7 Vital Critical Thinking Skills to Develop Before You Go to University

Image shows a painting of a young woman looking thoughtful as she reads a book. How many times have you watched the news, or picked up a newspaper, and automatically accepted that what’s being reported is completely impartial, and therefore the truth?

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If this sounds like you, it’s time to start developing your critical thinking skills. The truth is that newspapers and the news channels have their own agenda, and they’re rarely as impartial as one might assume. The same is true of academic texts. The author wants you to support their opinion, and some will stop at nothing to get you to do so – even if it means bending the truth, presenting only the facts that support what they’re saying, and so on. The ability to appraise what you read and decide for yourself whether the argument is convincing is crucial. Critical thinking underlies academia, but it’s hard to define. Rather than being a set of particular skills, it’s more a way of thinking. These words from Dr Stella Cottrell’s book Critical Thinking Skills sum it up nicely:
“Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view.”
How, then, does one develop such skills? In this article, we’re going to show you what kind of things to think about and look out for, so that you start to think and approach information in the right way.

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1. How to tell if a source is reliable

Image shows two photos of from the USSR, one intact and one with a young man edited out.
Some historical sources may have been edited. Nikolai Yezhov was removed from this 1937 image.

An essential skill for a historian, the ability to assess the reliability of a source of evidence is something that will come in useful in many other situations. Let’s look at the questions you would ask to ascertain the reliability of a historical source; you can then apply similar principles when you assess evidence in other fields of academia (or the news, or anyone who happens to be arguing with you!).

  • Was the person who wrote it actually present at the event they’re writing about? In other words, is it a primary source?
  • What source are they getting their knowledge from if they weren’t there themselves?
  • If it’s a secondary source – someone writing about a primary source – how long ago was the event they’re writing about? And how long ago was this secondary source written – is it current?
  • Is the source biased towards one particular viewpoint? (We’ll look at bias in a bit more detail below)
  • Is the evidence presented out of context? Would that context help tell a different story?
  • Does the source have an ulterior motive in disseminating their knowledge? For instance, do they stand to gain something through doing so?
  • Does the source have a good reputation? Or has it been widely discredited?
  • What are their qualifications? Are they really an expert on what they’re writing about?

The answers to these questions will have a major bearing on how likely you are to be able to trust what the source says. Questioning sources in this way is the key to thinking critically, and you can apply these kinds of questions to any kind of sources or other evidence. For instance, if you’re presented with statistical data that supposedly proves something, delve deeper: what was the sample size? Was it a decent-sized, representative sample or too small to prove anything? They say that you can prove anything with statistics, so they should be approached with caution. In science subjects particularly, critical thinking also covers the questioning of methodology, and the equipment and processes used to gather data, though this idea is applicable to humanities subjects to a degree too.

2. Picking up subtleties and ambiguities in language

Image shows boats sailing towards a fog-shrouded city.
Ambiguous language can be used to cloud a writer’s meaning.

Someone who is adept at approaching information in a critical way will instantly spot subtleties in language that might sound alarm bells about the reliability of a source. For example, the use of the word “surely” could be seen as evidence that the writer themselves is not convinced of what they are writing about, and is trying to persuade both you and themselves that their assertion is right: “this is surely evidence that…”. Words such as “claim” or “reportedly” are warning signs too: they show that what is being referred to is not fact, but conjecture or even gossip, and therefore cannot be relied upon.
What’s more, when a writer knows that there may be a weakness in their argument, they may use deliberately ambiguous language to hide behind. It’s difficult to give a specific example of this, but it’s something to think about when you’re reading something: does it make sense and is it easy to read? Strong arguments use clear, straightforward language that leaves the reader in no doubt as to the point the writer is making. In a weaker argument, you might spot ambiguities – instances in which the writer could mean one thing, but they could also mean another. They might also be deliberately vague to try to gloss over something that doesn’t support their argument. Vagueness and ambiguity are a dead giveaway that the argument is weak.

3. How to spot bias

Image shows a painting of David Garrick playing Richard III.
Written under a Tudor monarch, Shakespeare’s Richard III is unsurprisingly biased against its eponymous protagonist in favour of Henry Tudor.

Even the most prominent academics can be prone to bias – it’s human nature. They might have their own opinions on something, and those opinions bias their interpretation of the evidence, because they see what they want to see. Here are the questions you should ask to help you identify bias in what you read.

  • Look at the raw evidence. Does it tally with the academic’s interpretation?
  • What has the writer left out? Are they omitting some important evidence that contradicts what they’re saying?
  • If they include evidence that contradicts their point of view, what attitude do they take towards it? Do they provide a convincing argument as to why they’re not persuaded by it, or do they simply dismiss it without much comment?
  • Look at the writer’s background – is there anything there to suggest that they might be biased towards a particular opinion? Could they be being paid by someone with a particular political stance (for example)?
  • Does the language subtly seek to persuade you of a certain positive or negative viewpoint?
  • Are there any sweeping generalisations?
  • What other possible viewpoints are there?

