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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is an essential skill in Higher Education (and a valuable life skill).

To think critically does not mean to be negative and find fault with everything: critical thinking means not accepting information or opinions unquestioningly. The starting point is always with questions: what, who, when, where, how and why?

It is worth considering:

  • what if...? (something were changed or done differently)
  • ...what next...? (how could this be developed or applied in different settings?)
  • ...and, so what? (why is this information significant?)

This video provides a good overview of why critical thinking can be useful for you, in a variety of situations in your life:

Here is a useful critical thinking checklist that can be used to evaluate texts you read and your own essays:

When researching a subject, consider the validity of your resources:

  • Who provides the information or opinion?
    Consider whether they are considered an expert in the field, or are affiliated with any institutions or corporations, and how those and other factors may influence or bias their views.
  • When was it written?
    Consider whether it is up-to-date, and if it is an older text, what was happening at the time that might have influenced the views of the author?
  • What is included (and what is not included), and why that might be the case?
  • What is the intended message? (and how do you know - has the author explicitly stated their intention, or do you think persuasive language or imagery is used?)

These considerations apply not only to written documents, but to images and moving image, as well.

See - Searching Techniques [Evaluating Sources].

Reading academic texts is quite different from reading messages from friends or reading for pleasure, because:

  • They are full of subject-specific vocabulary and references (so it feels like learning a new language).
    They also use fewer subject pronouns and action verbs, but more nominalizations, passives and embedded relative clauses (which makes the sentences harder to process). Generally they tend to discuss relatively abstract ideas, which may not be common knowledge, so they require more concentration and effort to understand.

  • You are reading them for study purposes.
    This usually means you have been advised to read them in relation to practical and academic assignments, so hopefully you already have some idea about the topic that will be covered and why they are relevant. Your purpose is likely to be one the following:
    • to get information (facts, data, etc.);
    • to understand ideas or theories;
    • to understand the author's viewpoint;
    • to support your own views (by finding and using citations).

For these purposes you do not need to read the whole text, from beginning to end. Use skim reading to identify key areas that are worth reading more carefully.

Below are some recommended strategies for effective, active reading, but you will need to decide which works to meet your purpose in reading any given text:

Before beginning to read a text, try to predict what it is about. You can use a number of things to help you:

  • where was it published (eg newspaper, academic book, website etc.)
  • the author, and their area of specialism (look this up on the Internet, if you don't know)
  • the layout and colours used (if any)
  • the title and any subheadings
  • images or diagrams, if there are any
  • the genre of writing (eg a review, a newspaper article, an essay or academic thesis)
  • key words (important information words, that may be repeated a number of times)

Building on your predictions, it is a good idea before starting to read to get an idea of the overall length of the piece (and if it is long, perhaps break it up into manageable sections: do not try to read it all at once).

If there an abstract (link to definition, in relation to summarising a journal article), read that to give you an overview. If that tells you all you need to know for your current purpose, you might be able to stop there.

If not, read the introduction and conclusion to give you an overview of what is covered, and skim through the rest, to identify areas where you may want to read more slowly so as to understand fully.

If you are reading to find a specific piece of information - a name or date or something, then ignore everything until you find that specific word or number. Then you may need to read the surrounding paragraph, to contextualise the information you have found.

Many software programmes can now scan texts for you if you put in the search term.

When reading academic texts, it is common to encounter unfamiliar words. Even if it is challenging at first, the more you read, the more extensive your vocabulary will become, which will help not only your understanding, but also your articulation of ideas.

If you look up every new word you encounter, your progress will be very slow, so decide if understanding the exact meaning is necessary, or if an approximate idea is enough for your purpose in reading the text. Sometimes when you encounter a new word, you can guess its meaning from context, see the task below.


Consider the following sentence:

'Although the company's income from sales was higher than expected, its high costs in the form of salaries and other overheads put it in a disadvantageous position.'

Let's imagine the word you don't know in this sentence is 'disadvantageous' (it doesn't matter if you already know this word - this is just an example). The immediate context of the word tells you the following:

  • it is probably an adjective, because it comes before the noun ('position')
  • it is probably negative, because it relates to 'high costs', which are not usually good for a company
  • it is probably negative, because the sentence begins with 'although', a contrast marker, so the idea in the second clause contrasts with the first clause, which is positive ('high income' is good for a company)

A good guess for the word at this point would be 'bad'. This is probably close enough for you to understand the main idea, and you would be able to keep reading without looking it up. In addition to clues from the immediate sentence the unknown word is in, you can use the wider context of the surrounding paragraphs.

Remember, if a word starts with a capital letter (and is not at the beginning of a sentence) it is the name of a person, brand, organisation, place or event, so will not be in the dictionary.

English words are formed using a number of parts, including the root (which has a meaning usually taken from Greek or Latin) and base word, which can then be added to with prefixes (which go at the beginning of the word) and suffixes (which go at the end of the word). Recognising parts of words can help you identify what kind of word it is, eg a noun, verb, adjective or adverb etc. and understand its meaning.

