Essential College Skills: Critical Thinking

Learning a new skill takes practice. Few people could pick up a basketball without any prior playtime and make a 3-pointer or slip on ballet slippers and do a perfect pirouette. To have success in any field, you need to learn basic skills and improve them with practice. Similarly, college students are challenged to practice how they think and improve their critical thinking skills. It may sound strange to say that, as a student, you need to practice thinking. After all, thinking is a basic human instinct, like breathing. Several times a day, we all make choices based on our thoughts, from what we pick to eat for breakfast to what clothes we wear. We think about our preferences and then make a decision.

Critical thinking is different. It requires a deeper level of understanding about a topic, which is important for college students. As a critical thinker, you'll analyze an issue from various points of view and evaluate what you've learned to form your own opinion and share that opinion with others.

Critical thinking is not an easy skill to master. But, with practice, you can improve your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This will likely help improve your grades, too.

Applying Critical Thinking

Suppose you're thinking about buying a car. Maybe you've even narrowed down your decision to a few models. You're still not ready to buy a new car without first thinking critically about your options. For instance, is a certain car more practical for your lifestyle? Will you be able to afford the car next year or two years from now? What kind of car do you want versus what kind do you need? The critical thought process forces you to ask questions that you might otherwise miss.

At the college level, you're asked to apply critical thinking skills in group discussions, lab work, speeches, essays or research papers, and more.

Three tips to improve your critical thinking or problem solving:

  1. Understand the problem you're trying to solve.

You've probably heard stories about all night study sessions or students who spend hours memorizing facts to prep for an exam. This might help them score passing grades, but it isn't doing a lot to hone their critical thinking skills. To think critically about a topic, you need to consider the subject from different points of view, make connections, and analyze or evaluate the information. Ask yourself: Why is this important? Do I understand what's being asked?

Tip: Consider whether alternative answers to the problem you just solved are worth exploring.

  1. Think about how your beliefs affect your thinking.

Your past experiences and beliefs automatically influence how you solve problems. Challenge yourself to think about a problem or subject area in an unbiased way. Consider other people's perspectives and not just your own. This will help you practice tolerance and not jump to conclusions.

Tip: Seek out alternative views. Ask for other people's opinions about a subject.

  1. Ask yourself: Is there anything I'm missing?

The critical thought process evolves as you age and have new experiences. Even if you think you've reviewed a subject or problem from different points of view, it's important to ask yourself: Is there anything I'm missing? As a learner, you sometimes must revisit what you learned years ago to ensure your assumptions still apply.

Tip: Be willing to say, "I don’t know" and accept a changing perspective.