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Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions




What does "critical thinking" in college mean?



My Own Early Thinking

What is good critical thinking?

What is "problem solving"?

Additional Resources & Activities


This chapter gives you the basics of what "critical thinking" means at the college level.  "Critical" thinking does not mean negative or angry thinking.  Instead, it means good, logical, deep, and wide thinking.  This chapter explains critical thinking and suggests several ways to use it.



Writing is a form of thinking, which is why this chapter is in this writing textbook.  In "The Art of Changing the Brain" by J. Zull (Educational Leadership 2004), the author says that "practice" and "emotion" are two extremely important brain activities for learning.  Zull says that when we practice (as in practicing writing), our brain cells "fire repeatedly" and, as a result, become larger and spread to other brain cells.  The result is more connections among more brain cells: the growth of the connections or "synapses" become "networks [that] are the physical equivalent of knowledge" (69).  In other words, all your knowledge is like a thick, complex, three-dimensional web, with webbing connecting to webbing connecting to webbing.  And every time you learn something new, some of your three-dimensional strands of webbing grow longer, and the overall web becomes a little thicker, richer, and more complex.   

Emotion also is very important.  Zull says, "Emotion and thought are physically entangled" (70).  In general, you're more likely not just to think well--but remember your thoughts--if you associate some kind of emotion with what you have learned, and that emotion is in some way positive or associated with important learning.  In other words, though this may sound simple and basic, if you are having a good time, you're more likely to remember what you were thinking.  If, on the other hand, you're in a terrible mood, you can barely stay awake, or you hate the book or lecture you are trying to absorb, then you are highly likely to forget it.  This may explain, among many other things, why people report eating snacks, drinking sweet drinks, and listening to music they like as aids in studying.  it also helps explain why finding a good study place and a regular study time are so important: they set the background conditions for a more positive emotional experience, hence the greater likelihood you'll remember what you studied.  This factor--positive emotion--also helps explain why most of us report learning more--and learning better--in classrooms that are fun, especially in active situations that engage more of our thinking and doing, and from active teachers who make education fun and interesting.


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My Own Early Thinking

Thinking before Fighting  

How does any of us start "thinking"?  What is "thinking"?  And how is writing a form of thinking?

I--like most people, I imagine--didn't consider writing as thinking when I first began to look at my own thinking.  My mom taught me what most of us think of as "thinking"--a form of talking to yourself.  You could do it out loud, or you could talk to yourself in your head.  My mom explained to me that it was an especially good way to stop being mad at my sister if she did something silly or tried to start an argument with me.  "You're older than she is," my mom said, "and you know how to stop fighting better.  Just think first."

Tommy Pogue and Rocks in the Water Pump

So, I learned to think first, not only at home but also in school.  Sometimes my first thoughts weren't always the best ones, like the time Tommy Pogue and I put rocks down the water-well pump outside our one-room school, and the teacher had to fix it.  "What were you thinking!" she exclaimed.  "I wanted to help Tommy," I said.  My idea had been that he didn't have a lot of friends, and doing this with him would help us be friends.  Needless to say, I learned that first thoughts weren't always best thoughts.

I also learned, once I could write, that I could put some of my thoughts on paper and even get good grades for them.  I was careful not to write anything about which the teacher thought differently--I'd learned my lesson well with Tommy Pogue.  However, within reason, I found that my thoughts on paper were rewarded.  

Secret Thoughts

Then, with a change of schools in fourth grade and a suddenly increasing interest in the sexuality in the fifth grade, I found lots of thoughts to think that I didn't want my parents and school officials--and in some cases not even my friends--to know about.  This was when I started writing some of my private thoughts in a journal.  I started journaling in fifth grade now and then, and increased the amount and frequency of it through high school and my first year of college.  It was this kind of personal journaling--my responses to objective and subjective events and feelings--that enabled me to more closely examine my own thinking and feeling: to think thoughtfully about my own self.  It really took this deeper inner observation for me to learn how to become a good "critical" thinker.


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What is good "critical" thinking?  

It is simply good, thorough, creative and logical thinking.  The word critical does not mean "negative" or "mean" in the academic world; it simply means careful, thorough, and insightful thinking.  Good critical thinking usually demonstrates at least a few of the following traits at any given time:



It demonstrates familiarity with and understanding of its subject. 


It uses logic and reason in presenting its ideas.


While it may contain some emotional resources or material, it does so with balance and respect for its subject.


It develops new or unusual ideas that may represent thinking "outside of the box." 

Well Supported:   

It offers reasonable supporting details for the ideas it develops about its subject


It uses an organizational plan to present its ideas about its subject, step by step.

Richard Paul and Linda Elder, two of the leading experts in the modern critical-thinking movement, offer another list of elements in good critical thinking:  “clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, fairness” (Critical Thinking Concepts & Tools 9, Dillon Beach, CA, The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2001.)  These can be turned into a nine-part table, as follows (from "Other Processes" in the "Advanced" part of Chapter C4, "Evaluating a Reading"):

A Table of Critical Thinking Elements  --Paul and Elder

CLARITY: Is your thinking clear both in its usage (words, phrases, and style) and in its explanations of ideas (for the appropriate audience)?