Prefix Meaning Example
co- together cooperate, colleague
re– again repeat, replay
pre- before preview, prepaid
trans– across transport
mis- badly/incorrect mistake, misunderstand
inter- between international, interpret
over- too much/more oversleep, overpay

Root Meaning Example
mono one monosyllabic
logy study geology
cent one hundred century
multi many multiply
auto self automobile
tele far away telephone
port to carry transport

Suffix Part-of-speech Example
noun retirement
verb communicate
adjective accidental
-ly adverb quickly

If you learn to recognise and learn the meaning of common word roots, you will be better able to guess the meaning of more words, and once you know what type of word it is, you are likely to have a better idea of its potential meaning.

Deep reading (sometimes called slow reading) allows the reader to choose their own pace, and fully engage with the text. Using inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection and insight to fully comprehend what is being said, and consider how it relates to one's own experience and existing knowledge. These skills are fundamental to critical thinking.

Digital culture tends to emphasise immediacy, but deep reading is about deliberation in both reading and our thinking. Unlike reading fiction for pleasure, it is not about escape, it is about discovery.

You do not need to write a lot when note-taking, and if you want to use images, diagrams, flow charts etc. that is fine, but the discipline of deciding what the main points are can really help your focus and comprehension. The same is true of writing a summary of the main points.

The fact that something is written in a book does not make it true. Whoever wrote the book could have a number of biases, or limits to their knowledge. It is important, when reading to differentiate between information and the writer's viewpoint.

For example:
1. People keep dogs as pets. (If you look around your neighbourhood, you will probably be able to find evidence to support this statement).
2. Dogs are the best pets. (This is an opinion: not everyone would agree).

Always question what you read. Consider whether the argument is valid and can be supported by evidence.

Logical fallacies - those logical gaps that invalidate arguments - are easy to miss. Having an understanding of logical fallacies can help you more confidently challenge the arguments and claims you participate in and witness on a daily basis, and separate fact from fiction.

15 Common Logical Fallacies

1) The Bandwagon Fallacy
Just because a significant population of people believe a proposition is true, doesn't automatically make it true. Popularity alone is not enough to validate an argument, if they do not investigate counter claims, and consider expert opinion. Bandwagon arguments are often used in advertising.

Example: Three out of four people think X brand shampoo is best.

2) The Appeal to Authority Fallacy
Relying too heavily on the opinion of a single person, even an expert does not validate an argument without looking at other arguments and counter-arguments.

Example: Sir Reginald promotes this approach, so it must be right.

3) The False Dilemma Fallacy
By presenting complex issues as though there are two opposed sides, a number of possibilities, negotiations and compromises will be neglected.

Example: We either agree with this plan, or the project will fail. There is no other option.

4) Post Hoc Fallacy (from Latin, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” which means "after this, therefore because of this") also known as the Correlation/Causation Fallacy.
Claiming that since B always happens after A, then A must cause B. However, even if two things appear to be correlated, this doesn't necessarily indicate that one of those things irrefutably caused the other thing.

Example: After the cockerel crows, the sun comes up. Therefore, the cockerel must control the sun's movements.

5) The Hasty Generalization Fallacy
When a conclusion is decided upon without considering all the evidence or counterarguments.

Example: Two students in my class improved their grades after using a learning App. That proves all students should use it.

6) The Slothful Induction Fallacy
Slothful induction is the exact inverse of the hasty generalization fallacy above. This fallacy occurs when sufficient logical evidence strongly indicates a particular conclusion is true, but someone fails to acknowledge it, instead attributing the outcome to coincidence or something unrelated entirely.

Example: Even though every project Brad has managed in the last two years has run way behind schedule, I still think we can chalk it up to unfortunate circumstances, not his project management skills.

7) The Anecdotal Evidence Fallacy
In place of logical evidence, this fallacy substitutes examples from someone's personal experience. Arguments that rely heavily on anecdotal evidence tend to overlook the fact that one (possibly isolated) example can't stand alone as definitive proof of a greater premise.

Example: One of our clients doubled their conversions after changing all their landing page text to bright red. Therefore, changing all text to red is a proven way to double conversions.

8) Ad Hominem Fallacy
Attacking the person and not their argument. One manifestation of this argument fallacy is saying that the identity of a person disqualifies them from making or engaging in the argument itself. It’s attacking a person, such as their identity or character, instead of attacking their actual position in the argument.

Example: Cliff cannot be correct when he says that squares have right angles because he is a bad person and has been known to steal ideas and credit them for himself. The position that squares have right angles or not has been left untouched by this fallacy.

9) The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
This fallacy gets its colorful name from an anecdote about a Texan who fires his gun at a barn wall, and then proceeds to paint a target around the closest cluster of bullet holes. He then points at the bullet-riddled target as evidence of his expert marksmanship.

Speakers who rely on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy tend to cherry-pick data clusters based on a predetermined conclusion. Instead of letting a full spectrum of evidence lead them to a logical conclusion, they find patterns and correlations in support of their goals, and ignore evidence that contradicts them or suggests the clusters weren't actually statistically significant.

