Critical thinking skills – like all skills – take time, patience, and practice to develop. As a university student, it’s important to start trying to engage critically with your classmates, your lecturers and tutors, and your learning materials, even if you feel that this does not come easily or naturally to you.

Self-awareness

To really develop your critical thinking skills, you may have to do some work on yourself! This can mean changing some long-standing practices, behaviours, or beliefs, and it’s not always easy. In order to critically engage with the theories, ideas, words, or work of others, you must develop self-awareness: an understanding and awareness of yourself. What motivates you? What are your core values? Why do you hold the views that you do? Do they stand up to scrutiny? Do you dislike disagreement? Do you fear criticism? Are you open-minded? How do you know?

NUI Galway researchers have identified twelve critical thinking dispositions that you may find it helpful to consult as you work on developing self-awareness. You can think of these dispositions as aspects of your personality – which may or may not be well-developed, but which you can work on over time – that are conducive to critical thinking. Try to reflect honestly on how well these dispositions describe you, and why and when they might be useful for you as a student. Consider also how you can work on those areas that are not so well-developed at the moment. 

Top tips for developing your critical thinking skills

Here are some practical suggestions to help you to develop your critical thinking skills:

  • Form or join a study group (or a series of study groups) and choose key topics from your course to discuss. If you are taking a course that gives you the option of attending CÉIM or PAL (peer-assisted learning) sessions, go to these. Research shows that students who participate in such sessions tend to get better grades. Do you share an understanding of key topics? Do you have different opinions, approaches, or feelings about certain topics? What are these based on?
  • Join a debating society – or any student society – and let the passionate discussions commence!
  • Swap coursework (assignments, projects, and so on) with a classmate and critically evaluate each other’s arguments, use of evidence, and conclusions. What are the strong points? What needs development? What is missing? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Just be careful not to copy each other’s work and remember that, if in doubt, check in with a lecturer or tutor.
  • Accept that criticism and disagreement are not the same as conflict. It’s OK to hold different views to a classmate, friend, or lecturer. Learn how to disagree and to offer and accept criticism without it ever being personal. Sometimes students feel that if they disagree with another person, this might be considered rude or impolite. But one of the main functions of a university is to foster a spirit of inquiry and questioning. Much new knowledge and thinking stems from respectful disagreement with others.
  • Get involved in class discussions in tutorials. These are your main opportunity to really flesh out what has been covered in lectures, so make use of them: ask questions, offer your opinion, and question the opinions of others.
  • Let your lecturers or tutors know if you feel strongly about something that they have taught you, or about feedback that they have given you (this applies whether you agree, disagree, or just want to know more). If it’s not possible to speak up in a lecture or tutorial, talk to them afterwards, ask for a meeting, or send them an email.
  • Engage critically with course content, particularly with your assigned reading (see our top tips for academic reading in Reading and Note-Making for more). When completing assignments, ask yourself if you have gone beyond demonstrating a basic understanding of the topic. Have you analysed the evidence? Have you evaluated the arguments? Have you synthesised all of the available information and can you draw any conclusions based on what you have done?
  • Attend critical thinking seminars and training sessions. If your course gives you the option of taking critical thinking modules, sign up for them. Critical thinking can be taught and learned, and those who take the time to develop their critical abilities are more likely to succeed academically. Check out the Library website as well for information about any upcoming training on critical thinking.
  • Finally, remember that critical thinking is hard. As a set of ‘higher order’ skills, it is not something that you can learn to do overnight. Keep trying. Ask for feedback – and learn from it.

Downloads

  • Arguments, non-arguments, and evidence

    Arguments, non-arguments, and evidence PDF (181 KB)

  • Top tips for reflective practice and writing

    Top tips for reflective practice and writing PDF (156 KB)