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            Online Research | Fact, Observation & Inference | Critical Thinking

Conducting the information interview Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking? | Why is Critical Thinking Important? | Developing Critical Thinking Skills | Elements of Critical Thinking

This page provides an introduction to critical thinking. Below, I define critical thinking, explain why it's important, discuss what skills are needed in critical thinking, and present the elements of critical thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking involves drawing sound conclusions based on facts and observations. Critical thinkers carefully analyze and evaluate information to probe for faulty and poor reasoning. When individuals use effective critical thinking skills and processes, they draw valid inferences based on accurate evidence and well-supported claims.

Why is Critical Thinking Important?

Mastering critical thinking skills will allow you to take greater advantage of the opportunities provided by your constitutional rights; you will be able to more fully and effectively use the precious rights of free expression and suffrage granted by the U.S. Constitution. You will be able to "become wise" by listening to and reading about "all that can be said" against your views and by subjecting your ideas to others' perspectives.

Critical thinking is essential to:

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Now you may be asking, How can I develop my critical thinking skills? There are four areas to work on:

  1. Asking relevant questions

    Asking meaningful, relevant questions is as fundamental to critical thinking as it is to information interviewing. Effective questions are the key to thinking critically and interviewing competently.

    Consider the following exchange between an interviewer and interviewee:

    Interviewer: I think California needs to spend more money on education and less on prisons. Did you know that California ranks in the bottom third of spending per student among all U.S. states?

    Interviewee: As the principal of a high school, I agree with you that we need to put more resources toward education. I think that would keep more people out of prison. However, I don't know that simply spending more money is the answer.

    Interviewer: How do you like being a principal? Do you prefer administration over teaching?

    In this example, the interviewee's comments are related to the original question. In contrast, the interviewer's follow-up questions have little relevance to the topic under discussion. To more critically examine the issue, the interviewer might have asked the interviewee, "What resources, other than money, do you think would improve education in California?"

  2. Finding relevant information

    Accurate and effective information is the basis of critical thinking. Faulty information leads to poor analysis, decisions, and conclusions. Asking relevant questions often leads to uncovering relevant information. Not only do you need to find relevant information, but you also need to figure out how much information is enough.

    If the interviewer in the exchange above were investigating the state of K-12 education in California, she or he would need to conduct research and locate relevant information in order to determine (1) if problems exist and (2) how to address those problems.

  3. Interpreting and evaluating information

    Although we all share commonalities with others in how we interpret and evaluate information based on our cultural and societal backgrounds, each person brings to every situation a different "lens" for interpreting the world. Thus, our own experiences, biases, beliefs, and values will influence our interpretations.

    For example, suppose the interviewer and interviewee above had very different experiences associated with high school: the interviewer went to a private boarding school on the east coast and the interviewee is the principal is in charge of a large public high school in San Francisco. These experiences alone will influence how they interpret the information exchanged in the interview.

    Critical thinkers must also evaluate information, including examining the source, the context in which the information is presented, and the date of the information. For example, the interviewer would need to evaluate the source for the statement that, "California ranks in the bottom third of spending per student among all U.S. states."

    In evaluating information, you want to check the source of the information (is it credible? unbiased?), check the context in which the information was acquired (under what circumstances did the source get the information?), and check the context in which the information was presented (was the information presented to a particular audience? on a television talk show?).

  4. Drawing and evaluating inferences

    We drawn inferences based on present and previous observations. Inferences are interpretations of facts or observations and depend on our experiences, biases, and predispositions.

    In evaluating inferences, you want to examine the basis for the inference. Could other inferences be drawn? Is more information needed to draw an inference? Are you fully informed?

    For more information on the differences between facts and inferences, go to the page, "Fact, Observation & Inference."

Elements of Critical Thinking

The last topic I want to discuss under Critical Thinking is: Elements of Critical Thinking. These are closely related to the skills of critical thinking.

  1. Questioning skills

    As I noted earlier, asking relevant questions is fundamental to critical thinking as well as information interviewing. Here are some questions the critical listener or reader can ask:

    • What conclusions does the author or speaker want me to draw?
    • What support or evidence does the author or speaker give for these conclusions?
    • How relevant, reliable, and adequate is the evidence presented?
    • What are the assumptions underlying the author's or speaker's arguments?
    • What are other alternatives to the conclusions drawn by the author or speaker?

  2. Observation skills

    As speakers and writers, we gather evidence to support our arguments. As listeners and readers, we compare the facts presented by speakers and writers to our own observations. In the page, "Fact, Observation & Inference," I note that, "Observation equips us with the material for thought, reflection and judgment."

