What is critical thinking?
The ability to critically analyse information is one of the most important skills you need as a researcher. This is not the same as summarising information but rather the ability to evaluate it, reflect on it, reject or accept it, and then to come to your own conclusion on which you can base your arguments. This process of using logic and reason to establish which information is fact or opinion and then decising on your interpretation of it is known as critical thinking.
A particularly useful definition of critical thinking was devised by William Graham Sumner:
[Critical thinking is] . . . the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances.
Sumner, W. G. (1940). Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, New York: Ginn and Co., pp. 632, 633. This quotation is taken from: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-in-the-oxford-tutorial-abstract/867 (accessed 24 July 2013).
Critical reading is the ability to read effectively in order to understand the author's point of view. You also need to look for the author's particular biases, make judgements about the author's viewpoints and examine the evidence which has been used to support the author's arguments.
SOME TIPS ON CRITICAL THINKING AND CRITICAL READING
One of the starting points when you apply critical thinking and critical reading is your research topic. When you begin your reading you will be looking for relevance to your topic, and you will search for information that supports or negates your hypothesis or hypotheses, together with whether the information is valid and convincing. Stick to the point and do not move away from the main focus of your topic.
By understanding how various authors arrive at the many points of view on your topic, you will be better informed and better able to interpret the partial or complete validity or invalidity of academic opinion. Reading widely may likewise expose any errors or false assumptions in your own thinking and this will be of great benefit to your work.
Do not accept or believe information blindly. Examine the text for evidence of bias, prejudice, missteps in logic, inaccuracy, a lack of academic rigor, conflicts of interest, superficiality and so on. Question yourself, too, by the same standards that you apply to the authors you encounter.
This is one of the purposes of the literature review – to have an overview of the body of research on your topic and to be exposed to a wide range of opinion and argument. Read comparatively and do not seek only to confirm your existing opinions but challenge them by reading points of view opposed to yours.
Be open to the way that new information can change your thoughts on a subject. The more you read, the more depth and complexity you will bring to your thinking and writing on a subject. Be willing to change your mind and be open to other arguments.