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Defining Critical Thinking

  • A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking
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  • Our Conception of Critical Thinking
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  • Critical Societies: Thoughts from the Past

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Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

Profile image of Jennifer W Mulnix

Educational Philosophy and Theory

As a philosophy professor, one of my central goals is to teach students to think critically. However, one difficulty with determining whether critical thinking can be taught, or even measured, is that there is widespread disagreement over what critical thinking actually is. Here, I reflect on several conceptions of critical thinking, subjecting them to critical scrutiny. I also distinguish critical thinking from other forms of mental processes with which it is often conflated. Next, I present my own conception of critical thinking, wherein it fundamentally consists in acquiring, developing, and exercising the ability to grasp inferential connections holding between statements. Finally, given this account of critical thinking, and given recent studies in cognitive science, I suggest the most effective means for teaching students to think critically.

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Critical Thinking: The Development of an Essential Skill for Nursing Students

Ioanna v. papathanasiou.

1 Nursing Department, Technological Educational Institute of Thessaly, Greece

Christos F. Kleisiaris

2 Nursing Department, Technological Educational Institute of Crete, Greece

Evangelos C. Fradelos

3 State Mental Hospital of Attica “Daphne”, Greece

Katerina Kakou

Lambrini kourkouta.

4 Nursing Department, Alexander Technological Educational Institute of Thessaloniki, Greece

Critical thinking is defined as the mental process of actively and skillfully perception, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of collected information through observation, experience and communication that leads to a decision for action. In nursing education there is frequent reference to critical thinking and to the significance that it has in daily clinical nursing practice. Nursing clinical instructors know that students face difficulties in making decisions related to clinical practice. The main critical thinking skills in which nursing students should be exercised during their studies are critical analysis, introductory and concluding justification, valid conclusion, distinguish of facts and opinions, evaluation the credibility of information sources, clarification of concepts and recognition of conditions. Specific behaviors are essentials for enhancing critical thinking. Nursing students in order to learn and apply critical thinking should develop independence of thought, fairness, perspicacity in personal and social level, humility, spiritual courage, integrity, perseverance, self-confidence, interest for research and curiosity. Critical thinking is an essential process for the safe, efficient and skillful nursing practice. The nursing education programs should adopt attitudes that promote critical thinking and mobilize the skills of critical reasoning.


Critical thinking is applied by nurses in the process of solving problems of patients and decision-making process with creativity to enhance the effect. It is an essential process for a safe, efficient and skillful nursing intervention. Critical thinking according to Scriven and Paul is the mental active process and subtle perception, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information collected or derived from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or the communication leading to conviction for action ( 1 ).

So, nurses must adopt positions that promote critical thinking and refine skills of critical reasoning in order a meaningful assessment of both the previous and the new information and decisions taken daily on hospitalization and use of limited resources, forces you to think and act in cases where there are neither clear answers nor specific procedures and where opposing forces transform decision making in a complex process ( 2 ).

Critical thinking applies to nurses as they have diverse multifaceted knowledge to handle the various situations encountered during their shifts still face constant changes in an environment with constant stress of changing conditions and make important decisions using critical thinking to collect and interpret information that are necessary for making a decision ( 3 ).

Critical thinking, combined with creativity, refine the result as nurses can find specific solutions to specific problems with creativity taking place where traditional interventions are not effective. Even with creativity, nurses generate new ideas quickly, get flexible and natural, create original solutions to problems, act independently and with confidence, even under pressure, and demonstrate originality ( 4 ).

The aim of the study is to present the basic skills of critical thinking, to highlight critical thinking as a essential skill for nursing education and a fundamental skill for decision making in nursing practice. Moreover to indicate the positive effect and relation that critical thinking has on professional outcomes.


Nurses in their efforts to implement critical thinking should develop some methods as well as cognitive skills required in analysis, problem solving and decision making ( 5 ). These skills include critical analysis, introductory and concluding justification, valid conclusion, distinguishing facts and opinions to assess the credibility of sources of information, clarification of concepts, and recognition conditions ( 6 , 7 ).

Critical analysis is applied to a set of questions that relate to the event or concept for the determination of important information and ideas and discarding the unnecessary ones. It is, thus, a set of criteria to rationalize an idea where one must know all the questions but to use the appropriate one in this case ( 8 ).

The Socratic Method, where the question and the answer are sought, is a technique in which one can investigate below the surface, recognize and examine the condition, look for the consequences, investigate the multiple data views and distinguish between what one knows and what he simply believes. This method should be implemented by nurses at the end of their shifts, when reviewing patient history and progress, planning the nursing plan or discussing the treatment of a patient with colleagues ( 9 ).

The Inference and Concluding justification are two other critical thinking skills, where the justification for inductive generalizations formed from a set of data and observations, which when considered together, specific pieces of information constitute a special interpretation ( 10 ). In contrast, the justification is deduced from the general to the specific. According to this, nurse starts from a conceptual framework–for example, the prioritization of needs by Maslow or a context–evident and gives descriptive interpretation of the patient’s condition with respect to this framework. So, the nurse who uses drawing needs categorizes information and defines the problem of the patient based on eradication, nutrition or need protection.

In critical thinking, the nurses still distinguish claims based on facts, conclusions, judgments and opinions. The assessment of the reliability of information is an important stage of critical thinking, where the nurse needs to confirm the accuracy of this information by checking other evidence and informants ( 10 ).

The concepts are ideas and opinions that represent objects in the real world and the importance of them. Each person has developed its own concepts, where they are nested by others, either based on personal experience or study or other activities. For a clear understanding of the situation of the patient, the nurse and the patient should be in agreement with the importance of concepts.

People also live under certain assumptions. Many believe that people generally have a generous nature, while others believe that it is a human tendency to act in its own interest. The nurse must believe that life should be considered as invaluable regardless of the condition of the patient, with the patient often believing that quality of life is more important than duration. Nurse and patient, realizing that they can make choices based on these assumptions, can work together for a common acceptable nursing plan ( 11 ).


The person applying critical thinking works to develop the following attitudes and characteristics independence of thought, fairness, insight into the personal and public level, humble intellect and postpone the crisis, spiritual courage, integrity, perseverance, self-confidence, research interest considerations not only behind the feelings and emotions but also behind the thoughts and curiosity ( 12 ).

Independence of Thought

Individuals who apply critical thinking as they mature acquire knowledge and experiences and examine their beliefs under new evidence. The nurses do not remain to what they were taught in school, but are “open-minded” in terms of different intervention methods technical skills.


Those who apply critical thinking are independent in different ways, based on evidence and not panic or personal and group biases. The nurse takes into account the views of both the younger and older family members.

Perspicacity into Personal and Social Factors

Those who are using critical thinking and accept the possibility that their personal prejudices, social pressures and habits could affect their judgment greatly. So, they try to actively interpret their prejudices whenever they think and decide.

Humble Cerebration and Deferral Crisis

Humble intellect means to have someone aware of the limits of his own knowledge. So, those who apply critical thinking are willing to admit they do not know something and believe that what we all consider rectum cannot always be true, because new evidence may emerge.

Spiritual Courage

The values and beliefs are not always obtained by rationality, meaning opinions that have been researched and proven that are supported by reasons and information. The courage should be true to their new ground in situations where social penalties for incompatibility are strict. In many cases the nurses who supported an attitude according to which if investigations are proved wrong, they are canceled.

Use of critical thinking to mentally intact individuals question their knowledge and beliefs quickly and thoroughly and cause the knowledge of others so that they are willing to admit and appreciate inconsistencies of both their own beliefs and the beliefs of the others.


The perseverance shown by nurses in exploring effective solutions for patient problems and nursing each determination helps to clarify concepts and to distinguish related issues despite the difficulties and failures. Using critical thinking they resist the temptation to find a quick and simple answer to avoid uncomfortable situations such as confusion and frustration.

Confidence in the Justification

According to critical thinking through well motivated reasoning leads to reliable conclusions. Using critical thinking nurses develop both the inductive and the deductive reasoning. The nurse gaining more experience of mental process and improvement, does not hesitate to disagree and be troubled thereby acting as a role model to colleagues, inspiring them to develop critical thinking.

Interesting Thoughts and Feelings for Research

Nurses need to recognize, examine and inspect or modify the emotions involved with critical thinking. So, if they feel anger, guilt and frustration for some event in their work, they should follow some steps: To restrict the operations for a while to avoid hasty conclusions and impulsive decisions, discuss negative feelings with a trusted, consume some of the energy produced by emotion, for example, doing calisthenics or walking, ponder over the situation and determine whether the emotional response is appropriate. After intense feelings abate, the nurse will be able to proceed objectively to necessary conclusions and to take the necessary decisions.

The internal debate, that has constantly in mind that the use of critical thinking is full of questions. So, a research nurse calculates traditions but does not hesitate to challenge them if you do not confirm their validity and reliability.


