Sound critical thinking involves understanding points of view, evaluating positions, and then establishing a critical position.
Understanding what is being said. The first stage involves understanding the statement, position, or truth claim on its own terms. Students should be encouraged to learn how to listen to ideas, examine views carefully, gather information, and understand the various points of view without yet judging the merits of the positions. This step involves a willingness to be open-minded and to understand what is being said, how it is being said, and why it is asserted. At this point, students should be taught how to identify key elements of a logical statement, the principles and assumptions informing the positions, and the evidence used to sustain the points of view.
Evaluating what is being said. Once students understand a position on its own terms as completely as possible, then they can proceed to the next step of critically evaluating the legitimacy of the arguments advanced. The understanding phase requires analysis, breaking the position into its various components, and evaluation—the process of determining the value or legitimacy of the argument. Students should be encouraged to examine such elements as logical consistency (does the position make logical sense, are logical and emotional fallacies committed, is the position self-defeating, are principles and assumptions inadequate to sustain the point of view), empirical adequacy (is there sufficient evidence to support the claims, is the evidence represented accurately and used appropriately, are counter evidences avoided or ignored), and existential relevance (does the position make sense to lived experience, can the views be lived out in the real world). This three-fold analysis should develop enough material to level a sound evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of a position.
Establishing the position. Once students have understood a position on its own terms and critically evaluated it based upon logic, evidence, and lived experience, they should be sufficiently prepared to establish, explain, and defend their own position. Too often, students offer statements such as “Well, it is just my opinion!” or “This is just what I feel; what is wrong with that?” The underlying assumption to such statements is that their views need not be defended nor explained or, worse, that no one has the right to challenge their positions and views. Students should learn to move beyond their personal opinions and to establish their views more firmly with clear logic, sound evidence, and relevant experience.
Practice with Critical Thinking Journals
Indeed, it can be challenging for students to learn these essential steps to effective critical thinking, and the key is that they not learn them in the abstract but, rather, practice them in various ways so that they can understand how to apply them to academic, professional, and personal contexts. We should remember that it isn’t so much that students cannot think critically; basically, many have not been taught how nor given many opportunities to practice. Assigning critical thinking journal writing assignments is an effective way to engage students in critical thinking. This critical thinking journal assignment can be adapted to a first-year writing class, applied in core courses/seminars, and assigned in major program courses.
The following example is from a core literature seminar. Assign a scholarly article that relates to the literature read in the course. Ask students to write a 500-600 word journal entry in which they do the following: state the main focus/purpose of the article, summarize one key point/argument they find interesting and explain why they find it interesting, discuss one example from the literature that illustrates this idea, and then explain the extent to which they agree or disagree with the critic’s main point. Note that this is merely the general pattern: each journal assignment should be slightly different.
Here is a more specific sample assignment: After finishing George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Phantastes, read John Pennington's article, "Phantastesas Metafiction: George MacDonald’s Self-Reflexive Myth." Briefly define metafiction (see his summary of Patricia Waugh's definition) and summarize a key example from the novel. Summarize Pennington's main point in the article and discuss to what extent you agree or disagree with his point and why. Conclude by explaining how this article helps you understand the novel more clearly. Your journal entry should be 500-600 words.
Note how the assignment encourages students to practice the three key phases of critical thinking: understanding (summarize a key point), evaluation (discuss to what extent you agree and disagree and why), and establishing a position (explain how the article helps you understand the novel more clearly).
Ideally, a course will have several such assignments (four-five) that allow students to engage critical thinking and to practice their writing skills. Moreover, faculty should provide feedback on these journals to continue to engage the students.