Example: Lisa sold her first startup to an influential tech company, so she must be a successful entrepreneur. (She ignores the fact that four of her startups have failed since then.)

10) The Middle Ground Fallacy
This fallacy assumes that a compromise between two extreme conflicting points is always true. Arguments of this style ignore the possibility that one or both of the extremes could be completely true or false - rendering any form of compromise between the two invalid as well.

Example: Lola thinks the best way to improve conversions is to redesign the entire company website, but John is firmly against making any changes to the website. Therefore, the best approach is to redesign some portions of the website.

11) The Burden of Proof Fallacy
If a person claims that X is true, it is their responsibility to provide evidence in support of that assertion. It is invalid to claim that X is true until someone else can prove that X is not true. Similarly, it is also invalid to claim that X is true because it's impossible to prove that X is false.

In other words, just because there is no evidence presented against something, that doesn't automatically make that thing true.

Example: Barbara believes the marketing agency's office is haunted, since no one has ever proven that it isn't haunted.

12) The Personal Incredulity Fallacy
If you have difficulty understanding how or why something is true, that doesn't automatically mean the thing in question is false. A personal or collective lack of understanding isn't enough to render a claim invalid.

Example: I don't understand how redesigning our website resulted in more conversions, so there must have been another factor at play.

13) The "No True Scotsman" Fallacy
Often used to protect assertions that rely on universal generalizations (like "all Marketers love pie") this fallacy inaccurately deflects counterexamples to a claim by changing the positioning or conditions of the original claim to exclude the counterexample.

In other words, instead of acknolwedging that a counterexample to their original claim exists, the speaker ammends the terms of the claim. In the example below, when Barbara presents a valid counterexample to John's claim, John changes the terms of his claim to exclude Barbara's counterexample.

Example: John: No marketer would ever put two call-to-actions on a single landing page.

Barbara: Lola, a marketer, actually found great success putting two call-to-actions on a single landing page for our last campaign.

John: Well, no true marketer would put two call-to-actions on a single landing page, so Lola must not be a true marketer.

14) The Tu quoque Fallacy
The tu quoque fallacy (Latin for "you also") is an invalid attempt to discredit an opponent by answering criticism with criticism - but never actually presenting a counterargument to the original disputed claim.

In the example below, Lola makes a claim. Instead of presenting evidence against Lola's claim, John levels a claim against Lola. This attack doesn't actually help John succeed in proving Lola wrong, since he doesn't address her original claim in any capacity.

Example: Lola: I don't think John would be a good fit to manage this project, because he doesn't have a lot of experience with project management.

John: But you don't have a lot of experience in project management either!

15) The Fallacy Fallacy
Here's something vital to keep in mind when sniffing out fallacies: just because someone's argument relies on a fallacy doesn't necessarily mean that their claim is inherently untrue.

Making a fallacy-riddled claim doesn't automatically invalidate the premise of the argument - it just means the argument doesn't actually validate their premise. In other words, their argument sucks, but they aren't necessarily wrong.

Struggling to get to grips with University reading?
If you have problems concentrating, and fully understanding what you are reading, you are not alone, but reading, like any skill, gets easier with practice, so schedule the time to read regularly, and try the strategies below.

Read around the subject
If you are reading about a well-known theory, practice or topic, there are usually easier, introduction-type books available:

Reread the important sections
Accept that academic reading demands extra time and attention, slow down and reread difficult sections.

Discuss what you read with other students and your tutors
Discussing texts with other students can be really helpful, in that it gives you practice articulating your responses and understanding of texts, and of hearing other people's interpretations, which can stimulate your own ideas and ways of thinking.

If you are still struggling, book an appointment with one of the Learning Development Tutors either online or at your campus.

Essays are designed to demonstrate your ability to select, synthesize and evaluate research findings, all of which require critical thinking. Additionally, you need to be able to articulate your claims and build an argument using evidence, whilst adhering to academic conventions. Please see the essay writing guide here. (link to essay writing guide)

As Bryan Greetham, author of the book: How to Write Better Essays (2018) asserts:

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities...You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

For more help, see Essay Writing.

Critical thinking is an essential part of creative, innovative design in your practice. 

Below are a number of tools to help you critically think through your options in a creative design project:

Look for the problems, the obstacles that might prevent your project from succeeding - then work backwards, how could you prevent them from occuring?

SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt
  • Modify
  • Put to another use
  • Eliminate
  • Revers


You use the tool by asking questions about existing artefacts, designs and products, using each of the seven prompts above. These questions help you consider how changing different aspects might lead to innovation and change.

For further information, watch this video:

A SWOT analysis enables you to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of your project.


Critical thinking is closely related to reflection and evaluation, both of which are important when considering the development of your creative practice.

Learning Development Tutors work with students to help ensure they have the knowledge, skills and confidence to be successful learners.  For more information about Learning Development Tutors and to book a tutorial see - Learning Development Tutors.

Further Reading