How Critical Thinking Will Help You Succeed in School and Beyond
Some skills for university are subject specific; you’ll need to perfect your lab skills for a degree in Chemistry, but they won’t be much help if you plan to study History. That said, there are other skills that everyone planning to study at degree level should consider finessing, as they will set you up for success in any field.
Critical thinking is one of these crucial interdisciplinary skills – whatever you’re planning to study, you’ll be required to process large quantities of information, considering its validity, relevance and reliability.
Critical thinking is an ability that sets exceptional students apart, particularly in the university application process. Whereas large chunks of GCSE and A-Level (and equivalent) study are passive learning, with limited application of ideas, university study is all about the processing and implementation of information.
At undergraduate-level, it’s no longer enough to simply read through a resource – you should be considering whether the source is legitimate, where the author’s authority comes from, and whether you believe their arguments are valid.
When Is Critical Thinking Important?
Critical thinking is a skill you can employ in all aspects of your life – it will be invaluable in your studies, but it will also enable you to be an active and engaged citizen.
In a world of fake news and social media outlets, it can be difficult to decide what to believe, which is why it’s so important to consume news and other media from a critical point of view.
It’s important to note that this does not mean you should only seek out content that lines up with your existing points of view; you should read a range of sources with an awareness of their existing biases, and use them all to inform your conception of the event or idea.
“In a world of fake news and social media outlets, it can be difficult to decide what to believe”
6 Ways to Hone Your Critical Thinking Skills and Ensure Your Future Success
So, how do you make sure you’re thinking critically, in both your future studies and your day-to-day life?
Here are our top tips, informed by decades of experience helping young people excel in their studies and beyond.
1. Find a Focused Space to Engage
Critical thinking gets a lot harder when you can’t hear yourself think! Make sure you’re set up for success by settling yourself in a positive work environment, whatever that looks like for you.
You might have a favourite cafe with just the right level of ambient noise for you, or perhaps you prefer to position yourself at a desk in the quiet section of your local library, with your phone firmly on silent in your bag. Whatever your ideal focused set up, make sure you’re comfortable and ready to engage.
2. Start with a Quick Scan
If you’re reading a book, have a quick flick through to get a sense of what content is covered by each chapter. If it’s a video or podcast, see if there’s a blurb or show notes which summarise the content.
This helps to give you an initial sense of what the resource contains and will help you to contextualise the information you’re offered.
3. Get Active
If you’re reading something in print, you might like to underline or highlight parts of the text that you think are important. If you’re watching a video or listening to a podcast, you can jot down notes, quotes and thoughts as you listen.
When you reach the end of a section, you might like to quickly summarise its key points, either in writing or out loud (out loud works better if you’re somewhere private!).
The more actively you engage with the content as you’re consuming it, the better your comprehension of it is likely to be and the more effectively you’ll retain the information. This will also make it easier to consider opposing views, and think about the extent to which you trust and agree with the resource.
4. Ask Questions
A) What might a counter argument to this be?
B) What is the strongest point in this section? Why?
C) What is the weakest point in this section? Why?
D) What connections can be made between this content and any ideas or concepts I’ve learnt about in other subjects?
E) Based on what I know about the author/creator of this content, do I think this is a classic example of their work? Does it contain themes which appear in other examples of their work, or works in this genre? If so, what are they?
5. Can You Go Further?
Once you’ve finished with a resource, research a related book, video or podcast you could look at next.
Reading something by the same author or creator can be helpful in giving you a better understanding of their thinking and style, or you could try to find someone on the other side of the argument and use them as a point of comparison.
6. Keep a Record!
Don’t let all your wider reading go to waste! Set up a spreadsheet, or create a note on your phone, and every time you engage with a resource that’s relevant to your studies, make a note of the title, author and date, plus a short summary of your thoughts. This will be a treasure trove of information you can return to when writing your university application and personal statement!
By Jo Cruse
Jo’s career in education includes a tenure as a teacher at one of the UK’s leading schools, where she also served as a university admissions advisor.
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