ACCURACY: Is your thinking factually correct?

PRECISION: Is your thinking precise?  Does it not waste words but make its points efficiently and cleanly?

RELEVANCE: Does your thinking connect in valuable ways with other public discussions or needs?

DEPTH: Does your thinking not just skim the surface of the subject but instead go deeply into the underlying issues, problems, and events?

BREADTH: Does your thinking cover its subject broadly enough to have meaning for more than just a very narrow segment of people or problems?

LOGIC: Is your thinking logical?  Does it proceed in a step by step, sufficiently cause-and-effect structure that makes sense?  

SIGNIFICANCE: Is your thinking significant to a large enough audience?  

FAIRNESS: Does your thinking "play fair" by assuming ethical rules and guidelines most of us hold in common (e.g., democracy, equality, disclosure of bias, etc.)? 

What is a "taxonomy"?

Is it possible to find a good system to help you use critical thinking?  There are many such systems.  A popular one--that naturally follows from the above--is the well known "taxonomy" developed in 1964 by B.S. Bloom.  A "taxonomy" is a classification system in which there are necessary steps, each one including all the ones before it.  For example, the steps in growing from a flower seed to a final, complete organism represent a taxonomy, with the lowest level being the simplest and the top level being the most complex: 

a fully mature plant
a young plant
a sprout
a seed

The sprout has within it the basics of the seed; the young plant has within it the basics of the sprout and the seed; and the fully mature plant has within it the basics of a young plant, a sprout, and a seed.  Each step is necessary before the next can happen.

Bloom's famous taxonomy classifies educational objectives.  His classification reads from the bottom up, with the lowest level being the simplest educationally and intellectually:  







(from Taxonomy of Educational Objectives published by David McKay in New York)

This taxonomy or classification system shows six skills that students need to learn.  What is more, these skills occur in steps, with each of the five higher skills requiring what is beneath them.  This means, for example, that a student cannot learn "Application" until he or she has a reasonable mastery of both "Recall" and "Comprehension."  The very top skill, "Evaluation," requires mastery and use of all five skills below it.  


This taxonomy highlights, in particular (in terms of college-level thinking), the three higher-level skills of "Analysis," "Synthesis," and "Evaluation."  "Analysis," in particular, often is where real college-level critical thinking begins. The three simpler thinking skills below it must be mastered in a particular situation requiring a good analysis.  Everyone who reaches college is capable of and experienced in the first three skills--the ones below analysis (i.e., "Application," "Comprehension," and "Recall").  Most people also are capable of analysis, but if they do not learn to master it quickly, they are unlikely to succeed in college.  Almost all courses--and certainly all degrees and certificate programs--require the ability to analyze, at the least, a situation and develop sound, logical, clear results.  This is true whether you are a paramedic trying to assess how to handle a victim, a medical assistant trying to develop an intake diagnosis of a new patient, or a student in a liberal arts class learning to interpret meanings.  And if you are attempting a four-year degree or more (and sometimes even a two-year degree), you will have to master not only analysis but also the two educational objectives that follow it and are highest in Bloom's taxonomy, "Synthesis" and "Evaluation."

If analysis is so important, how can you transfer what you have learned in this chapter to future classes and work?  Simply remember that whenever you are confronted with a task involving thinking, analyze the task.  Break it down into its parts.  And ask yourself, "How am I supposed to perceive or explain the parts?"  Every task of this kind--every one--can be broken into parts and analyzed accordingly.  Of course, other kinds of thinking skills such as intuition, creativity, and freewriting (and free speaking!) are very useful, too.  However, whether you use an outline, a visual diagram, a discussion with others, or some rough drafting of ideas on your own, eventually you will need to break down a subject and then think about its parts, step by step, using a theory, viewpoint(s), or method.  Whenever you have a problem at work (or in your personal life), this is how you will eventually solve it if you solve it efficiently and thoroughly. 

Look everywhere around you in the academic world in which you now live, at courses, at lectures and discussions, and at textbooks (including this one).  Analyses are everywhere: someone has taken the time to look at a problem, situation, or subject, break it into its parts, and then decide how to talk about these parts, step by step, so that others can understand them, too.  That is, in fact, exactly what this chapter--and this discussion of analysis--is doing now.  It divides the task of analyzing into different parts and then discusses them from several viewpoints--of a college student just learning analysis, of a college student taking advanced college courses, and of a college student going into the professional world.  


"Synthesis" can be simplified greatly to refer to the ability to develop and support an opinion: in short, to make an argument.  It is important to remember, however, that good synthesis often does not represent just one argument or point of view, but rather two or more: the variety of alternate/opposing arguments that can be made from the same sets of evidence.  For more on the varieties of argument, see the extensive "Argument" section of this book. 