In their shifts nurses act effectively without using critical thinking as many decisions are mainly based on habit and have a minimum reflection. Thus, higher critical thinking skills are put into operation, when some new ideas or needs are displayed to take a decision beyond routine. The nursing process is a systematic, rational method of planning and providing specialized nursing ( 13 ). The steps of the nursing process are assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, evaluation. The health care is setting the priorities of the day to apply critical thinking ( 14 ). Each nurse seeks awareness of reasoning as he/she applies the criteria and considerations and as thinking evolves ( 15 ).

Problem Solving

Problem solving helps to acquire knowledge as nurse obtains information explaining the nature of the problem and recommends possible solutions which evaluate and select the application of the best without rejecting them in a possible appeal of the original. Also, it approaches issues when solving problems that are often used is the empirical method, intuition, research process and the scientific method modified ( 16 ).

Experiential Method

This method is mainly used in home care nursing interventions where they cannot function properly because of the tools and equipment that are incomplete ( 17 ).

Intuition is the perception and understanding of concepts without the conscious use of reasoning. As a problem solving approach, as it is considered by many, is a form of guessing and therefore is characterized as an inappropriate basis for nursing decisions. But others see it as important and legitimate aspect of the crisis gained through knowledge and experience. The clinical experience allows the practitioner to recognize items and standards and approach the right conclusions. Many nurses are sensing the evolution of the patient’s condition which helps them to act sooner although the limited information. Despite the fact that the intuitive method of solving problems is recognized as part of nursing practice, it is not recommended for beginners or students because the cognitive level and the clinical experience is incomplete and does not allow a valid decision ( 16 ).

Research Process / Scientifically Modified Method

The research method is a worded, rational and systematic approach to problem solving. Health professionals working in uncontrolled situations need to implement a modified approach of the scientific method of problem solving. With critical thinking being important in all processes of problem solving, the nurse considers all possible solutions and decides on the choice of the most appropriate solution for each case ( 18 ).

The Decision

The decision is the selection of appropriate actions to fulfill the desired objective through critical thinking. Decisions should be taken when several exclusive options are available or when there is a choice of action or not. The nurse when facing multiple needs of patients, should set priorities and decide the order in which they help their patients. They should therefore: a) examine the advantages and disadvantages of each option, b) implement prioritization needs by Maslow, c) assess what actions can be delegated to others, and d) use any framework implementation priorities. Even nurses make decisions about their personal and professional lives. The successive stages of decision making are the Recognition of Objective or Purpose, Definition of criteria, Calculation Criteria, Exploration of Alternative Solutions, Consideration of Alternative Solutions, Design, Implementation, Evaluation result ( 16 ).

The contribution of critical thinking in decision making

Acquiring critical thinking and opinion is a question of practice. Critical thinking is not a phenomenon and we should all try to achieve some level of critical thinking to solve problems and make decisions successfully ( 19 - 21 ).

It is vital that the alteration of growing research or application of the Socratic Method or other technique since nurses revise the evaluation criteria of thinking and apply their own reasoning. So when they have knowledge of their own reasoning-as they apply critical thinking-they can detect syllogistic errors ( 22 – 26 ).


In responsible positions nurses should be especially aware of the climate of thought that is implemented and actively create an environment that stimulates and encourages diversity of opinion and research ideas ( 27 ). The nurses will also be applied to investigate the views of people from different cultures, religions, social and economic levels, family structures and different ages. Managing nurses should encourage colleagues to scrutinize the data prior to draw conclusions and to avoid “group thinking” which tends to vary without thinking of the will of the group. Critical thinking is an essential process for the safe, efficient and skillful nursing practice. The nursing education programs should adopt attitudes that promote critical thinking and mobilize the skills of critical reasoning.



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Critical Thinking Defined

Critical thinking as defined by the national council for excellence in critical thinking, 1987.

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

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7 What Critical Thinking Is

Alec fisher, introduction [1].

The modern “critical thinking” tradition has been developed by a number of leading thinkers, assisted by many others who have made contributions of their own. In this essay I will explain the ideas of these leading thinkers, showing how they have successively enriched the tradition whilst remaining true to its core ideas, with the result that we now have a rich and essentially coherent conception that can be used as a basis for designing lesson plans and for assessing critical thinking abilities.

It is not uncommon for this core tradition to claim that Socrates was the originator of this approach to teaching and learning and this is worth remembering because it is clearly important to some of the contributors below and can help to maintain focus when questions arise.

1. John Dewey, “reflective” thinking (1909)

It is generally agreed that the modern critical thinking tradition derives from the work of the American philosopher, psychologist and educator, John Dewey (1859–1952). He called it “reflective thinking” and defined it as:

Active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey, 1909, p. 9)

It is worth unpacking this definition because its elements have remained part of the core. Characteristically then, critical thinking involves “actively” subjecting the ideas we encounter to critical scrutiny, as distinct from just passively accepting them. For Dewey, and for everyone who has worked in this tradition subsequently, critical thinking is essentially an “active” process, one in which we think things through for ourselves, raise questions ourselves, find relevant information ourselves, etc., rather than learning in a largely passive way from someone else.

Again, characteristically the critical thinker takes time to weigh matters carefully—to “persist” and be “careful”—by contrast with the kind of unreflective thinking in which we all engage sometimes, for example when we “jump” to a conclusion or make a “snap” decision. Of course, we have to do this sometimes because we need to decide quickly or the issue is not important enough to warrant careful thought, but often we do it when we ought to stop and think—when we ought to “persist” a bit.

However, the most important thing about Dewey’s definition is what he says about the “grounds which support” a belief and the “further conclusions to which it tends”. The critical thinking tradition attaches huge importance to reasoning, to giving reasons and to evaluating reasoning as well as possible, and to valuing this focus. Characteristically, the critical thinker tries to reason skillfully in thinking about issues, by contrast with those who are unreasonable, unreflective, biased or dogmatic. There is more to be said about the components of Dewey’s definition, but skillful reasoning is a key element.

2. Edward Glaser, building on Dewey’s ideas (1941)

In the late 1930s Edward Glaser conducted a famous experiment in teaching critical thinking and, to his credit, he wanted to assess whether his methods had been successful, so he designed (along with co-author Goodwin Watson) what has become the world’s single most widely used test of critical thinking, the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. Glaser’s remarkable experiment was a model for critical thinkers in that he tried to assess whether his teaching approach had succeeded.

Glaser defined critical thinking as:

(1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experience; (2) knowledge of the methods of logical enquiry and reasoning; and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Glaser, 1941, p. 5)

This definition clearly owes a lot to Dewey’s original definition. Glaser refers to “evidence” in place of “grounds” but otherwise the second sentence is much the same. The first sentence speaks about an “attitude” or disposition to be thoughtful about problems and recognizes that one can apply what he calls “the methods of logical enquiry and reasoning” with more or less “skill”. The tradition has picked up on both these elements, recognizing that critical thinking is partly a matter of having certain thinking skills, but is also a matter of being disposed to use them (someone might be very skilled at, say, turning somersaults, but might not be disposed to do so).

Like many others who have worked in the critical thinking tradition, Glaser produces a list of the thinking skills that he sees as basic to or underlying critical thinking. In his case, these are the abilities:

(a) to recognize problems, (b) to find workable means for meeting those problems, (c) to gather and marshal pertinent information, (d) to recognize unstated assumptions and values, (e) to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity and discrimination, (f) to interpret data, (g) to appraise evidence and evaluate statements, (h) to recognize the existence of logical relationships between propositions, (i) to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, (j) to put to test the generalizations and conclusions at which one arrives, (k) to reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience; and (l) to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life. (Glaser, 1941, p. 6)

Much influenced by Dewey, Glaser also saw scientific thinking as a model of “reflective thinking”, and this list is probably best understood as relating especially to scientific and similar thinking. It does, however, contain many elements that have been picked up by subsequent workers in the field. For more recent thinking see Facione (1990 and 2010) or Fisher and Scriven (1997, Chapter 3).

3. Robert Ennis and a widely used definition

Few people have contributed as much to the development of the critical thinking tradition as Robert Ennis. In 1962 he published a seminal paper “A Concept of Critical Thinking” and he has continued to contribute to the field ever since. His 1962 definition of critical thinking as “the correct assessing of statements” was too narrow and made no reference to critical thinking dispositions and habits of mind (see Siegel (1988) Ch.1 section 1), but he has developed many ideas in the field since then. The definition for which he is best known, and which has gained wide acceptance in the field, is:

Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do. (See Norris and Ennis, 1989)

Again, the emphasis is on being “reasonable” and “reflective”, which is in line with earlier definitions, but notice also that Ennis speaks of “deciding what to . . . do”, which was not explicitly mentioned earlier. Since for Dewey the model of critical thinking was scientific thinking, he was largely concerned with what we believe, but on Ennis’s conception deciding what to do is a proper part of critical thinking too; and one can do this with more or less skill, with more or less reflection, more or less reasonably, etc. Although some people have criticized this definition, its meaning is clear and it has been very widely used.

Like Glaser, Ennis has produced increasingly developed lists of critical thinking abilities and dispositions (Ennis (1987), (1991), 1996), (2011)) and we shall return to the latest of these shortly.

