Learning to think critically

Soon-to-be Dr Naomi Green, from the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, talks about developing critical thinking “through osmosis”.

I have just passed my viva for my PhD thesis in Biomedical Engineering and I have been reflecting on my postgraduate experience and the skills I have learnt.  One of the key skills all PhD students are supposed to pick up during their research is the ability to think critically. But what does critical thinking mean and how do you learn to do it?

Critical thinking encompasses a whole range of skills and thought processes but can be described as the ability to think independently and objectively evaluate evidence. A critical thinker is disciplined and rational, as well as being open-minded and aware of their own prejudices and biases. They are able to consider other viewpoints and perspectives and integrate them into their work. One of the main principles of critical thinking is that the researcher should dispassionately follow where the evidence takes them, rather than bending it to suit a desired outcome.

So how did I learn to think critically? Well my first reflection was that I learnt it through osmosis, and that by simply being in an academic environment I soaked the skill up in a passive way. Whilst that is partly true, actually I actively did a lot of things which helped me to develop my critical thinking. I just was not aware at the time that was what I was doing. I think critical thinking is a skill you develop slowly through a range of activities; you cannot just go on a two hour training course and expect to be an expert. So if you are struggling to improve your critical thinking skills what can you do?

  • Have regular meetings with your supervisors to discuss your work. See them not just as progress meetings but a chance to discuss new ideas you have had or papers you have read recently.
  • Try reading journal papers or academic texts as an exercise in critical thinking, rather than knowledge gathering. Evaluate the evidence presented by the authors and consider if you would draw a different set of conclusions. If you are a way into your studies revisit some key papers you read at the beginning and see if you view them differently now.
  • Talk to researchers in other fields about your research to gain fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking.
  • Attend or present at conferences. The chance to rigorously debate your work with experienced researchers will help you consider other view points and learn to defend your work where you think necessary.
  • If possible in your department take the opportunity to help supervise final year undergraduate or masters students. By reviewing their research methods and writing it will in turn improve yours.
  • Write about your research regularly, whether it be a draft of a thesis chapter, a journal paper, or an article for a lay audience. Get feedback on your ideas and writing from other academics and use it to improve the next piece of writing you do.

How have you developed your critical thinking?  Let me know in the comments.

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Helen Kara

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