By asking these questions as you go along, you’ll quickly start spotting bias wherever you go. If you read information and realise that you could easily rewrite it with a convincing argument saying exactly the opposite, there’s a good chance that the information is biased.

4. How to spot an assumption

Image shows a statue of the Greek God Zeus.
On the other hand, if you were to read, “The Greeks’ propensity to violence is evident in the bloodthirsty behaviour of Zeus in myth”, you’ll find the assumption that belief in a violent mythology correlates with violence in the population.

A lot of writing is full of assumptions, but they can be hard to spot because some of them are perfectly reasonable. For example, if you’re a professor of Classics writing for other academics, it’s a reasonable assumption that your readers know who Zeus is, so the omission of some kind of explanation as to his identity is not surprising. The harder kinds of assumptions to spot are those that involve something that isn’t as clear-cut. For instance, a newspaper article might write as though it were a given that a particular moral standpoint on an issue is the ‘right’ one – ignoring the fact that some readers may have a different point of view. If you’re reading a text, and something in writing makes you think, “hang on, we don’t all believe that that’s the case”, you’ve probably stumbled upon an assumption. We’ve already mentioned that nuances in language can be a dead giveaway, and this certainly applies in the case of assumptions. The less subtle assumptions might be highlighted with words and phrases such as “of course…” or “naturally”. You may also spot a writer ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ – riding the tide of popular opinion – which is a form of assumption that suggests they haven’t taken the time to consider whether the popular opinion has a valid argument supporting it.

5. How to spot a logical fallacy

Image shows a scarecrow's head.
An argument that misconstrues what someone else says is called a straw man.

A logical fallacy is an umbrella term for the use of poor reasoning in an argument. Logical fallacies are one of the characteristics of a weak argument, and they come in many different forms. Here are just a few common logical fallacies to look out for:

  • Someone important says something – therefore it must be true. This is similar to assumption, which we’ve already looked at.
  • Misconstruing someone’s argument, or wilfully misrepresenting it, so that the writer’s own argument looks stronger.
  • Appeals to your emotion – we’ll look at this in more detail below.
  • Making out that an argument is clear-cut, when it’s more complicated than that.

Next time you listen to a politician speaking, see how many logical fallacies you can spot. They’re often the worst offenders!

6. Resisting appeals to your emotion

One of the keys to thinking critically is not to be swayed by appeals to your emotions. Such appeals are nearly always intentional and designed to manipulate you into supporting an argument. This technique is often used by politicians, or by campaigners who are trying to win your support. It can happen subtly, through the use of emotive words (such as “evil” or “impressive”), or more overtly through the use of rhetoric (“think of the children”).

7. Understanding different kinds of evidence

Image shows a young woman looking through binoculars.
Eyewitnesses can easily be misled.

To assess the strength of someone’s argument, you need to ascertain the evidence upon which they are basing it and decide whether you are convinced by their interpretation of that evidence. It’s important to understand that some evidence is more unreliable than others. Here are some of the kinds of less reliable evidence you might see used to support arguments.

  • Anecdotal evidence – personal experiences and things heard from others.
  • Isolated examples that the writer tries to use to show that something is the case, when there’s plenty of other evidence to the contrary that they conveniently forget to mention.
  • Statistics – we’ve already mentioned that statistics can be bent, and that you should find out the sample size and so on.
  • Eyewitness testimony – this is notoriously unreliable due to problems such as false memories.

Treat these kinds of evidence with caution, and if using them yourself, make sure your reader knows that you’re aware of the possible shortfallings of such evidence by stating these misgivings. Even where a study uses raw data, it’s worth delving a little deeper to find out whether the writer has looked at it in its entirety, or whether they are just picking and choosing the bits that conveniently support what they want to prove.

The importance of critical thinking

Image shows Merton College, Oxford.
University interviewers will want to see evidence of your critical thinking skills.

In academia, you are encouraged to think for yourself and never to assume something to be correct. One should ask questions, be curious. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills you develop while you’re at university, and it’s the reason why humanities degrees can be usefully applied to a great many jobs. Employers want employees who can question things and think for themselves, and thereby improve their business, not blindly go along with something without considering whether or not it’s the best way of doing things.
Someone who is good at critical thinking will find themselves less willingly swayed by poor arguments – and that makes them great for the world of business, in which there’s always someone trying to sell you something that might not be best for you or your business, or someone trying to convince you that you owe them something (such as a difficult customer). It’s all too easy to be won over by a forceful argument, but when you stop and critically consider that argument, you may well find that it has no real basis whatsoever. Just because someone talks loudly or forcefully doesn’t mean that they’re right – but it’s easy to think that they are. A critical thinker will – often without even realising it – automatically appraise what they hear and consider whether or not they’re convinced by it. If you start asking yourself the questions we’ve posed in this article each time you read or listen to something, you’ll soon be doing the same.


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Image credits: banner; USSR photos; fog; Richard III; Zeus; scarecrow; binoculars; Merton College.