Chapter 8: Thinking, Communicating & Problem-Solving

Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving

Assess your critical thinking strategies

  • Visit the Quia Critical Thinking Quiz page and click on Start Now (you don’t need to enter your name).
  • Select the best answer for each question, and then click on Submit Answers. A score of 70 percent or better on this quiz is considered passing.
  • Based on the content of the questions, do you feel you use good critical thinking strategies in college? In what ways could you improve as a critical thinker?
blue and green peacock feather
The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. —Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist

Critical Thinking

As a college student, you are tasked with engaging and expanding your thinking skills. One of the most important of these skills is critical thinking. Critical thinking is important because it relates to nearly all tasks, situations, topics, careers, environments, challenges, and opportunities. It’s a discipline-general thinking skill, not a thinking skill that’s reserved for a one subject alone or restricted to a particular content area. Of all your thinking skills, critical thinking may have the greatest value.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do. It means asking probing questions like, “How do we know?” or “Is this true in every case or just in this instance?” It involves being skeptical and challenging assumptions, rather than simply memorizing facts or blindly accepting what you hear or read. Critical thinking skills will help you in any profession or any circumstance of life, from science to art to business to teaching.

Critical thinkers are curious and reflective people. They explore and probe new areas and seek knowledge, clarification, and solutions. They ask pertinent questions, evaluate statements and arguments, and distinguish between facts and opinion. They are also willing to examine their own beliefs, possessing a manner of humility that allows them to admit lack of knowledge or understanding when needed. Critical thinkers are open to changing their mind. Perhaps most of all, they actively enjoy learning and view seeking new knowledge as a lifelong pursuit.

Thinking critically will help you develop more balanced arguments, express yourself clearly, read more critically, and glean important information efficiently. With critical thinking, you become a clearer thinker and problem solver.

What Critical Thinking Is What Critical Thinking Is Not
Skepticism Memorizing
Examining assumptions Group thinking
Challenging reasoning Blind acceptance of authority
Uncovering biases Believing stereotypes

The following video, from Lawrence Bland, presents the major concepts and benefits of critical thinking.

The Role of Logic in Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is fundamentally a process of questioning information and data. You may question the information you read in a textbook, or you may question what a politician or a professor or a classmate says. You can also question a commonly-held belief or a new idea. With critical thinking, anything and everything is subject to question and examination for the purpose of logically constructing reasoned perspectives.

The word logic comes from the Ancient Greek logike, referring to the science or art of reasoning. Using logic, a person evaluates arguments and reasoning and strives to distinguish between good and bad reasoning or between truth and falsehood. Using logic, you can evaluate ideas or claims people make, make good decisions, and form sound beliefs about the world.[1]. Logical thinkers provide reasonable and appropriate evidence to support their claims, acknowledge the strengths of the opposing side’s position, actively investigate a variety of possible outcomes or new solutions, and use measured and objective language to present their positions.

Clarify Thinking

When you use critical thinking to evaluate information, you need to clarify your thinking to yourself and likely to others. Doing this well is mainly a process of asking and answering logical, probing questions. Design your questions to fit your needs, but be sure to cover adequate ground.

  • What is the purpose?
  • What question are we trying to answer?
  • What point of view is being expressed?
  • What assumptions are we or others making?
  • What are the facts and data we know, and how do we know them?
  • What are the concepts we’re working with?
  • What are the conclusions, and do they make sense?
  • What are the implications?

Avoid Fallacies

You’ll also want to make sure you can avoid and spot logical fallacies. Fallacies are faults in thinking or illogical approaches used to persuade the other side. Statements such as, everyone else is doing it can be very persuasive even though they demonstrate faulty logic, in this case, the bandwagon appeal. These fallacies can undermine your authority and weaken your position. Students shouldn’t park in the faculty lot because that lot is for faculty is another example of a logical fallacy, this time circular reasoning.

Consult the two websites below to identify and avoid some of the many kinds of logical fallacies:

Applying critical thinking

The following questions may apply to formulating a logical, reasoned perspective in the scenario below or any other situation:

  1. What is happening? Gather the basic information and begin to think of questions.
  2. Why is it important? Ask yourself why it’s significant and whether or not you agree.
  3. What don’t I see? Is there anything important missing?
  4. How do I know? Ask yourself where the information came from and how it was constructed.
  5. Who is saying it? What’s the position of the speaker and what is influencing them?
  6. What else? What if? What other ideas exist and are there other possibilities?

A man has a Ph.D. in political science, and he works as a professor at a local college. His wife works at the college, too. They have three young children in the local school system, and their family is well known in the community. The man is now running for political office.

Are his credentials and experience sufficient for entering public office? Will he be effective in political office? Some voters might believe that his personal life and current job, on the surface, suggest he will do well in the position, and they will vote for him. In truth, the characteristics described don’t guarantee that the man will do a good job. The information is somewhat irrelevant.

What else might you want to know? How about whether the man had already held a political office and done a good job? In this case, we want to ask, How much information is adequate in order to make a decision based on logic instead of assumptions?

Problem-Solving with Critical Thinking

For most people, a typical day is filled with critical thinking and problem-solving challenges. In fact, critical thinking and problem-solving go hand-in-hand. They both refer to using knowledge, facts, and data to solve problems effectively, but with problem-solving, you are specifically identifying, selecting, and defending your solution.

Applying the strategies described in the action checklist below can help you utilize critical thinking skills to solve problems.

