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2.2 Understanding How Critical Thinking Works

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn how and why critical thinking works.
  2. Understand the creative and constructive elements of critical thinking.
  3. Add to the list of productive questions that can be asked about texts.

“Critical thinking” has been a common phrase in education for more than a quarter century, but it can be a slippery concept to define. Perhaps because “critical” is an adjective with certain negative connotations (e.g., “You don’t have to be so critical” or “Everybody’s a critic”), people sometimes think that critical thinking is a fault-finding exercise or that there is nothing creative about it. But defined fairly and fully, critical thinkingThe ability to separate fact from opinion, to ask questions, to reflect on one’s own role in the process of inquiry and discovery, and to pay close attention to detail. is in fact a precondition to creativity.

Critical thinkers consider multiple sides of an issue before choosing sides. They tend to ask questions instead of accepting everything they hear or read, and they know that answers often only open up more lines of inquiry. Critical thinkers read between the lines instead of reading only at face value, and they also develop a keen sense of how their own minds operate. Critical thinkers recognize that much of the information they read and hear is a combination of fact and opinion. To be successful in college, you will have to learn to differentiate between fact and opinion through logic, questioning, and verification.

Facts are pieces of information that you can verify as true. Opinions are personal views or beliefs that may have very little grounding in fact. Since opinions are often put forth as if they were facts, they can be challenging to recognize as opinions. That’s where critical thinkers tend to keep questioning. It is not enough to question only the obviously opinionated material in a text. Critical thinkers develop a habit of subjecting all textual statements to a whole constellation of questions about the speaker (or writer), the intended audienceThe individual or group being addressed or targeted by a piece of communication., the statement itself, and the relevance of it.

Considering the speaker:

  • Who is making this the statement?
  • What are the speaker’s affiliations?
  • How does the speaker know the truth of this statement?

Considering the audience:

  • Who is being addressed with this statement?
  • What could connect the speaker of the statement with the intended audience?
  • Would all people consider this statement to be true?

Considering the statement:

  • Can this statement be proven?
  • Will this statement also be true tomorrow or next year?
  • If this statement is true, what else might be true?
  • Are there other possible interpretations of the facts behind this statement?

Considering relevance:

  • What difference does this statement make?
  • Who cares (and who should care)?
  • So what? What now? What’s next?

Writers naturally write with some basic assumptions. Without a starting point, a writer would have no way to begin writing. As a reader, you have to be able to identify the assumptions a writer makes and then judge whether or not those assumptions need to be challenged or questioned. As an active readerA person who uncovers the biases, preconceptions, assumptions and implications of a text., you must acknowledge that both writers and readers make assumptions as they negotiate the meaning of any text. A good process for uncovering assumptions is to try to think backward from the text. Get into the habit of asking yourself, “In order to make this given statement, what else must this writer also believe?”

Whether you recognize it or not, you also have biases and preconceptions on which you base many decisions. These biases and preconceptions form a screen or a lens through which you see your world. Biases and preconceptions are developed out of your life’s experiences and influences. As a critical thinker who considers all sides of an issue, you have to identify your personal positions and subject them to scrutiny.

Just as you must uncover assumptions—those of the writer as well as your own as a reader—to truly capture what you are reading, you must also examine the assumptions that form the foundation of your writing. And you must be prepared to do so throughout the writing process; such self-questioning can, in fact, be a powerful strategy for revision (as you’ll see in more detail in Chapter 8 "Revising", Section 8.1 "Reviewing for Purpose").

Key Takeaways

  • Far from being a negative or destructive activity, critical thinking is actually the foundation of creative, constructive thinking.
  • Critical thinkers consider multiple sides of issues, before arriving at a judgment. They must carefully consider the source, the audience, and the relevance of any statement, making a special effort to distinguish fact from opinion in the statement itself.
  • Biases and preconceptions are ideas based on life experiences and are common components of most everything you say, hear, or read.


  1. Use the set of questions at the end of this section about the speaker, audience, statement, and relevance for a text of your choice from the Note 2.5 "Gallery of Web-Based Texts" in Section 2.1 "Browsing the Gallery of Web-Based Texts". Here are some promising avenues to pursue:

    1. A public service announcement (PSA) campaign (Ad Council)
    2. A “This I Believe” radio essay (This I Believe)
    3. A television ad spot from a political campaign (The Living Room Candidate)
    4. An entry in one of the debates on a “big question” (Big Questions Essay Series)
  2. Use those same questions for a reading from one of your other classes (even a chapter from a textbook) or a reading in your composition class assigned by your instructor.
  3. Go to the Smithsonian Institution (SIRIS) site in the Note 2.5 "Gallery of Web-Based Texts" and click on the Search Collections tab. Use the search phrase “personal hygiene advertisements” and then choose two of the ads that appear in the archive after you’ve browsed the dozens of hits. Apply this section’s questions to two ads you’ve chosen. Then get to know the search engine on the SIRIS site a little better by trying out a few search phrases of your own on topics of interest to you.