Critical Thinking Skills

Overview of Critical Thinking Skills

What is Critical Thinking (CT)?

Many researchers including Facione, Simpson and Courtneay, Banning, Brookfield, Ornstein and Hunkins, Sternberg, Ennis and Lipman have defined critical thinking.12-20 Researchers debate whether critical thinking can be learned, or is a developmental process, regulated by motivations, dispositions, and personality traits.  Despite differences of opinion, many researchers agree that critical thinking is: “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 judgment is based.“12

Critical thinking is also regarded as intellectually engaged, skillful and responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it requires the application of assumptions, knowledge, competence and the ability to challenge one’s own thinking. Critical thinking requires the use self-correction and monitoring to judge the reasonableness of thinking as well as reflexivity. When using critical thinking, individuals step back and reflect on the quality of that thinking. Simpson and Courtneay pointed out that critical thinking processes require active argumentation, initiative, reasoning, envisioning and analyzing complex alternatives and making contingency-related value judgments.13

According to Banning, critical thinking involves scrutinizing, differentiating and appraising information as well as reflecting on information to make judgments that will inform clinical decisions.14 Brookfield asserted that identifying and challenging assumptions and analyzing assumptions for validity are essential to critical thinking skills. He also suggested that because critical thinkers possess curiosity and skepticism, that they are more likely to be motivated to provide solutions that resolve contradictions.15

Others such as Ornstein and Hunkins suggest that critical thinking and thinking skills refer to problem-solving and related behaviors.16 For a number of years, dental educators thought that teaching problem-solving skills was akin to teaching critical skills. While teaching problem-solving skills is important to the process of learning how to use critical thinking skills, in the absence of other types of learning activities, it may not be enough.

Sternberg, Ennis, and Lipman asserted that critical thinking skills are not a fixed entity but are form of intelligence that can be taught.17 The ability to develop critical thinking skills may be likened to Piaget’s concrete and formal operations. If students have not reached the formal operations stage then their ability to use critical thinking skills may be limited by an inability to handle abstract ideas. It is important to remember that Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are also linked to intellectual potential and environmental experiences. If the learning environment is crucial to the development of critical thinking skills, what instructional strategies can be used to promote critical thinking?

Sternberg asserts that critical thinking involves complex mental operations that cannot be broken into discrete styles of thinking. He claims that CT involves students’ total intellectual functioning, not a narrowly defined set of skills.18 He postulates that there are three mental processes that foster critical thinking: meta-components, performance components, and knowledge-acquisition strategies.18 Meta-components refer to higher order mental processes that individuals use to plan, monitor, and evaluate what they do. Performance components refer to the actual steps taken or strategies used, while knowledge-acquisition strategies refer to the ways in which individuals relate old to new material and apply new material.18 Sternberg does not specify a “how” approach to teaching and learning critical thinking skills.  Instead, he provides general guidelines for developing or selecting a program or curriculum that will foster CTS. Interestingly, however, not surprisingly, Sternberg points out that the ways in which students are taught during their formative years does not adequately prepare them for the kinds of problems and critical thinking skills tasks that they will face in everyday life.17 Tasks that stress right answers or truth telling or use objectively scored tests are generally removed from real world relevance. Thus, it is particularly important that all aspects of dental educational curriculum stress real world practice, the importance of oral health care, and the relationship of overall oral health care to systemic health by teaching students how to use critical thinking skills.

Lipman, like Sternberg, does not specify a “how to’ approach, however, he makes clear distinctions between ordinary thinking and critical thinking. He explains that ordinary thinking is simplistic thinking because it does not rely upon the use of standards or criteria. Examples of ordinary thinking are guessing, believing, and supposing. Lipman describes critical thinking as a complex process that is based on standards of objectivity, utility or consistency, in which students can reflect upon the certainty of their thinking, because critical thinking is self-correcting.19 In order words, students can defend their thinking with evidence.  Ennis asserts that to help students develop critical thinking skills, teachers must understand the cognitive processes that constitute critical thinking and use instructional activities that will develop these processes. He recommends that instructors teach students how to define and clarify information, ask appropriate questions to clarify or challenge statements or beliefs, judge the credibility of sources, and solve problems by predicting probable outcomes logically or deducing.20 Ennis also suggests that critical thinkers also demonstrate particular attributes. Critical thinkers tend to:

(1) be capable of taking a position or changing a position as evidence dictates;

(2) remain relevant to the point;

(3) seek information as well as precision in information;

(4) be open minded;

(5) take into account the entire situation;

(6) keep the original problem in mind;

(7) search for reasons;

(8) deal with the components of a complex problem in an orderly manner;

(9) seek a clear statement of the problem;

(10) look for options;

(11) exhibit sensitivity to others’ feelings and depth of knowledge, an

(12) use credible sources. 20

Critical thinkers use these skills appropriately and usually without prompting. They are generally predisposed to think critically and to evaluate the outcome of their thought processes.21








20 Ennis RJ. Critical thinking and subject specificity. Educ Researcher 1989; 18: 4-10

21 Halpern DF. Assessing the effectiveness of critical thinking instruction.  J of Gen Educ 2001; 50(4): 270-286.