STRATEGIES ACTION CHECKLIST[2]
1 Define the problem
  • Identify the problem
  • Provide as many supporting details as possible
  • Provide examples
  • Organize the information logically
2 Identify available solutions
  • Use logic to identify your most important goals
  • Identify implications and consequences
  • Identify facts
  • Compare and contrast possible solutions
3 Select your solution
  • Use gathered facts and relevant evidence
  • Consider the likely outcome of each possible solution
  • Eliminate invalid solutions
  • Commit to an appropriate course of action

Problem-solving can be an efficient and rewarding process, especially if you are organized and mindful of critical steps and strategies. Remember, too, to assume the attributes of a good critical thinker. If you are curious, reflective, knowledge-seeking, open to change, probing, organized, and ethical, your challenge or problem will be less of a hurdle, and you’ll be in a good position to find intelligent solutions.

Check out the following video that shows visual problem-solving steps including stage, populate, arrange, choose, and execute:

How might using the methods in the video, especially using videos, help you solve problems?

Developing Yourself As a Critical Thinker and Problem-Solver

Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for college students, but it should also be a lifelong pursuit that we continually refine. Below are additional strategies to develop yourself as a critical thinker in college and in everyday life:

  • Reflect and practice: Always reflect on what you’ve learned. Is it true all the time? How did you arrive at your conclusions?
  • Use wasted time: It’s certainly important to make time for relaxing, but if you find you are indulging in too much of a good thing, think about using your time more constructively. Determine when you do your best thinking and try to learn something new during that part of the day.
  • Redefine the way you see things: It can be very uninteresting to always think the same way. Challenge yourself to see familiar things in new ways. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider a certain situation from a different angle or perspective. If you’re trying to solve a problem, list all your concerns, such as what you need in order to solve it, who can help, and what some possible barriers might be. It’s often possible to reframe a problem as an opportunity. Try to find a solution where there seems to be none.
  • Analyze the influences on your thinking and in your life: Why do you think or feel the way you do? Analyze your influences. Think about who in your life influences you. Do you feel or react a certain way because of social convention or because you believe it is what is expected of you? Try to break out of any molds that may be constricting you.
  • Express yourself: Critical thinking also involves being able to express yourself clearly. Most important in expressing yourself clearly is stating one point at a time. You might be inclined to argue every thought, but you might have greater impact if you focus only on your main arguments. This will help others to follow your thinking clearly. For more abstract ideas, assume that your audience may not understand. Provide examples, analogies, or metaphors where you can.
  • Enhance your wellness: It’s easier to think critically when you take care of your mental and physical health. Try taking 10-minute activity breaks to reach 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Try taking a break between classes and walk to the coffee shop that’s farthest away. Scheduling physical activity into your day can help lower stress and increase mental alertness.
  • Do your most difficult work when you have the most energy: Think about the time of day you are most effective and have the most energy. Plan to do your most difficult thinking during these times.

Reflect on critical thinking

  • Think about someone whom you consider to be a critical thinker (friend, professor, historical figure, etc). What qualities does he/she have?
  • Review some of the critical thinking strategies discussed on this page. Choose one strategy that makes sense to you. How can you apply this critical thinking technique to your academic work?
  • Habits of mind are attitudes and beliefs that influence how you approach the world (inquiring attitude, open mind, respect for truth, etc.). What is one habit of mind you would like to actively develop over the next year? How will you develop a daily practice to cultivate this habit?

Cultivate Critical Habits of Mind

Earlier in this text we discussed, “habits of mind,” the personal commitments, values, and standards people have about the principle of good thinking. Consider your intellectual commitments, values, and standards. Do you approach problems with an open mind, a respect for truth, and an inquiring attitude? Some good habits to have when thinking critically are being receptive to having your opinions changed, having respect for others, being independent and not accepting something is true until you’ve had the time to examine the available evidence. Other important habits of mind include being fair-minded, having respect for a reason, having an inquiring mind, not making assumptions, and always, especially, questioning your own conclusions. In their quest towards developing an intellectual work ethic, critical thinkers constantly try to work these qualities into their daily lives.

 Problem-solving with critical thinking

Below are some examples of using critical thinking to problem-solve. Can you think of additional action steps to apply to the following situations? You may want to look back to Chapter 2 “Defining Goals” to utilize the five step problem solving strategy described there.

  • Your roommate was upset and said some unkind words to you, which has put a crimp in the relationship. You try to see through the angry behaviors to determine how you might best support your roommate and help bring the relationship back to a comfortable spot.
  • Your campus club has been languishing on account of lack of participation and funds. The new club president, though, is a marketing major and has identified some strategies to interest students in joining and supporting the club. Implementation is forthcoming.
  • Your final art class project challenges you to conceptualize form in new ways. On the last day of class when students present their projects, you describe the techniques you used to fulfill the assignment. You explain why and how you selected that approach.
  • Your math teacher sees that the class is not quite grasping a concept. She uses clever questioning to dispel anxiety and guide you to new understanding of the concept.
  • You have a job interview for a position that you feel you are only partially qualified for, although you really want the job and you are excited about the prospects. You analyze how you will explain your skills and experiences in a way to show that you are a good match for the prospective employer.
  • You are doing well in college, and most of your college and living expenses are covered. But there are some gaps between what you want and what you feel you can afford. You analyze your income, savings, and budget to better calculate what you will need to stay in college and maintain your desired level of spending.

  1. "logike." Wordnik. n.d. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  2. "Student Success-Thinking Critically In Class and Online." Critical Thinking Gateway. St Petersburg College, n.d. Web. 16 Feb 2016.

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