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Exercises to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

As I discussed in another article, critical thinking is the key to improve mind and society and any graduate student needs to master it. The starting point for critical thinking is the process you follow to analyze and make judgments about what has happened. In other words, critical thinking begins with your reflection about what you have experienced. First, you revisit experiences. Then, you analyze and judge them using your own framework of values, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. Finally, you assign meaning to them, change them, justify actions, and/or solve problems. When you achieve that last step, you are thinking critically.

Critical thinking is the raw material for performing intellectual and social processes. Problem solving, strategic thinking, decision-making, creativity, planning, and openness to differences and new visions are based on it. The better your critical thinking is, the more effective and significant those processes are.

            So, focusing on improving critical thinking is a path to perform better at such important processes. To do that, it is necessary to know what skills you need to develop and master in order to think critically. Despite the fact that there are many proposals of what skills are required, it is also true there are some commonalities upon which you can build the process to improve your critical thinking. Let us have a look at some of them.

            Observation

            This is an essential skill to master because a well-focused and intended observation provides relevant input information to begin or reshape the process that will end by assigning meaning, changing situations, solving problems, etc. An observation with a clear purpose is a must to think critically.

Exercise to Improve Observation Skills:

  1. Choose a painting to look at
  2. Set up the goal of remembering all the elements of the painting
  3. Look at it intently until you think you are ready to achieve your goal
  4. Make a list of what you remember
  5. Look at the painting again and check how many elements you remembered correctly. The more correct answers, the better your observation skills.
  6. Practice with new paintings until you can remember all the elements of them
  7. Do the same exercise in relation to situations of daily life like cars near you, people at a restaurant, items in a shop window, etc.
  8. Play games to find hidden objects
  9. Once you are confident in your ability to observe, apply it to a research report and try to remember as many details of it as possible

            Interpretation

It is the ability to understand and express information. By using this skill, decoded information is enriched and then the improved message is expressed and/or applied to new situations or contexts. Such interpretation is based on understanding the language of the information and the characteristics of the context from which it emerges. It has three sub-skills: categorization, decoding significance, and clarifying meaning.

 

Exercises to Improve the Interpretation Skill

  1. Categorization Skill
    1. Begin with categorization of daily life elements (food, clothing, music, books, etc.)
    2. Define a criterion or group of criteria to perform the categorization
    3. Apply the criterion/criteria and group items into categories
    4. Check the consistency of the categorization so each item is in the group it should be
    5. Make each categorization more complex each time so groups respond to more than two criteria
    6. Do the same with research and academic elements (theories, articles, main and subordinate ideas, headings and subheadings, etc.)
  2. Decoding Significance Skill
    1. Begin with daily life situations (what is happening around you)
    2. Try to “read” the facial expressions of the people involved in the situation
    3. Identify problems
    4. Establish how significant each problem is for each stakeholder and provide arguments to support the significance
    5. Check the development of the situation to determine how accurate your decoding was
    6. Practice the above steps within academic and research situations (classes, conferences, research reports, etc.)
    7. When working with research reports and theses, focus on identifying problems, arguments, data, etc. and establishing their significance
  3. Clarification Skill
    1. Begin with daily life situations (what is happening around you)
    2. Describe the situation to another person who is not a witness of it
    3. Paraphrase what is said
    4. Clarify any concept, sign, chart, etc. whose meaning is not evident
    5. Ask your partner what her/his impression of the situation is and check how accurate your description was
    6. Practice the above steps with academic and research situations (texts, classes, conferences, theses, research reports, etc.)
    7. Focus on the paraphrasing and clarifying steps
    8. Write down your clarification
    9. Ask a peer to read the original source and then your clarification
    10. Establish how accurate your clarification was

 

Explanation

It refers to the ability to add clarity and perspective to information so it can be fully understood. It means that information is reshaped to make it more accessible to the target population. It may be approached from different points of view in order to provide a more comprehensive and understandable version of it and include a description of how the explanation was conceived. It is a basic skill for academic and research writing since it lets us make our thinking accessible to the audience.

Exercise to Improve the Explanation Skill

  1. Begin with daily life situations (what is happening around you)
  2. Choose a theme to work with (a political hot theme, the use of a device, a new video game, a social hot theme, a controversial sports theme, etc.)
  3. Present the different points of views to another person
  4. Defend each one of them with well-reasoned arguments
  5. Choose the point of view that you consider more solid and provide reasons to support your choice
  6. Ask the other person questions to check understanding
  7. Practice the above steps with academic and research elements (theories, findings, methodological decisions, discussion of findings, etc.)