4. Richard Paul, “strong” critical thinking and “thinking about your thinking”

For some forty years, working within the evolving tradition outlined so far, Richard Paul developed his ideas about critical thinking, notably by introducing ideas about “fair-mindedness” and “strong” critical thinking into the tradition. “Fair-mindedness” and “strong” critical thinking require that thinkers take assumptions and perspectives that are quite different from their own just as seriously as their own . This is not easy to do, but Paul’s ideas have been influential and have contributed significantly to the development of the tradition.

Paul famously distinguished between “weak” and “strong” critical thinking. Both of these are to be contrasted with “uncritical thinking”, which is simply not reasoning things through very well. People who think uncritically are not clarifying issues as they should, assessing assumptions and implications, giving and critiquing reasons, applying intellectual standards, expecting people to give reasons for their actions and beliefs and valuing this, etc. Most people will be uncritical thinkers in some domains of their lives but Paul believed that most people are uncritical in many domains of their lives.

By contrast, those who engage in what Paul calls “weak” critical thinking might be good at reasoning things through, but such people will use this skill only to pursue issues from their own perspective, to pursue their own interests (narrowly conceived), to defend their own position, and to serve their own ends, without questioning these—without subjecting their own beliefs, assumptions and presuppositions to scrutiny. Most of us will be “weak” critical thinkers some of the time.

Someone who engages in “strong” critical thinking will also display skill at reasoning things through—will clarify issues where necessary, will assess assumptions and implications, give relevant reasons, apply intellectual standards, etc. But such a person (as contrasted with both the uncritical and the weakly critical thinkers) will not simply use this skill narrowly to defend their own position and interests, but will also employ it just as readily to scruti nise their own thoughts, beliefs and actions, their own judgements about their interests, their own goals, their own perspectives, even their own “world view”. They will give equally serious weight to the different beliefs, goals, and assumptions, conflicting perspectives and opposing world views of others. In short, someone who engages in a good deal of strong critical thinking will live what Socrates called “the examined life”, and this is Paul’s ideal. [2]

Besides introducing the distinctive idea of “strong” critical thinking, Paul attached great importance to “thinking about one’s thinking’”. Indeed Paul attaches such importance to it that some of his definitions (he has given several) look very different from the definitions given above because of the stress he puts on it. Here is an example:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them. (Paul, Fisher and Nosich, 1993, p. 4)

This definition is interesting because it draws attention to a feature of critical thinking on which teachers and researchers in the field seem to be largely agreed, that the only realistic way to develop one’s critical thinking ability is through “thinking about one’s thinking” (often called “metacognition”), and consciously aiming to improve it by reference to some model of good thinking in that domain.

Thus, for example, instead of (say) making a decision and then rationalizing it (as many of us often do) most scholars working in the critical thinking tradition agree that we should show students a good model of decision making: be clear what the problem is, think of alternative courses of action, work out the possible consequences of these and how likely they are, take objectives and values into account, come to a reasoned decision (see Swartz (1994) Chapter 2), then give them practice in using the model, self-consciously following it, then put them in real situations where they need to use it. The result should be that we can produce better thought-out, more reasonable decisions than most of us do in the absence of such practice.

5. Harvey Siegel: Being “appropriately moved by reasons” (1988)

During the 1980s more and more educators were becoming interested in critical thinking, in what it was and in how to teach it. Philosophers had long been prominent in developing the critical thinking movement and, in 1988, Harvey Siegel, a well-known philosopher of education, published an influential book called Educating Reason .

Although he was building on the tradition as it existed then, when Siegel introduced what he called his “reasons” conception of critical thinking, he was mainly interested in what it is to be a critical thinker . On his account “To be a critical thinker is to be appropriately moved by reasons.” For him this means not only being skilled at reasoning things through, but also being disposed to do so, having certain habits of mind , and valuing basing beliefs and decisions of reasons, even when this runs counter to your own self-interest (cf. Paul on “strong” critical thinking). Siegel puts it like this:

In order to be a critical thinker, a person must have [not only skills in reasoning, but also] certain attitudes, dispositions, habits of mind and character traits, which together may be labelled the “critical attitude” or “critical spirit”. …. One who has a critical attitude has a certain character as well as certain skills: a character which is inclined to seek, and to base judgment and action upon, reasons; which rejects partiality and arbitrariness; which is committed to the objective evaluation of relevant evidence; and which values such aspects of critical thinking as intellectual honesty, justice to evidence, sympathetic and impartial consideration of interests, objectivity and impartiality. A critical attitude demands not simply an ability to seek reasons, but a commitment to do so; not simply an ability to judge impartially, but a willingness and desire to do so, even when impartial judgment runs counter to self-interest. …. For the possessor of the critical attitude, nothing is immune from criticism, not even one’s most deeply-held convictions. ( Educating Reason , p. 39.)

As Siegel says, the implication of this conception is that education aiming at developing critical thinking

is a complex business which must seek to foster a host of attitudes, emotions, dispositions, habits and character traits as well as a wide variety of reasoning skills. ( Ibid ., p. 41.)

For Siegel, being a critical thinker is closely related to being a rational person; his is a very Socratic conception, as is Paul’s. However, it is worth noting that Siegel criticises Paul’s conception of strong critical thinking on the ground that either it implies a self-defeating relativism (the question is, “which principles can be used to adjudicate between world views?”) or it requires just the kind of “atomistic thinking” that Paul himself criticises as being central to the “weak” critical thinking tradition.

Either way, interesting and suggestive as it undoubtedly is, Siegel’s conception of the critical think er goes further in some respects than the core tradition and may run into problems similar to those Paul’s conception of “strong” critical thinking runs into, so we now leave it and move on to another conception.

6. Matthew Lipman: “Philosophy for Children” and Thinking in Education (1991)

Matthew Lipman was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York. In the course of his teaching, he became convinced that even his philosophy students had not learned to think adequately before entering university and he became interested in working out how to teach students to think more skilfully. He quickly came to the view that schools needed to teach thinking skills long before students reach university, and he became famous for developing the Philosophy for Children Program, which included such treasures as Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery , a series of lessons for eight year old children, which aims to teach them how to think better.

In 1991 Lipman published Thinking in Education , in which he explained his ideas about teaching critical thinking. After some remarks connecting wisdom, judgment and critical thinking, he defined critical thinking as follows:

I will argue that critical thinking is thinking that (1) facilitates judgment because it (2) relies on criteria , (3) is self-correcting, and (4) is sensitive to context. ( Ibid ., Ch. 6., p. 116.)

and he explains the connection between judgment and criteria as follows,

We are also aware of a relationship between criteria and judgments, for a criterion is often defined as “a rule or principle utilized in the making of judgments”. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that there is some sort of logical connection between critical thinking and criteria and judgment. The connection, of course, is to be found in the fact that critical thinking is skilful thinking, and skills themselves cannot be defined without criteria by means of which allegedly skilful performances can be evaluated. So critical thinking is thinking that both employs criteria and can be assessed by appeal to criteria. ( Ibid ., p. 116)

The element in Lipman’s definition that is least familiar is part (4) “ is sensitive to context ”. He explains that this involves attending to,

  • Exceptional or irregular circumstances . For example, we normally examine statements for truth or falsity independent of the character of the speaker. But in a court trial, the character of a witness may become a relevant consideration.
  • Special limitations, contingencies, or constraints wherein normally acceptable reasoning might find itself prohibited. An example is the rejection of certain Euclidean theorems, such as that parallel lines never meet, in non-Euclidean geometries.
  • Overall configurations . A remark taken out of context may seem to be flagrantly in error, but in the light of the discourse taken as a whole it appears valid and proper, or vice versa. [Lengthy example given]
  • The possibility that evidence is atypical . An example is a case of over-generalizing about national voter preferences based on a tiny regional sample of ethnically and occupationally homogeneous individuals.
  • The possibility that some meanings do not translate from one context or domain to another . There are terms and expressions for which there are no precise equivalents in other languages and whose meanings are therefore wholly context-specific. ( Ibid ., pp. 121f.)

Lipman’s account of what critical thinking is has not caught on with the wider critical thinking community and is rarely referred to, but his books and materials for teaching philosophy/thinking to K-12 children have been very successful and contain many fascinating lesson plans which arise out of his basic conceptions.

7. Peter Facione: “Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction” (1990)

Although Dewey, Glaser and the early Ennis had very little impact on educational practices in schools and colleges, things began to change in the 1970s. America had been embroiled in the Vietnam War for many years, and widespread student protest against the war included complaining that their college logic courses gave them no help in dealing with the arguments about the war. The philosopher, Howard Kahane, took these complaints seriously and in 1971 published his Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric , one of the first college-level critical thinking texts, which became enormously influential. Interest in teaching reasoning skills, thinking skills of one kind and another, even “critical thinking” skills, began to mushroom and by the 1980s many schools and colleges throughout North America were becoming explicitly committed to teaching critical thinking skills and dispositions.