[Use "Advanced" sect. of arg. ch.?]


Evaluation is, in Bloom's taxonomy, the highest level of thinking to which one can aspire.  It is important to remember that "evaluation" includes not only its own particular intellectual behavior or methods, but also all the other thinking skills listed beneath it: all are necessary to good evaluation.  For example, think of what a good judge must do.  If a judge is to accurately deliver a verdict in a complex case, he or she must be able to recall all the evidence presented in court and also all relevant laws, comprehend the meaning of each, apply the laws to the evidence, analyze which laws apply to the evidence and how, synthesize the several possible results or outcomes of this analysis, and only then, finally, evaluate which result or outcome is the most correct.


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What is "problem solving"?

Problem solving is another method you can adopt to use critical thinking.  A good problem solving process helps you solve a specific problem in a concrete situation, step by step.  Good problem solvers go through several basic steps.  They consider the problem, try to get as much information about it as they can, think of several possible ways to solve the problem, choose one and apply it, and examine the results to see if more improvements can be made.

The Navajo Indians, for example, have an educational philosophy called "ana'ho'o't'l" or "issue based," which means it is problem-solving based.  This system involves four steps, sometimes nicknamed SNBH:

ANA'HO'O'T'L: Sa'ah Naagh'i' Bik'eh Ho'zho'o'n



Thinking and generating ideas 



Planning and implementing


Doing or implementing plans

Achieving and producing


Reviewing or bringing tasks to fruition 

Evaluation and reflection 

--The Dine (Navajo).

--Gretchen Starks-Martin. "Integrating a Culture into the Teaching of Reading and Writing: A Navajo Experience." College Reading and Learning Conference 2005. Minneapolis, 4 Nov. 2005.

--J. Dean Mellow. "An Examination of Western Influences on Indigenous Language Teaching."  In Reyhner, et. al. Learn in Beauty: Indigenous Education for a New Century. Flagstaff: Northern Arizona UP, 2000. 102-113.

Another problem solving process is "DARE."  It is a taxonomic problem-solving system and is especially useful in situations requiring a lot of thought.  In this case, thought actually is the action: one thoroughly examines a problem, need, or text.  On the one hand, DARE is a summary of many academic ways of writing and thinking.  On the other hand, it is a very thorough, detailed method of completing just the very first step in Navajo problem solving, called "Sa'ah," which is "thinking and generating ideas" (above).




 Describe your problem, need, or text and its related issues.



 Analyze the information: examine or sort it according to several possible viewpoints, methods, or interpretations.  
("One way of sorting this information is ___.  Another group of people might see it as meaning ___.  Still others would perceive that ___.")



 Respond by offering several possible opposing or differing arguments, positions, or opinions that reviewers, the public, scientists, or others might have.  
("One argument that could be made about this is ___.  Another argument is ___.")



 Having collected all this data, evaluate which is best and why using a set of criteria.  
("Using the criteria of ethical, financial, and psychological value, the responses above would be ranked as follows....because...."

(For additional discussion about using these four steps of D.A.R.E., go to "The Steps of D.A.R.E. in a Critical Review" in another chapter.)

As noted in the chapter on evaluation, the D.A.R.E. process may be applied to much more than just texts.  It can be used to review people and problems professionally and personally, work situations, professional needs and projects, and many other elements of life and work.  It is, as explained in the evaluation chapter, a sort of summary and highest-level meaning of this whole section of the Web site, on responding to readings.  D.A.R.E. is only one system of problem solving among many that require a series of steps similar to it.  Like any good problem-solving process, D.A.R.E. is not completed unless an additional step of examining the process itself--a review, evaluation, and revision of your work--is added before the result is shared with others.  In this respect, it is much like the writing process.  If you can learn to apply D.A.R.E.--the summary of this "Responding to Readings" section of the textbook--on almost any problem in your life, you have learned perhaps the single most important lesson in critical thinking that this section has to offer.


Additional Resources & Activities

Individual Types of Critical Thinking:

"Providing Deeper Explanation," "Offering New Evidence," and "Working with Audience Bias": See "Other Processes" in the "Advanced" part of the chapter called "Disagreeing with a Reading."

"Types of Analysis": See "Types of Analysis" in the "Basics" part and "Advanced Types of Analysis" in the "Advanced" part of the chapter called "Analyzing a Reading."

Critical Thinking in Research Writing: See the chapter called "Critical Thinking" in the Researching section.


Critical Thinking Activities & Exercises:    

7 Meta-Thinking Activities 

Problem Solving

See also Role-play to Teach Thinking, an essay


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1. How I Learned

2. Focus

3. First Drafts

4. Self & Others

5. Modes

6. Thinking



Activities Page

Six Student Responses

UNO Universal Organizer


 Related Links in

  2. Process & Focus 

  3. Thinking & Reading


14. Free Readings




Updated 1 Aug. 2013

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Previous editions: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted
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