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Get mentally fit with critical thinking

At a glance

  • Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and contextualize information while identifying a source’s or argument’s biases, credibility and relevance.
  • Like hitting the gym, building critical thinking skills is a mental exercise that encourages intellectual growth.
  • Strong critical thinking skills are essential for academic, professional and real-world success.
  • Chart your own path to learning and thinking critically! University of Phoenix encourages lifelong learning with more than 100 degree programsupward of 600 individual courses and a variety of professional development programs in areas like information technology and healthcare.

Mental muscle building

If you’ve ever had an intense study sesh, you know what it feels like to be mentally worn out. The focus, the absorption of knowledge, the piecing together of disparate pieces of information — it can be exhilarating in the moment and exhausting after the effort. In fact, it can feel a lot like running a mental marathon.

Considering how studying is the intellectual equivalent of flexing your mental muscles, those feelings make sense. Engaging in critical thinking — the process of asking questions, finding information, evaluating sources for relevance and reliability, and identifying biases — contributes to your intellectual growth. And, just like mastering a pull-up or an advanced yoga pose, the more you do it, the more proficient you become.

The catch? As with physical exercise, critical thinking requires patience and dedication for the best results. So, if you want to get intellectually fit, let’s explore where to begin.

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Critical thinking, defined

Critical thinking is a rational methodology that involves engaging with ideas, considering different perspectives and using reasoning to arrive at a conclusion. It’s the ability, in other words, to analyze ideas, evidence, arguments and reasoning to make informed decisions.

Part of this process involves acknowledging what you don’t already know. “If you don’t know something, critical thinking means finding out about it and building yourself an opinion based on actual information,” explains Hinrich Eylers, PhD, PE, the vice provost of the College of Doctoral Studies at University of Phoenix (UOPX).

Critical thinking is one of those skills like communication. It can be a hard skill to quantify even as plenty of people add it to their resumés and claim it as their own. But how many of us truly seek out competing perspectives, dive into different data sets, evaluate the data for relevance and credibility, and come to a conclusion on a topic?

Rare as critical thinking skills may be, they are extremely valuable. Truly learning how to think critically and use reasoning can set you up for success and intellectual growth at both work and school.

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Critical thinking in academia

As Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society famously said, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.”

Indeed, thinking critically is one of UOPX’s core values, as referenced in the University’s mission and purposeMath and science classes are obvious places to develop critical thinking skills, but it’s possible to flex those same mental muscles in all sorts of academic experiences, including in the arts and humanities.

All research is applied critical thinking,” Eylers explains. “You observe a phenomenon. You ask a question about it. You think about how to answer that question. You think about what data you need to answer that question. Then, you must think about how to collect it. And in every one of those steps, you have to think critically.”

Everyday applications of critical thinking skills are all around us in academic settings, even beyond doctoral research. For example, critical thinking can look like brainstorming, searching for reliable sources, evaluating evidence and creating a hypothesis.

Critical thinking in the real world

A university might be where you cultivate your critical thinking skills, but the real world is where you’ll most often use them. Employers value critical thinkers as these workers tend to be better at their jobs because they drive innovation, are more inclined to use good judgment and make decisions based on all available information.

Critical thinkers bring these skills to the world at large too. Being an informed citizen requires critically evaluating claims, whether presented by the news, political candidates or the latest bestselling diet book.

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Overcoming biases

While the world will challenge your critical thinking, the biggest threat might be biases, both your own and those of your informational sources. These subconscious preconceptions subtly influence thinking, skewing our understanding and decision-making.

Many types of biases exist, and they can be hard to spot, especially within ourselves. A common pitfall is confirmation bias, which can manifest as the tendency to follow only social media accounts that share similar opinions to your own.

Another type of bias might be found in the information itself. If a scientific result is presented, you might look closely at the data set to determine its validity based on whether it includes an adequate sample size, ethical procedures and time to determine a quality result.

If you read a news report of an event, you might miss part of the story if you don’t read several accounts of the same event.

While biases can be tough to identify or overcome, one good first step may be to widen your social circle (and social media network) to include people of different cultural, political and academic backgrounds.

Strengthening critical thinking skills at UOPX

As a UOPX student with your share of life experiences, you already possess a certain level of mental fitness. Still, just like any athlete, you can always improve, and to do so, consistency is key.

For those looking for more intense training to become a stronger critical thinker, UOPX offers several target courses. Undergraduates can check out:

  • Critical Thinking in Everyday Life: This course is a great primer for developing analytical skills for problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Critical Thinking Across Disciplines: Cultivate career-ready skills, like the relationship between critical thinking and persuasion and recognizing fallacies in arguments.
  • Creative Minds and Critical Thinking: Drawing on the legacy of critical thinking as established by history’s most prominent practitioners, this course teaches how to apply critical thinking to creative and scientific thought.

Graduate-level students can explore:

Not sure which course is right for you? Reach out to your UOPX academic counselor for help finding a class that suits your study plan.

Embracing your inner thinker

A personal trainer will tell you that physical fitness isn’t a destination but a lifestyle, and the same applies to critical thinking. By using the mental muscles you’ve developed during your academic journey at UOPX, you’ll be ready to question, learn and grow well beyond your graduation day.

Remember, as with all lifelong skills, being consistent is key. “You have to practice,” Eylers says. “Question what people tell you — not out of malice or disbelief, but because it’s good practice to think about what you hear.”

By practicing critical thinking consistently, you’ll not only become a more engaged and creative learner, but you’ll also open your mind and your life to infinitely more possibilities. And that makes for a much more fascinating and satisfying journey.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.

 

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