However, there was no very clear view about what these were or how to teach and assess them and because philosophers had been heavily involved in characterising critical thinking, in designing college level programmes, and in trying to get it infused into the K-12 curriculum, the American Philosophical Association asked Peter Facione, himself a philosopher much involved in teaching and assessing critical thinking, to investigate the subject, in order to clarify what it was and how it should be taught and assessed.

To do this, Facione assembled a group of 46 educators who were agreed to be experts in critical thinking (including Ennis, Paul, Lipman and Johnson), and this group then used what is known as the Delphi Method to work towards a consensus view of what critical thinking is and what are its constituent skills and dispositions. The Delphi Method meant that participants shared their reasoned views with the rest, but did so anonymously under Facione’s leadership (to avoid undue influence). He would circulate questions and views and would then pull together a summary of the responses before inviting further comments and responses; altogether he went through 6 rounds of consultation.

The report makes fascinating reading, partly because Facione did all he could to find consensus, but also because it is clear that there was still some disagreement among the participants.

Having said that, Facione did manage to articulate a consensus view about what critical thinking is (in terms both of its cognitive skills and its affective dispositions):

We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. …… While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society. (Executive Summary p. 2)

As this “definition” says, the experts agreed that critical thinking has two elements: cognitive skills and affective dispositions, both of which need to be developed to produce critical thinkers.

The report says that the six skills of (1) interpretation, (2) analysis, (3) evaluation, (4) inference, (5) explanation and (6) self-regulation are “at the core of CT” and then details (over five pages) what these entail, whilst also emphasising that the appropriate “content knowledge” will always be required to arrive at rational judgements in any given domain. [3]

8. Scriven: The evaluative definition of critical thinking

One last definition, due to Michael Scriven, is worth reviewing. Scriven has argued that critical thinking is “an academic competency akin to reading and writing” and is similarly fundamental to much of our lives. He defines it thus:

Critical thinking is skilled and active interpretation and evaluation of observations and communications, information and argumentation. (Fisher and Scriven, 1997, p. 21.)

Like others, he defines critical thinking as a “skilled” activity, and he does so because critical thinking has to meet certain standards (of clarity, relevance, reasonableness, fairness, etc.) and one may be more or less skilled at this. He defines critical thinking as an “active” process (by contrast with the passive process of just accepting what one reads, hears or observes), and he does this partly because it involves questioning and partly because of the important role played by met a cognition —thinking about your own thinking. He includes “interpretation’’ (of texts, speech, film, graphics, actions and even body language) because “like explanation, interpretation typically involves constructing and selecting the best of several alternatives [and it] is a crucial preliminary to drawing conclusions about complex claims”. He includes “evaluation” because “this is the process of determining the merit, quality, worth, or value of something” and much critical thinking is concerned with evaluating the truth, probability or reliability of claims and the reasonableness of arguments, inferences, etc.

On Scriven’s account, the objects of critical thinking are observations, communications, information and argumentation. He takes the term “information” to refer to factual claims (which may be false, lacking credibility, unreasonable, etc.) and the term “communications” to go beyond information to include questions (for example, “Do you favour affirmative action?”), commands, other linguistic utterances, signals, etc. (see Fisher and Scriven (1997). pp. 38, 39) and the term “argumentation” refers to material that presents reasons for some conclusion. Such argumentation may be explicit or implicit, hypothetical, dialectical or discursive (debates vs. intellectual exploration vs. proof) ( ibid ., p. 44).

All that is fairly standard. However, the mention of “observations” is unusual. Scriven has long argued that “ observations ” may require critical thinking. For example, it may require considerable critical thinking to be sure what one has seen, heard, etc., either in weak light, or under the influence of strong emotions, or when apparently magical/paranormal things happen. Again, it may be quite hard to be sure what one has experienced, e.g., when you hear a bump in the night ( ibid ., p. 57). Sherlock Holmes, a paradigmatic critical thinker, focused much of his thinking on the problem of how to interpret what he saw, or did not see (e.g., the dog that didn’t bark in the night). Suppose one sees a TV news report, showing military film of a missile hitting its chosen target with great accuracy or suppose one views the brain scan of a stroke victim. Consider how much scope (and need) there is for critical thinking about what one has really seen—and not seen. Another good example is the way information is presented graphically; it looks as though the unemployment figures are suddenly much worse, but most of the vertical dimension of the graph has been cut off. And how do the figures normally move at this time of year—when many young people leave college and come on to the jobs market, etc.? There is plenty of room for and need for critical thinking in these cases too.

This is the last extension of the notion of critical thinking to which I here draw attention. I have run through this survey of definitions to give a sense of the development of the critical thinking tradition. It clearly has some core ideas, concerned with giving, evaluating and caring about reasons , but it has also developed from an idea based on a scientific model of thinking to one that includes deciding what to do and critical observing and dispositions. The critical thinking tradition has a core that has developed and changed to become the rich idea it is now.

9. The critical thinking skills, abilities or competencies

Many of those who have contributed to the development of the critical thinking tradition have produced lists of skills that are characteristic of the critical thinker. As I noted earlier, Edward Glaser, was the first to do this (1941 p. 6 ) but others who have produced such lists include Ennis (1962), (1987), (1991), (2011), Ennis and Norris (1989), Facione (1990), Paul (1992), Fisher and Scriven (1997), and others, so I shall now draw on the work which has been done by these pioneers, to produce a comprehensive list of critical thinking skills. Such a list is necessary to decide how to teach and how to assess critical thinking abilities (see Fisher and Scriven, pp. 85, 87).

I divide the skills into four basic groups.

9.1 Interpreting

These are basic skills (which may nonetheless be quite demanding) that one requires in order to be skillful in the higher-level activities mentioned below. Thus one needs to begin by being as clear as possible what the problem is, what is the question at issue, what is the author trying to convince the reader of, or what one observed. The critical thinker will need to

  • understand and correctly articulate the meaning(s) of terms, expressions, sentences—perhaps also pictures/cartoons, graphs, signs, and other forms of presentation, etc.
  • clarify and interpret expressions and ideas, by finding good or paradigm examples, drawing contrasts, specifying necessary and sufficient criteria, providing a paraphrase, providing analogies, etc., to remove vagueness or ambiguity (ibid. p. 110).
  • Tests for active (or deep) understanding are typically requests to:
  • identify what is implied by the material (“reading between the lines”); outline or summarize the material; translate it into other terms; extrapolate from it; to find the factual element in a highly emotional statement; to interpret correctly positions to which the interpreter is deeply opposed, etc. (ibid., p. 98).

Much of this is very similar to what Facione lists under “interpretation”. The least familiar reference in the first paragraph of this section is to what one observed . It is often hard to be sure how to interpret what we see, hear, etc., on TV, at the scene of a crime, when viewing conditions are abnormal, etc. What we observe will sometimes require interpretation rather than reflex labelling or simple recognition (e.g., reasoned identification of a rare species of flower, bird or rock formation) and this may require skilful reasoning ( ibid ., p. 97).

9.2 Analyzing

Analysis in this context is essentially being clear about the reasoning involved in arguments of different kinds. These might aim to prove some claim, to support some explanation, to justify some decision, etc., and they might present evidence, use an analogy, proceed by comparing and contrasting alternatives, etc. ( ibid . pp.111-112). In short the process of analysis is about identifying the elements in a reasoned case, its conclusion(s) (including main conclusions), the reasons presented in support of its conclusions, any assumptions or presuppositions implicit in the case but not expressed, including relevant background information (which may be factual claims, definitions, value judgments, recommendations, explanations, etc.) and the intended and actual inferential relationships among sentences and expressions, (etc.).

So, the question is whether, given some written or spoken material (say a newspaper editorial or a political speech or graphical presentation), it presents a reason or reasons in support of some opinion, point of view or conclusion(s). Of course, one also needs to identify any material that is extraneous to the argument, material that does not belong to the argument but that might divert (for example, a phrase intended to trigger a sympathetic emotional response that might induce an audience to agree with an opinion) (cf. Facione (1990). p. 7). Much of this section is similar to what Facione says about analysis ( ibid ., pp. 7, 8)

Tests for this skill will typically ask the student to identify the conclusions and reasons presented for them, say what is assumed, identify similar patterns of reasoning, identify a flaw in reasoning, etc.

9 .3 Evaluating

Several different kinds of evaluative activity are central to critical thinking. First, it is often necessary to make judgments about the relevance, acceptability, credibility or truth, of claims and assumptions that might be presented in words, graphs, pictures, etc. One might also need to judge the credibility of a witness, or other source.

