At university, you may hear the phrase ‘critical thinking’ used quite often. You may be wondering: what is critical thinking, and how do you do it?

Most of us are used to hearing the word ‘critical’ and assuming this means to find fault or the ‘bad points’ of something. But in academic language, ‘critical’ means to be questioning, to critique something to understand the positive and negative elements, and to understand more about a source or idea.

Let’s consider critical thinking using a simple example.

You want to find a good movie to watch on the weekend. There are two films you like the sound of, and you can’t choose between them. You decide to read some movie reviews online. One reviewer really loves movie 1 but hates movie 2. Another loves both movies. A third reviewer says that both were pretty boring but recommends another movie.

If you were not thinking critically, you might think that every one of these is correct without challenging or questioning the review and what factors might influence the author’s opinion. For example, reviewer 1 might not like the director of movie 2, so they might write a bad review without even watching the film. The second reviewer might love every single movie they see, so getting a positive review from that reviewer doesn’t tell us much. Thinking like this about each review is an example of critical thinking. This may not tell you what movie you will like the most, but you are now aware of the factors that may influence different opinions and arguments.

In assignments such as essays, students are often encouraged to display critical thinking. This means that you are required to do more than describe sources and arguments you find online. You need to critically engage with the information you find, like in the example above. This involves:

  • Reasoning to form a judgement and justify an opinion
  • Identifying useful information and the factors that influence reliability and credibility of a source
  • Analysing information in order to understand, interpret and explain it
  • Reflecting on your own thinking, behaviour and actions and how these can impact your assessment or interpretation of information
  • Evaluating information or an argument, and making a judgement or conclusion about it.

These skills take time to develop, so don’t worry if this sounds like a lot to learn! These skills will help you well beyond a university degree, as critical thinking is an important lifelong skill for any career.

And we are here to help!  You can access an online drop-in with a Library Team member and complete the Research and Learning Online Critical Thinking Tutorial here.


Author Katherine Brabon is a Learning Skills Adviser in the Law Library.