Analysis

It is the ability to identify components of information, connect them, and assign meaning in relation to specific and/or general contexts. That implies that patterns and relationships are determined and that elements are not only established but linked to have a clear idea of the whole and the details.

Exercise to Improve the Analysis Skill       

  1. Begin with daily life situations (what is happening around you)
  2. Choose a situation to work with (buying an item, facing a family conflict, developing a project at work, choosing a place to spend a vacation, etc.)
  3. Establish the elements to take into account to have a deep understanding of the situation. To do that, ask yourself questions about the situation (its characteristics, causes, consequences, etc.) whose answers provide a good picture of it
  4. Look for similarities, differences, and relationships among those elements
  5. Assign significance to each element in relation to the others
  6. Build a representation of the whole situation taking into account the network of elements and relationships. You can use texts or graphics to do that
  7. Practice the above steps within academic and research situations (ideas, arguments, theories, approaches, conclusions, sentences and paragraphs, etc.)

Inference

This is the skill that lets you reach logical conclusions from information using evidence and reasoning to derive implicit information from explicit one and related contexts. It is commonly referred to as “reading between lines”. The accuracy of the inference is related to the accuracy of the input information and the coherence of reasoning. Low levels of both lead to misinterpretations of the judged experiences or situations.

Exercise to Improve the Inference Skill

  1. Begin with daily life situations (an overheard conversation, an exchange you can see but not hear, a newspaper article, a film, etc.)
  2. Reflect upon the situation (what happens, what has been said, the reasons behind the situation, etc.)
  3. Use what you know to establish what you do not know but can imagine
  4. Guess possible alternatives to what you can imagine
  5. Look for evidence to support your inference
  6. Make conclusions based on the process you have conducted
  7. Practice the above steps within academic and research situations (assumptions behind a position, implications of a point of view, constructing meaning of what has been said or written, predicting outcomes, possible courses of action, etc.)

Evaluation

It is the ability to establish the credibility or validity of information based on the application of specific criteria. This judgment is guided by evidence provided as well as the framework of beliefs, values, and opinions of the person who makes the judgment. As a result of the application of this skill, actions are taken, attitudes are adopted, new things are created, etc.

Exercise to Improve the Evaluation Skill

  1. Begin with daily life situations (family or work conflicts, advertisements, political elections, propositions, a speaker’s discourse, etc.)
  2. Establish a set of criteria that you consider adequate and valid to judge the situation. Support their significance and appropriateness
  3. Analyze the situation using those criteria. Focus on actors, claims, unstated information, actions, implications, etc.
  4. Make a conclusion about the credibility or validity of the analyzed information and the whole situation
  5. Suggest improvements or possible courses of action
  6. Practice the above steps within academic and research situations (findings of a study, selection of a theory/approach, arguments provided to support claims, credibility of a source, how an idea was worded, etc.)

Metacognition

It refers to the ability to monitor your own thinking process and adapt it to the peculiarities of the task and the effectiveness of the actions taken. It has two sub-skills: self-examination and self-correction. This self-regulatory skill is used to improve the thinking process and get better results.

Exercise to Improve the Metacognition Skill

  1. Begin with a daily life situation (a class, conference, or discussion, reading a book, watching a film, etc.)
  2. Check your understanding of the situation answering your own questions about what is happening, what is involved, and how you can apply what is being said to another situation
  3. Establish if your own position influences your understanding. In other words, how much biased you are
  4. Introduce changes into your understanding process to make it more accurate
  5. Practice the above steps within academic and research situations (interpreting claims and figures, reading a research report, attending the defense of a dissertation/ conference, judging a conclusion, reconsidering an interpretation of findings or approaches, etc.)

All these skills are necessary to perform critical thinking. Therefore, they should be understood, practiced, and mastered. They certainly constitute a complex set of high-order thinking skills, but those characteristics should not frighten you. They are reachable and you can master them.  Although formal education seems to be the best environment to develop them, it is not the only context to do it. Once you have a good picture of what they are and imply, you can even work independently to develop and master them. In another article, I will present different ways of doing that.

Maria Sanchez Patino, Ph.D.

 

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