A quite different activity is involved in evaluating inferences of different kinds. In general the question is whether the reasons genuinely support the conclusion and if so how strongly. Some reasoning is meant to be deductive/conclusive, but much is not: it is meant to be persuasive in varying degrees from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “reasonable in the circumstances”. These different kinds of reasoning have to be evaluated by different standards. Some reasoning is analogical; some reasoning aims to give or justify explanations—sometimes causal explanations; some is intended to arrive at or justify decisions or recommendations. These all have to be evaluated in different ways. For example, with explanations the key question is often whether there are other possible explanations and whether these can be ruled out. With decisions or recommendations it is often crucial to look at alternatives and likely consequences. Some reasoning is based on hypothetical situations and this needs to be evaluated in distinctive ways. Some reasoning involves inferences to the merit (trustworthiness) of sources and procedures. These may identify individuals who might (or might not) be reliable authorities or they may be procedures (like using the polygraph or DNA) ( ibid . p. 99). There are many different kinds of reasoning, which need to be evaluated in different ways, often by different criteria.

Of course, some reasoning is mistaken, fallacious, or unconvincing in various ways, and one needs to be alive to formal, informal and other fallacies if one is to evaluate reasoning successfully. Furthermore, reasoning may support its intended conclusion, but there may be further/additional considerations that weigh for or against a given conclusion and that need to be taken into account in evaluating the argument/ conclusion as a whole (i.e., additional information might weaken or strengthen the argument).

The process of evaluating reasoning often requires creativity and imagination. One may need to be imaginative about (i) alternative strategies for solving a problem, or (ii) alternatives when faced with making a decision, or (iii) alternative hypotheses to explain something, or (iv) alternative interpretations of an observation, or (v) a variety of plans to achieve some goal, or (vi) a number of suppositions regarding a question or issue, etc. One may also need to extrapolate—to project the possible consequences of decisions, positions, policies, theories, or beliefs to assist in evaluating them.

Much of this is similar to what Facione says under the headings “evaluation”, “inference” and “explanation”, though it is more compressed. [4]

9 .4 Th inking about one’s own thinking: Self-regulation

Perhaps the most important skill/disposition/habit of mind of all for the critical thinker is that of applying critical thinking principles and practices to one’s own ideas and communications, in writing or speaking, etc. This sort of self-regulation can be the hardest thing to do, which is partly why the typical critical thinking writing test can be very revealing (Fisher and Scriven, p. 39).

Whether producing responses to others or simply trying to think critically about something—perhaps with a view to presenting it in some form (written, spoken, pictorial, like pictures used for advertising or propaganda purposes, charts, etc. (cf. ibid ., p. 100))—the crucial requirement is to apply the same standards that apply to the communications of others to one’s own presentations ( ibid . p. 100). One needs to engage in the same active scrutiny of one’s own work that is applied to others. So there is a need to be as clear as possible about the problem being addressed. Reasoning should be based on starting points that are as clear and reliable as possible. There is a need to be imaginative about what “other considerations” (including objections) might be relevant to the case—what might strengthen or weaken the presentation being constructed. The advocate needs to think about his or her claims and assumptions and justify them if possible or if the audience will demand it. It’s necessary to take into account opposing points of view as sympathetically as one would wish one’s own point of view to be treated. One needs to be as sure as possible of the soundness of one’s inferences, made or implied, the suitability of one’s presentation for the audience, the clarity of the presentation, its power and so on ( ibid . pp. 103, 104). To do all this is not easy and may well benefit from external help such as dialogue and discussion ( ibid ., p. 100). For example, in arguing for a given position, one should try to anticipate (possible) reasonable criticisms/objections and others can help supply them.

This section is similar to what Facione says on “self regulation”.

10. Dispositions, habits of mind and values of a critical thinker

It is one thing to be skilled in some domain and another thing to display a tendency or disposition to use those skills. Though different in some respects, this is parallel to being courageous (funny, helpful or whatever) on a given occasion and being a courageous (funny, helpful or whatever) person. The critical thinker is someone who characteristically practices critical thinking. He or she does not simply display critical thinking skills in an examination but also characteristically deploys them in everyday situations or in the course of his or her work whenever good thinking matters.

Many of those who have worked in the critical thinking tradition have thought there was something very odd about having such thinking skills and not using them; indeed, if we look back at Glaser’s definition, we see that he actually includes an “attitude of being disposed” to consider problems thoughtfully as part of his very definition of critical thinking.

For example, a skill in judging the credibility of evidence produces more reasonable beliefs than being rather more gullible—which is obviously better: one will be led astray less often and this is to one’s advantage. So this skill is worth using whenever significant questions of credibility arise; it is valuable and it will pay to adopt the habit of using it, i.e., to be disposed to use it whenever it is appropriate.

There is no doubt that the critical thinking skills are generally valuable skills and having the habit of using them whenever it is appropriate will help in many ways, so the moral is that one should not just acquire the skills, but value them—and use them; in short become a critical thinker .

As Ennis has emphasized, there are some particular dispositions that are an important part of critical thinking—especially, being open-minded and trying to be well informed. The closed-minded person will lack the imagination so often essential to good critical thinking, and it is always important to try to be well-informed if one is to know what alternatives are realistic and worth considering, for example what alternative explanations need to be taken seriously when evaluating an explanation or what alternatives are realistic when faced with some decision.

It is widely agreed among the critical thinking community that it is not enough to teach the critical thinking skills mentioned above, but it is also very important to develop a range of dispositions or habits of mind if we are to develop critical think ers .

Facione, in his Delphi Report, lists what he calls the affective dispositions that the experts contributing to his report agreed were important for the critical thinker. Table 5 of the report (p. 13) spells these out:

A ffective dispositions of critical thinking approaches to life and living in general :

  • inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues,
  • concern to become and remain generally well-informed,
  • alertness to opportunities to use CT,
  • trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry,
  • self-confidence in one’s own ability to reason,
  • open-mindedness regarding divergent world views,
  • flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions,
  • understanding of the opinions of other people,
  • fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning,
  • honesty in facing one’s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, egocentric or sociocentric tendencies,
  • prudence in suspending, making or altering judgments,
  • willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted.

Approaches to specific issues, questions or problems:

  • clarity in stating the question or concern,
  • orderliness in working with complexity,
  • diligence in seeking relevant information,
  • reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria,
  • care in focusing attention on the concern at hand,
  • persistence though difficulties are encountered,
  • precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstance.

It then discusses how these should be developed and the importance of teacher training for developing them.

11. “Critico-creative thinking”: Critical thinking and being creative

Some people have preferred to use the term “critico-creative” thinking because the term “critical thinking” can sound “negative”, as though one’s only interest is in adversely criticizing other people’s arguments and ideas. They want to emphasize the fact that to be good at evaluating arguments and ideas one often has to be imaginative and creative about other possibilities, alternative considerations, different options and so on. To be a good judge of issues it is not enough to see faults in what other people say; one needs to base that judgment on the best arguments one can devise (in the time available) and this often requires thinking of relevant considerations other than those presented, looking at issues from different points of view, imagining alternative scenarios and perhaps finding other relevant information; in short, one might need to be quite creative and imaginative.

The label “critico-creative” thinking is intended to stress these positive, imaginative aspects of critical thinking. Unfortunately the result is a rather unwieldy expression, and it has not caught on. So we continue to use the term “critical thinking” because it is now so widely used, whilst understanding it in this positive, imaginative sense. In this use it has the same sense in which one speaks, for example, of a theatre or film “critic”—as someone whose comments and judgments may be either positive or negative. In short, critical thinking is a kind of evaluative thinking that involves both criticism and creative thinking and that is particularly concerned with the quality of reasoning or argument which is presented in support of a belief or a course of action (see Fisher (2011) p. 14).

12. To conclude

The critical thinking tradition is a long one and is still developing. However, it is not too difficult to summarize the ideas contained in the tradition that we have just reviewed.

It is clear that critical thinking is contrasted with unreflective or passive thinking, the kind of thinking that occurs when someone jumps to a conclusion, or accepts some evidence, claim or decision at face value, without really thinking about it. It is a ski l lful activity, which may be done more or less well, and good critical thinking will meet various intellectual standards, like those of clarity, relevance, adequacy, coherence and so on. Critical thinking clearly requires the interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications and other sources of information. It also requires skill in thinking about assumptions, in asking pertinent questions, in drawing out implications—that is to say, in reasoning and arguing issues through. Furthermore, the critical thinker believes that there are many situations in which the best way to decide what to believe or do is to employ this kind of reasoned and reflective thinking and thus tends to use these methods whenever they are appropriate.

Does this attitude imply that there is just one correct way to think about any given problem? No. But it does imply that most of us could do it better than we do (that is, more skillfully/ reasonably/ rationally), if we asked the right questions. This tradition is all about improving our own thinking by considering how we think in various contexts now, seeing a better model and trying to move our own practice towards that better model. It does not imply that there is just one correct way of thinking that we should try to emulate, but that there are better ways of thinking than we often exhibit and that our poor thinking can be at least partially remedied by suitable practice.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that not all “good” thinking counts as critical thinking. For example, there is much routine thinking, speedy thinking, creative thinking, and more, which does not count as critical thinking. If one aims to interpret a claim or evaluate an argument one will often have to think of alternative interpretations or arguments. This is a creative activity (Fisher and Scriven pp. 66, 67) but quite different from literary or poetic creativity. Equally, plodding or straightforward reasoning (as when you solve a routine mathematical problem in a standard, well-learned way) is not critical thinking. Critical thinking only occurs when the reasoning, interpretation or evaluation is challenging and non-routine ( ibid . , p. 72). Again, if you are working out an explanation this may well involve critical thinking, but if you are explaining something familiar to a third party it might not at all. Various other skills are excluded from being called critical thinking skills on our conception, for example being observant or watchful is different from critical observing, etc. ( ibid ., pp. 94–96). The critical thinking tradition is rich and complex but understanding it and working within it pays tremendous dividends and is well worth the effort.

