What is critical thinking? Definition and a summary of process

When I have started my PhD programme, I remember wondering what precisely this critical thinking thing is? Although I had a feeling what how to think critically, I definitely had trouble articulating its components. Here are my thoughts on critical thinking to get you thinking (critically ;)):

Critical thinking – definition

Critical thinking is an objective analysis and appraisal of the topic followed by a formulation of judgement (source: google dictionary, paraphrased).

Side note: I could not find a definition of critical thinking in Collins online dictionary – why?

I see two issues with this definition. Firstly, the objective analysis, although we aim at it, is more often that not, unattainable. It is highly unlikely that we know everything, and therefore the assessment is already biased by the availability of sources on the topic. Secondly, judgement seems to be an ultimate and final verdict, which is rarely a case in science. Maybe the words temporary or until the next iteration, could be added to better reflect the reality.

What I was trying to do here is an example (quick and dirty example) of critical appraisal on the topic of critical thinking definition. Critical thinking is a little bit similar to changing into a grumpy person with a magnifying glass. The person does not want to learn or change and tries to decompose bit by bit whatever is in front of them (the topic). Only the things which withstand the attack can stay, the rest has to leave.

As we have a definition out of the way, we can look now at the component of critical thinking and the process itself.

Critical thinking – process

Get your question right

Formulate what the problem or the topic you want to learn about is? What is the research question?

Write the problem down, in versions if they are possible. Try to go as narrow and as precise as you can. The more focused your question is, the higher are the chances that one of two desirable things will happen: either you will get a clear answer, or you will find a gap in the “literature”/knowledge.

Deconstruct the problem

Can you decompose the problem into smaller parts? Are there any components, elements, parts or variations possible within a problem itself? What are the assumptions? Are the assumptions valid? What happens if you change the assumptions?

Especially the part about assumptions is important. Rarely in science we go so broad that the assumptions do not matter. Usually they do, the devil is in the detail.

Gather information

Gather all you can on the topic. Use all the sources available. Don’t be critical just yet. Look for all the data you can find, go broad.


Now is the time to assess what is known and proven. What are the facts.

Evaluate what is not known. Look for overstatements, manipulation, and bias.

Try to look at the arguments from different angles. Change the assumptions.

Assess the arguments in terms of quantity and quality of evidence to support them. Do it for all the arguments, also the ones you do not agree with.  Summarise all the information you have found. Judge the arguments against each other.

How what you have just learnt relates to your own knowledge, believes and experiences? What have surprised you during the analysis?

Formulate conclusions

Formulate conclusions as the answer to your question looking through the lens of your data analysis. Take into account not only the key points but also their quality. Did you answer your research question? Do your results changed how you think about the topic now?

To double-check your conclusions you can ask some additional questions. For example, are you able to disprove or exclude an opinion opposing to your conclusion?

Consider implications

Explore what your findings may mean for you? How the conclusions can be applied in practice or a real life?

So here you go, this is a short summary of the critical thinking in a few steps. What would you add?

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