closing the gaps in their knowledge about the past, enlarge our under- standing, and enliven their narrative by drawing logical inferences from their assembled facts. Often, they then use their expertise to arrive at a considered judgment about the wisdom or significance of past decisions and events. 

Distinguishing statements of fact, opinion, and inference may at first seem difficult to do. That is because they are often closely interwoven. Develop your own critical thinking abilities by placing an "F" before each factual statement, an "O" before each opinion, and an "I" before each inference in the practice exercise below. 

This type of critical thinking exercise is used often in quizzes and tests. 

_____ 1. The real rulers of the "black Republican" governments of the South were white "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers." 

_____2. Scalawags were by far the more numerous of the two.

_____3. Blacks lacked experience in politics and were mostly poor and uneducated. 

_____4. That blacks should fail to dominate southern governments is certainly understandable.

_____5. Graft and callous disregard of the public interest characterized government in all regions and at every level during the decade after Appomattox.

_____6. However, the corruption must be seen in perspective. 

_____7. The New York City Tweed Ring probably made off with more money that all the southern thieves, black and white, combined. 

_____8. The evidence does not justify southern corruption.

_____9. The evidence suggests that the unique features of Reconstruction politics do not explain it either. 

____10. In fact, Radical southern governments accomplished much. 


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