Dewey, J. (1998). How We Think . Dover Publications. (The beginnings of the modern tradition of critical thinking; first published by Heath and Co. 1909)

Ennis, R. H. (1962). “A Concept of Critical Thinking: A Proposed Basis for Research in the Teaching and Evaluation of Critical Thinking.” Harvard Educational Review , 32, no. 1, 1962, pp. 81-111.

Ennis, R.H. (1987). A Taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. Baron & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice , pp. 9-26 . New York: W.H. Freeman.

Ennis R.H. (1991). Critical thinking: A streamlined conception. Teaching Philosophy , 14 (1), 5-25.

Ennis, R.H. (1996). Critical thinking dispositions: Their nature and assessability. Informal Logic , 18 (2 & 3), 165-182.

Ennis, R.H. (2011). Critical thinking: Reflection and perspective—Part I. Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines , 26(1), 4-18.

Facione, P.A. (1990). The Delphi Report. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction; Executive Summary. California Academic Press . The complete APA Delphi Report is available as ERIC Doc. No.: ED 315423.

Facione, P. (2010). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. California Academic Press. (Easy to find on the internet.)

Fisher, A. (2001, 2 nd ed. 2011). Critical Thinking: An Introduction . Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, A. and Scriven, M. (1997). Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment . Edgepress and Centre for Research in Critical Thinking, University of East Anglia. (Can be obtained from Edgepress.)

Fisher, A, Scriven, M and Ennis, R.H. (2012). A Survey of Critical Thinking/Reasoning Tests that are Comparable to the Law Schools Admission Test. Law Schools Admission Council .

Glaser, E. (1941). An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking . Advanced School of Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia.

Kahane, H. (1971). Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of R eason in Everyday Life . Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company .

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education . Cambridge University Press

Lipman, M. (1974). Harry Stottlem e ier’s Discovery . Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, NJ .

McPeck, J. E. (1981). Critical Thinking and Education . [Palgrave Macmillan] Martin Robertson. (The classic text which argues that critical thinking cannot be taught.)

Norris, S. and Ennis, R. (1989). Evaluating Critical Thinking . Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press and Software. [Lawrence Erlbaum]

Paul, R. (1992). Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Foundation for Critical Thinking, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA.

Paul, R., Fisher, A. and Nosich, G. (1993). Workshop on Critical Thinking Strategies. Foundation for Critical Thinking, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA.

Passmore, J. (1967). On teaching to be critical, in R.S. Peters (ed.), The Co n cept of Education , pp. 192–211. Routledge and Kegan Paul. [Routledge 2009]

Scriven, M. (1976). Reasoning . New York: McGraw-Hill. (A classic text on how to improve reasoning skills.)

Siegel, Harvey (1988). Educating Reason ; Rationality, Critical Thinking and Education . New York: Routledge.

Swartz, R.J. and Parks, S. (1993). Infusing Critical and Creative Thinking into the Curriculum . Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press. (Very good account of how to teach transferable and critical thinking skills.)

Swartz, R. and Parks, S. (1994). Infusing the Teaching of Critical and Cre a tive Thinking into Elementary Instruction . Critical Thinking Press and Software.

Swartz, R.J. and Perkins, D.N. (1989). Teaching Thinking: Issues and A p proaches . Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications. [Lawrence Erlbaum]

  • © Alec Fisher ↵
  • For a review of Paul’s fair-mindedness test that brings out some problems with the idea, see Fisher and Scriven (1997) pp. 137-144). ↵
  • The complete American Philosophical Association Delphi Research Report is available as ERIC Doc. No.: ED315 423 and the “Executive Summary” of its findings are easily available on the web. ↵
  • For a vocabulary that can be helpful in connection with thinking about critical thinking, see Fisher and Scriven (1997) pp.104-107. ↵

Studies in Critical Thinking Copyright © by Alec Fisher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking?

Scriven and Paul (1987) state, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

According to , critical thinking is defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”

The Lexico Oxford Dictionary refers to it more succinctly as “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.”

Academic or intellectual thinking must be critical. As we can see from the definitions above, it is not a single step procedure, but rather it is a process that begins with readers displaying a healthy amount of skepticism about what they are reading. In other words, you should not accept blindly the arguments and evidence you are given , even if they come from a leading expert in the field. Instead, you should be more like a jury member in an important legal case. You should read a text critically by weighing up all the available evidence in an objective and rational manner before arriving at your informed judgement on any particular issue. This involves looking for different angles to any argument and critically evaluating the claims made and supporting evidence used. In short, you must not accept what you read before questioning its validity.

Why is it important?

It is important because the ultimate aim of academic study and endeavor is to create new knowledge. In academia, as pointed out by the University of Edinburgh , knowledge is "provisional" and "contestable." In other words, the knowledge that is accepted today may not necessarily be accepted tomorrow if "new, more convincing evidence or theories are produced."

While memorisation, description and explanation of ideas and concepts may suffice at secondary school, higher education, especially graduate studies, requires critical thinking to be evident in the oral and/ or written work that you produce . When critical thinking is applied to current knowledge, it can ultimately result in the creation of new knowledge, which in turn will be critically analysed and built upon by future scholars.

Both at university and in the workplace, the ability to think critically is of vital importance. At university, you need to be able to support your arguments/ opinions with appropriate evidence. However, arguments and evidence are only of value if they have been critically analysed, as it is this element that demonstrates a deeper understanding and engagement with the subject matter. The same critical thinking skills can be applied practically in the workplace when, for example, you are involved in planning or problem solving.

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Critical Thinking at University: An Introduction  (University of Leeds)

Critical thinking is a vital skill at university and later in life. University study introduces you to new concepts and ways of learning, and it requires you to think critically. You need to know how to question information sources and how to evaluate different arguments.

Despite critical thinking being so important, students are often unprepared when they start their studies. This free course will show you what critical thinking skills you need at university level, how they can be applied to different disciplines, and how to use practical strategies to develop these skills for a successful academic life.

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  • What is Critical Thinking?

The ability to think critically calls for a higher-order thinking than simply the ability to recall information.

Definitions of critical thinking, its elements, and its associated activities fill the educational literature of the past forty years. Critical thinking has been described as an ability to question; to acknowledge and test previously held assumptions; to recognize ambiguity; to examine, interpret, evaluate, reason, and reflect; to make informed judgments and decisions; and to clarify, articulate, and justify positions (Hullfish & Smith, 1961; Ennis, 1962; Ruggiero, 1975; Scriven, 1976; Hallet, 1984; Kitchener, 1986; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Mines et al., 1990; Halpern, 1996; Paul & Elder, 2001; Petress, 2004; Holyoak & Morrison, 2005; among others).

After a careful review of the mountainous body of literature defining critical thinking and its elements, UofL has chosen to adopt the language of Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (2003) as a comprehensive, concise operating definition:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Paul and Scriven go on to suggest that critical thinking is based on: "universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implication and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. Critical thinking - in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes - is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking."

This conceptualization of critical thinking has been refined and developed further by Richard Paul and Linder Elder into the Paul-Elder framework of critical thinking. Currently, this approach is one of the most widely published and cited frameworks in the critical thinking literature. According to the Paul-Elder framework, critical thinking is the:

  • Analysis of thinking by focusing on the parts or structures of thinking ("the Elements of Thought")
  • Evaluation of thinking by focusing on the quality ("the Universal Intellectual Standards")
  • Improvement of thinking by using what you have learned ("the Intellectual Traits")

Selection of a Critical Thinking Framework

The University of Louisville chose the Paul-Elder model of Critical Thinking as the approach to guide our efforts in developing and enhancing our critical thinking curriculum. The Paul-Elder framework was selected based on criteria adapted from the characteristics of a good model of critical thinking developed at Surry Community College. The Paul-Elder critical thinking framework is comprehensive, uses discipline-neutral terminology, is applicable to all disciplines, defines specific cognitive skills including metacognition, and offers high quality resources.

Why the selection of a single critical thinking framework?

The use of a single critical thinking framework is an important aspect of institution-wide critical thinking initiatives (Paul and Nosich, 1993; Paul, 2004). According to this view, critical thinking instruction should not be relegated to one or two disciplines or departments with discipline specific language and conceptualizations. Rather, critical thinking instruction should be explicitly infused in all courses so that critical thinking skills can be developed and reinforced in student learning across the curriculum. The use of a common approach with a common language allows for a central organizer and for the development of critical thinking skill sets in all courses.

