Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 10, 2008

How to Study: Notes on Critical Thinking I

[The previous ‘How to Study’ post (June 9, 2008) described dialectical thinking as one style of thinking among several (just as there are many styles of painting, or fashion).  In this post, critical thinking refers to the quality of thinking, regardless of its style.]

Learning in an academic setting—e.g., high school, college, or graduate school—is constrained by time.  There are only so many days in a semester and that means those who learn the most efficiently have a huge advantage over those who learn less efficiently.  Wise students learn that fact early.  Understanding what learning ‘is’ helps you to do it efficiently.

Learning consists of two main processes; you can think of them as gathering and evaluating.  The process of gathering (migrating information ‘from sources to your head’) is governed mainly by study skills, especially note-taking skills, which tend to be mechanical and routine.  However, the process of evaluating—lighting the fire—is governed by critical thinking skills, which are more dynamic in that each bit of information must be evaluated in its own context (i.e., how you evaluate depends on what you are evaluating). 

These two processes are linked together because all gathered information is evaluated. Our choices (regarding gathered information) are to: accept it, reject it or reserve judgment on it.  If we accept it, we relate it to other information we have accepted. 

Strong critical thinking skills are important for efficient learning because these skills determine both how well we understand the information we store and the quality of our decisions.  The more you learn about critical thinking skills, the better your own skills become.

Dr Richard Paul’s website,, describes critical thinking like this:


Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem

Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so.  But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced.

Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.

Excellence in thought, therefore, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content, or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of how thinking occurs and imposing intellectual standards upon his or her thinking.

The Result

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information—using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively—and comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.

It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use.

It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism. 

(originally published in Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008).


Continually reflecting on how you study and how you prepare for exams is the first step towards improving your critical thinking skills.  The benefits of reflection go beyond the classroom and are an important basis for every democratic society.

Reflection requires paying attention. Journalist Maggie Jackson reported in her book Distracted that attention is a three-part process of focus, awareness and judgment.  She and historian Rick Shenkman discussed the importance of this skill on the Diane Rehm Show .


For more information on critical thinking visit the Cuesta College website—


Next post:  Critical Thinking II


  1. […] Also, see […]

  2. […] post is a sequel to How to Study: Notes on Critical Thinking I (June 10, […]

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