Criticality
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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​What is it?




Criticality is traditionally associated with thinking and the development of cognitive skills, such as analysis and evaluation. However, whilst this is an important element of it, criticality is something more than a skill: it represents a disposition or an approach to studying that defines academic work at the level of higher education. In other words, as ‘criticality’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary​, it is the ‘quality of being critical'​. As such, it is not just a skill to be turned on when producing written work; it should shape your learning practices, from listening to tutors in lectures or tutorials, to reading journal articles and planning an essay.​

​What does this mean? Criticality is about using and questioning information rather than simply absorbing and then describing it. A critical mind is aware of the bigger picture: it locates information or ideas in broader contexts and tries to develop an understanding of the links existing between them. It also critiques what is being learnt as it is discovered, establishing weaknesses in arguments or identifying other pieces of work that might present contradictory evidence.

Practising criticality is vital in order to achieve success on your programme of study. It will also provide you with highly developed problem-solving and analytical abilities, skills that are highly sought after by employers, as well as an ability to think creatively and innovatively. Developing these skills will inevitably give you a greater ability to adapt to changed circumstances and to adopt a flexible approach to work commitments.

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Learning

The following guides and templates have been designed to help you develop your criticality:

Socratic questioning

Named after classic Greek philosopher Socrates, Socratic questioning describes the process of using a set of disciplined questions to explore and challenge complex ideas. This guide provides a detailed set of questions to use as prompts when examining an idea, belief, assumption, theory, research study or case scenario.

Thinking dispositions

What habits distinguish 'good thinkers'? What intellectual tendencies can you develop to enhance your ability to think critically? This guide seeks to answer such questions and provides a focus for exploring your own qualities and abilities.

Knowledge hierarchy

This form is designed to aid you in analysing a topic in detail. It encourages the process of breaking down a subject area into component points as far as is required. It will aid you in envisaging how aspects of a subject are interlinked with one another, each point 'triggering' the next. This analytical process is an aspect of the active learning process; it is thus intended to encourage a real understanding of a subject and therefore deep level learning. This analysis is a useful exercise as part of the revision process.

Argument analysis

Use this form as you read source material to prompt your analytical thought and writing. It is a useful means of keeping a record of the key points made within textual sources. Practise concise summation of central arguments made within the textual sources you assess. Since it is a word document, your analysis can eventually be pasted into your essays as appropriate: in effect you are making an efficient start to your assignment by writing as you research.

Argument evaluation

Use this form to evaluate an argument once you have analysed it. Whereas an analytical approach will enable you to identify the component parts of an author's argument, an evaluative approach will enable you to critically appraise and assess the clarity of the overall argument itself and importantly, the author's presentation of it. Evaluation is a key skill required for formulating and demonstrating your own reasoned thought regarding an academic topic.

Argument planner

Use this form to formulate, analyse and evaluate your own argument. Use the prompts to effectively develop your own ideas, supporting arguments and collate your evidence. Your summaries, analysis and thoughts regarding your argument can later be copied, pasted and edited into your assignment or thesis.

Resources

For an overview of critical thinking, see:

Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fairburn, G. and Winch, C. (1996) Reading, Writing and Reasoning: A Guide for Students. 2nd edn. Buckingham: OU/SHRE.

​You may also find the following resources useful:

Qualiasoup (2009) 'Critical thinking' YouTube channel​​

A collection of videos related to reasoning and critical thinking, intended to be entertaining and educational.