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Scriven, M. and Paul, R. (1987) Defining Critical Thinking. 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform.

has been cited by the following article:

TITLE: Using Education to Enhance Gender Equality in the Workplaces in China

KEYWORDS: Gender Equality , Female , Workplace , Means of Education

JOURNAL NAME: Open Journal of Social Sciences , Vol.7 No.9 , September 27, 2019

ABSTRACT: As the economy develops and people’s aspirations grow in China, Chinese women are more aware of gender inequality in the workplaces. Though the working conditions have been greatly improved, Chinese women are still discriminated and underestimated in the labor market and many of them have to give up their rights and opportunities when they are facing the dilemma of work and personal life. To enhance gender equity in the workplaces, this article discusses the factors leading to the unequal situation and focuses on the means of education to improve young people’s awareness of gender equality and their ability to deal with gender inequality in the workplaces. During the research, we designed a workshop on gender equality education and delivered it to fellow college students. In this article, the teaching plan of the workshop will be explained in detail and the students’ feedback is recorded.

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The interplay between reflective thinking, critical thinking, self-monitoring, and academic achievement in higher education

  • Published: 21 July 2016
  • Volume 74 , pages 101–114, ( 2017 )

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  • Afsaneh Ghanizadeh 1  

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The present study assessed the associations among higher-order thinking skills (reflective thinking, critical thinking) and self-monitoring that contribute to academic achievement among university students. The sample consisted of 196 Iranian university students (mean age = 22.05, SD = 3.06; 112 females; 75 males) who were administered three questionnaires. To gauge reflective thinking, the “Reflective Thinking Questionnaire” designed by Kember et al. (Assess Eval High Educ 25(4):380–395, 2000 ) was utilized. It includes 16 items measuring four types of reflective thinking (habitual action, understanding, reflection, and critical reflection). To assess critical thinking, the “Watson–Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal”(2002) was utilized. It comprises 80 items and consists of 5 subtests (inference, recognizing unstated assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation). Self-monitoring was measured via 8 items of the self-regulation trait questionnaire designed by O’Neil and Herl (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA, 1998 ). The results demonstrated that critical thinking and all components of reflective thinking positively and significantly predicted achievement with habitual action having the lowest impact and reflection exhibiting the highest influence. Self-monitoring indirectly exerted a positive influence on achievement via understanding and reflection. It was also found that among the four subscales of reflective thinking, reflection and critical reflection predicted critical thinking positively and significantly. Self-monitoring had a positive and significant impact on critical thinking. It also significantly and positively influenced understanding as well as reflection.

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Warren Berger

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking

What you need to know—and read—about one of the essential skills needed today..

Posted April 8, 2024 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk

  • In research for "A More Beautiful Question," I did a deep dive into the current crisis in critical thinking.
  • Many people may think of themselves as critical thinkers, but they actually are not.
  • Here is a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you are thinking critically.

Conspiracy theories. Inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods. Widespread confusion about who and what to believe.

These are some of the hallmarks of the current crisis in critical thinking—which just might be the issue of our times. Because if people aren’t willing or able to think critically as they choose potential leaders, they’re apt to choose bad ones. And if they can’t judge whether the information they’re receiving is sound, they may follow faulty advice while ignoring recommendations that are science-based and solid (and perhaps life-saving).

Moreover, as a society, if we can’t think critically about the many serious challenges we face, it becomes more difficult to agree on what those challenges are—much less solve them.

On a personal level, critical thinking can enable you to make better everyday decisions. It can help you make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

In the new expanded edition of my book A More Beautiful Question ( AMBQ ), I took a deep dive into critical thinking. Here are a few key things I learned.

First off, before you can get better at critical thinking, you should understand what it is. It’s not just about being a skeptic. When thinking critically, we are thoughtfully reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence and logic. And—perhaps most important—while doing this, a critical thinker always strives to be open-minded and fair-minded . That’s not easy: It demands that you constantly question your assumptions and biases and that you always remain open to considering opposing views.

In today’s polarized environment, many people think of themselves as critical thinkers simply because they ask skeptical questions—often directed at, say, certain government policies or ideas espoused by those on the “other side” of the political divide. The problem is, they may not be asking these questions with an open mind or a willingness to fairly consider opposing views.

When people do this, they’re engaging in “weak-sense critical thinking”—a term popularized by the late Richard Paul, a co-founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking . “Weak-sense critical thinking” means applying the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but with the sole purpose of confirming one’s own bias or serving an agenda.

In AMBQ , I lay out a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you’re thinking critically. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • Why do I believe what I believe?
  • Are my views based on evidence?
  • Have I fairly and thoughtfully considered differing viewpoints?
  • Am I truly open to changing my mind?

Of course, becoming a better critical thinker is not as simple as just asking yourself a few questions. Critical thinking is a habit of mind that must be developed and strengthened over time. In effect, you must train yourself to think in a manner that is more effortful, aware, grounded, and balanced.

For those interested in giving themselves a crash course in critical thinking—something I did myself, as I was working on my book—I thought it might be helpful to share a list of some of the books that have shaped my own thinking on this subject. As a self-interested author, I naturally would suggest that you start with the new 10th-anniversary edition of A More Beautiful Question , but beyond that, here are the top eight critical-thinking books I’d recommend.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark , by Carl Sagan

This book simply must top the list, because the late scientist and author Carl Sagan continues to be such a bright shining light in the critical thinking universe. Chapter 12 includes the details on Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” a collection of lessons and tips on how to deal with bogus arguments and logical fallacies.

critical thinking according to scriven and paul

Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results , by Shane Parrish

The creator of the Farnham Street website and host of the “Knowledge Project” podcast explains how to contend with biases and unconscious reactions so you can make better everyday decisions. It contains insights from many of the brilliant thinkers Shane has studied.

Good Thinking: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World , by David Robert Grimes

A brilliant, comprehensive 2021 book on critical thinking that, to my mind, hasn’t received nearly enough attention . The scientist Grimes dissects bad thinking, shows why it persists, and offers the tools to defeat it.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know , by Adam Grant

Intellectual humility—being willing to admit that you might be wrong—is what this book is primarily about. But Adam, the renowned Wharton psychology professor and bestselling author, takes the reader on a mind-opening journey with colorful stories and characters.

Think Like a Detective: A Kid's Guide to Critical Thinking , by David Pakman

The popular YouTuber and podcast host Pakman—normally known for talking politics —has written a terrific primer on critical thinking for children. The illustrated book presents critical thinking as a “superpower” that enables kids to unlock mysteries and dig for truth. (I also recommend Pakman’s second kids’ book called Think Like a Scientist .)

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters , by Steven Pinker

The Harvard psychology professor Pinker tackles conspiracy theories head-on but also explores concepts involving risk/reward, probability and randomness, and correlation/causation. And if that strikes you as daunting, be assured that Pinker makes it lively and accessible.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion , by David McRaney

David is a science writer who hosts the popular podcast “You Are Not So Smart” (and his ideas are featured in A More Beautiful Question ). His well-written book looks at ways you can actually get through to people who see the world very differently than you (hint: bludgeoning them with facts definitely won’t work).

A Healthy Democracy's Best Hope: Building the Critical Thinking Habit , by M Neil Browne and Chelsea Kulhanek

Neil Browne, author of the seminal Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, has been a pioneer in presenting critical thinking as a question-based approach to making sense of the world around us. His newest book, co-authored with Chelsea Kulhanek, breaks down critical thinking into “11 explosive questions”—including the “priors question” (which challenges us to question assumptions), the “evidence question” (focusing on how to evaluate and weigh evidence), and the “humility question” (which reminds us that a critical thinker must be humble enough to consider the possibility of being wrong).

Warren Berger

Warren Berger is a longtime journalist and author of The Book of Beautiful Questions .

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Supplement to Critical Thinking

How can one assess, for purposes of instruction or research, the degree to which a person possesses the dispositions, skills and knowledge of a critical thinker?

In psychometrics, assessment instruments are judged according to their validity and reliability.

Roughly speaking, an instrument is valid if it measures accurately what it purports to measure, given standard conditions. More precisely, the degree of validity is “the degree to which evidence and theory support the interpretations of test scores for proposed uses of tests” (American Educational Research Association 2014: 11). In other words, a test is not valid or invalid in itself. Rather, validity is a property of an interpretation of a given score on a given test for a specified use. Determining the degree of validity of such an interpretation requires collection and integration of the relevant evidence, which may be based on test content, test takers’ response processes, a test’s internal structure, relationship of test scores to other variables, and consequences of the interpretation (American Educational Research Association 2014: 13–21). Criterion-related evidence consists of correlations between scores on the test and performance on another test of the same construct; its weight depends on how well supported is the assumption that the other test can be used as a criterion. Content-related evidence is evidence that the test covers the full range of abilities that it claims to test. Construct-related evidence is evidence that a correct answer reflects good performance of the kind being measured and an incorrect answer reflects poor performance.