  3. Effective listening skills

    Effective listening skills are essential for critical thinking and information interviewing. Listening is necessary in asking relevant questions, making accurate observations, finding and evaluating information, developing inferences, and evaluating those inferences. Of course, listening and questioning skills go hand in hand. You need to listen to what others have to say before you can ask them questions. But what are we usually doing when we're "listening"? We're usually thinking of what we want to say! In the information interview, the interviewer is often thinking about the next question rather than what the interviewee is saying. Then we miss out on important things others are talking about and lose the opportunity to ask key probing questions.

    There are four types of listening in which an interviewer may engage: empathic, content, appreciative and critical. In empathic listening, we are concerned with the feelings and emotions the interviewee is conveying. When we listen for content, we are gathering information, focusing on the interviewee's main ideas. In appreciative listening, we listen for enjoyment, such as when an interviewee is telling a joke. Finally, critical listening requires that we evaluate the interviewee's message by considering the person's credibility, assessing the validity of a interviewee's arguments, evaluating the evidence used to support those arguments, recognizing reasoning fallacies , and identifying emotional appeals.

    Not all your listening time in information interviews will be concerned with critical listening. You will use all the types of listening in the interviewing process. However, each type of listening has different objectives. When you set goals for listening, you use those goals to guide your approach to listening in a particular situation. As you formulate your goals, you also want to keep in mind the interview's purpose so you can gather the information you need.

  4. Exploring written sources of information

    The basis of effective critical decision making is sufficient and relevant information. Written sources of information include reference books (Encyclopaedia Britannica), magazines and pamphlets, atlases and gazetteers (National Geographic Atlas of the World), academic journals (Journal of Computer Mediated Communication), newspapers (the San Jose Mercury News), U.S. government publications (for which there are indexes, such as the American Statistical Index), dictionaries (Oxford English Dictionary) subject abstracts (Communication Abstracts) and indexes (Social Science Index). Go to "Online Research" to learn more about the internet as a research source. Also, review Module 2, Researching the topic.

  5. Reading skills

    Effective reading skills are necessary for identifying and evaluating written sources of information. As with listening, there are different types of reading. Reading for content focuses on the content of the author's message. When reading for appreciation our goal is to the enjoy the message, as with the comics in the newspaper. With empathic reading you are trying to identify the spirit of the message; the feelings and emotions underlying what the author has written. Finally, critical reading requires that we both understand and evaluate the message.

  6. Identifying underlying assumptions

    Underlying assumptions may be implicit (unstated) or explicit (stated). Most assumptions are implicit; that is, speakers and writers often don't say what their assumptions are.

    What assumptions can you identify in this excerpt from a San Jose Mercury News editorial (May 25, 2006)? What is taken-for-granted? What assumptions or pools of knowledge are readers expected to share? For example, what do readers have to know about the "ethical lapses, civic embarrassments and growth planning run amok" to understand the argument put forth?

    What kind of mayor does San Jose need?

    A leader with impeccable ethics and a commitment to open government.

    A leader who can be recognized as the face and the voice of Silicon Valley, with all the energy, intelligence and inspiration that implies.

    A leader who can articulate a vision for a better San Jose and a path for getting there.

    A leader who can bring people together, reaching across the lines of race and ethnicity that divide so many cities but weave strength and character into San Jose.

    In a field of five qualified candidates -- Cindy Chavez, Dave Cortese, Chuck Reed, Michael Mulcahy and David Pandori -- no one meets all these qualifications. But if you place as your top priorities ethics and a vision for a better San Jose, David Pandori stands out. We recommend him.

    After years of ethical lapses, civic embarrassments and growth planning run amok, Pandori would return high standards and clarity of purpose to City Hall. His core vision for a better-planned, safer San Jose with a higher quality of life—more and better parks, for example—can resonate from Alum Rock to Almaden. . . .

    We don't always agree with Pandori. His weaknesses are well known: He sometimes projects an attitude that annoys people; he has a tendency to see issues as black and white, overlooking shades of gray.

    When he entered the race—very late—he came on like an avenger, attacking the current administration as if he were still before a jury and giving the impression he thought nothing good had happened in seven years. Voters knew that wasn't true.

    But over the past month he has become less prosecutorial and more forward-looking, better connecting with the community. Besides the usual campaign mailers, he has published a booklet that outlines in plain language what he believes and what he would do. It shows how thoroughly he has thought matters through.

  7. Identifying underlying values

    Values are deeply-held beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, important and not important, etc. We typically prioritize values in a hierarchical fashion. That is, some values are more important to us that others. For example, I may think it is important that all dog owners go to obedience school with their dogs. I may also think that it is good for all members of a democratic society to take a course in critical thinking. Although I value both these things, the second one is higher on my value hierarchy than the first.

    As I noted earlier, our values influence the observations we make and the inferences we draw based on those observations. Values also influence a speaker's or writer's choice of evidence presented and arguments made. For example, why did the Mercury News decide to run the editorial above? What values are implicit in the message?