An instrument is reliable if it consistently produces the same result, whether across different forms of the same test (parallel-forms reliability), across different items (internal consistency), across different administrations to the same person (test-retest reliability), or across ratings of the same answer by different people (inter-rater reliability). Internal consistency should be expected only if the instrument purports to measure a single undifferentiated construct, and thus should not be expected of a test that measures a suite of critical thinking dispositions or critical thinking abilities, assuming that some people are better in some of the respects measured than in others (for example, very willing to inquire but rather closed-minded). Otherwise, reliability is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of validity; a standard example of a reliable instrument that is not valid is a bathroom scale that consistently under-reports a person’s weight.

Assessing dispositions is difficult if one uses a multiple-choice format with known adverse consequences of a low score. It is pretty easy to tell what answer to the question “How open-minded are you?” will get the highest score and to give that answer, even if one knows that the answer is incorrect. If an item probes less directly for a critical thinking disposition, for example by asking how often the test taker pays close attention to views with which the test taker disagrees, the answer may differ from reality because of self-deception or simple lack of awareness of one’s personal thinking style, and its interpretation is problematic, even if factor analysis enables one to identify a distinct factor measured by a group of questions that includes this one (Ennis 1996). Nevertheless, Facione, Sánchez, and Facione (1994) used this approach to develop the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory (CCTDI). They began with 225 statements expressive of a disposition towards or away from critical thinking (using the long list of dispositions in Facione 1990a), validated the statements with talk-aloud and conversational strategies in focus groups to determine whether people in the target population understood the items in the way intended, administered a pilot version of the test with 150 items, and eliminated items that failed to discriminate among test takers or were inversely correlated with overall results or added little refinement to overall scores (Facione 2000). They used item analysis and factor analysis to group the measured dispositions into seven broad constructs: open-mindedness, analyticity, cognitive maturity, truth-seeking, systematicity, inquisitiveness, and self-confidence (Facione, Sánchez, and Facione 1994). The resulting test consists of 75 agree-disagree statements and takes 20 minutes to administer. A repeated disturbing finding is that North American students taking the test tend to score low on the truth-seeking sub-scale (on which a low score results from agreeing to such statements as the following: “To get people to agree with me I would give any reason that worked”. “Everyone always argues from their own self-interest, including me”. “If there are four reasons in favor and one against, I’ll go with the four”.) Development of the CCTDI made it possible to test whether good critical thinking abilities and good critical thinking dispositions go together, in which case it might be enough to teach one without the other. Facione (2000) reports that administration of the CCTDI and the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST) to almost 8,000 post-secondary students in the United States revealed a statistically significant but weak correlation between total scores on the two tests, and also between paired sub-scores from the two tests. The implication is that both abilities and dispositions need to be taught, that one cannot expect improvement in one to bring with it improvement in the other.

A more direct way of assessing critical thinking dispositions would be to see what people do when put in a situation where the dispositions would reveal themselves. Ennis (1996) reports promising initial work with guided open-ended opportunities to give evidence of dispositions, but no standardized test seems to have emerged from this work. There are however standardized aspect-specific tests of critical thinking dispositions. The Critical Problem Solving Scale (Berman et al. 2001: 518) takes as a measure of the disposition to suspend judgment the number of distinct good aspects attributed to an option judged to be the worst among those generated by the test taker. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2011: 800–810) list tests developed by cognitive psychologists of the following dispositions: resistance to miserly information processing, resistance to myside thinking, absence of irrelevant context effects in decision-making, actively open-minded thinking, valuing reason and truth, tendency to seek information, objective reasoning style, tendency to seek consistency, sense of self-efficacy, prudent discounting of the future, self-control skills, and emotional regulation.

It is easier to measure critical thinking skills or abilities than to measure dispositions. The following eight currently available standardized tests purport to measure them: the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests Level X and Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), the Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test (Ennis & Weir 1985), the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment (Halpern 2016), the Critical Thinking Assessment Test (Center for Assessment & Improvement of Learning 2017), the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017), the HEIghten Critical Thinking Assessment (, and a suite of critical thinking assessments for different groups and purposes offered by Insight Assessment ( The Critical Thinking Assessment Test (CAT) is unique among them in being designed for use by college faculty to help them improve their development of students’ critical thinking skills (Haynes et al. 2015; Haynes & Stein 2021). Also, for some years the United Kingdom body OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations) awarded AS and A Level certificates in critical thinking on the basis of an examination (OCR 2011). Many of these standardized tests have received scholarly evaluations at the hands of, among others, Ennis (1958), McPeck (1981), Norris and Ennis (1989), Fisher and Scriven (1997), Possin (2008, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c, 2014, 2020) and Hatcher and Possin (2021). Their evaluations provide a useful set of criteria that such tests ideally should meet, as does the description by Ennis (1984) of problems in testing for competence in critical thinking: the soundness of multiple-choice items, the clarity and soundness of instructions to test takers, the information and mental processing used in selecting an answer to a multiple-choice item, the role of background beliefs and ideological commitments in selecting an answer to a multiple-choice item, the tenability of a test’s underlying conception of critical thinking and its component abilities, the set of abilities that the test manual claims are covered by the test, the extent to which the test actually covers these abilities, the appropriateness of the weighting given to various abilities in the scoring system, the accuracy and intellectual honesty of the test manual, the interest of the test to the target population of test takers, the scope for guessing, the scope for choosing a keyed answer by being test-wise, precautions against cheating in the administration of the test, clarity and soundness of materials for training essay graders, inter-rater reliability in grading essays, and clarity and soundness of advance guidance to test takers on what is required in an essay. Rear (2019) has challenged the use of standardized tests of critical thinking as a way to measure educational outcomes, on the grounds that  they (1) fail to take into account disputes about conceptions of critical thinking, (2) are not completely valid or reliable, and (3) fail to evaluate skills used in real academic tasks. He proposes instead assessments based on discipline-specific content.

There are also aspect-specific standardized tests of critical thinking abilities. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2011: 800–810) list tests of probabilistic reasoning, insights into qualitative decision theory, knowledge of scientific reasoning, knowledge of rules of logical consistency and validity, and economic thinking. They also list instruments that probe for irrational thinking, such as superstitious thinking, belief in the superiority of intuition, over-reliance on folk wisdom and folk psychology, belief in “special” expertise, financial misconceptions, overestimation of one’s introspective powers, dysfunctional beliefs, and a notion of self that encourages egocentric processing. They regard these tests along with the previously mentioned tests of critical thinking dispositions as the building blocks for a comprehensive test of rationality, whose development (they write) may be logistically difficult and would require millions of dollars.

A superb example of assessment of an aspect of critical thinking ability is the Test on Appraising Observations (Norris & King 1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b), which was designed for classroom administration to senior high school students. The test focuses entirely on the ability to appraise observation statements and in particular on the ability to determine in a specified context which of two statements there is more reason to believe. According to the test manual (Norris & King 1985, 1990b), a person’s score on the multiple-choice version of the test, which is the number of items that are answered correctly, can justifiably be given either a criterion-referenced or a norm-referenced interpretation.

On a criterion-referenced interpretation, those who do well on the test have a firm grasp of the principles for appraising observation statements, and those who do poorly have a weak grasp of them. This interpretation can be justified by the content of the test and the way it was developed, which incorporated a method of controlling for background beliefs articulated and defended by Norris (1985). Norris and King synthesized from judicial practice, psychological research and common-sense psychology 31 principles for appraising observation statements, in the form of empirical generalizations about tendencies, such as the principle that observation statements tend to be more believable than inferences based on them (Norris & King 1984). They constructed items in which exactly one of the 31 principles determined which of two statements was more believable. Using a carefully constructed protocol, they interviewed about 100 students who responded to these items in order to determine the thinking that led them to choose the answers they did (Norris & King 1984). In several iterations of the test, they adjusted items so that selection of the correct answer generally reflected good thinking and selection of an incorrect answer reflected poor thinking. Thus they have good evidence that good performance on the test is due to good thinking about observation statements and that poor performance is due to poor thinking about observation statements. Collectively, the 50 items on the final version of the test require application of 29 of the 31 principles for appraising observation statements, with 13 principles tested by one item, 12 by two items, three by three items, and one by four items. Thus there is comprehensive coverage of the principles for appraising observation statements. Fisher and Scriven (1997: 135–136) judge the items to be well worked and sound, with one exception. The test is clearly written at a grade 6 reading level, meaning that poor performance cannot be attributed to difficulties in reading comprehension by the intended adolescent test takers. The stories that frame the items are realistic, and are engaging enough to stimulate test takers’ interest. Thus the most plausible explanation of a given score on the test is that it reflects roughly the degree to which the test taker can apply principles for appraising observations in real situations. In other words, there is good justification of the proposed interpretation that those who do well on the test have a firm grasp of the principles for appraising observation statements and those who do poorly have a weak grasp of them.

To get norms for performance on the test, Norris and King arranged for seven groups of high school students in different types of communities and with different levels of academic ability to take the test. The test manual includes percentiles, means, and standard deviations for each of these seven groups. These norms allow teachers to compare the performance of their class on the test to that of a similar group of students.

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