Critical Thinking Skills

In the introduction, we suggested you look for a list of mental abilities and attitudes or habits, the experts, when faced with the same problem you are working on, refer to their lists as including cognitive skills and dispositions. As to the cognitive skills here*s what the experts include as being at the very core of critical thinking: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation. (We*ll get to the dispositions in just a second.) Did any of these words or ideas come up when you tried to characterize the cognitive skills — mental abilities — involved in critical thinking?

Quoting from the consensus statement of the national panel of experts: interpretation is "to comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, rules, procedures, or criteria." [2]

Interpretation includes the sub-skills of categorization, decoding significance, and clarifying meaning. Can you think of examples of interpretation? How about recognizing a problem and describing it without bias? How about reading a person*s intentions in the expression on her face; distinguishing a main idea from subordinate ideas in a text; constructing a tentative categorization or way of organizing something you are studying; paraphrasing someone*s ideas in your own words; or, clarifying what a sign, chart or graph means? What about identifying an author*s purpose, theme, or point of view? How about what you did above when you clarified what "offensive violence" meant?

Again from the experts: analysis is "to identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among statements, questions, concepts, descriptions, or other forms of representation intended to express belief, judgment, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions." The experts include examining ideas, detecting arguments, and analyzing arguments as sub-skills of analysis. Again, can you come up with some examples of analysis? What about identifying the similarities and differences between two approaches to the solution of a given problem? What about picking out the main claim made in a newspaper editorial and tracing back the various reasons the editor offers in support of that claim? Or, what about identifying unstated assumptions; constructing a way to represent a main conclusion and the various reasons given to support or criticize it; sketching the relationship of sentences or paragraphs to each other and to the main purpose of the passage? What about graphically organizing this essay, in your own way, knowing that its purpose is to give a preliminary idea about what critical thinking means?

The experts define evaluation as meaning "to assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are accounts or descriptions of a person*s perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief, or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intended inferential relationships amongstatements,descriptions, questions or other forms of representation." Your examples? How about judging an author*s or speaker’s credibility, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of alternative interpretations, determining the credibility of a source of information, judging if two statements contradict each other, or judging if the evidence at hand supports the conclusion being drawn? Among the examples the experts propose are these: "recognizing the factors which make a person a credible witness regarding a given event or a credible authority with regard to a given topic," "judging if an argument*s conclusion follows either with certainty or with a high level of confidence from its premises," 2 The findings of expert consensus cited or reported in this essay are published in Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Peter A. Facione, principle investigator, The California Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990. (ERIC ED 315 423). In 1993/94 the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University undertook a study of 200 policy- makers, employers, and faculty members from two-year and four- year colleges to determine what this group took to be the core critical thinking skills and habits of mind. The Pennsylvania State University Study, under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Jones, was funded by the US Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Instruction. The Penn State study findings, published in 1994, confirmed the expert consensus described in this paper.

Do the people you regard as good critical thinkers have the three cognitive skills described so far? Are they good at interpretation, analysis, and evaluation? What about the next three? And your examples of poor critical thinkers, are they lacking in these cognitive skills? All, or just some?

To the experts inference means "to identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions; to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to educe the consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs, opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other forms of representation." As sub-skills of inference the experts list querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, and drawing conclusions. Can you think of some examples of inference? You might suggest things like seeing the implications of the position someone is advocating, or drawing out or constructing meaning from the elements in a reading. You may suggest that predicting what will happen next based what is known about the forces at work in a given situation, or formulating a synthesis of related ideas into a coherent perspective. How about this: after judging that it would be useful to you to resolve a given uncertainty, developing a workable plan to gather that information? Or, when faced with a problem, developing a set of options for addressing it. What about, conducting a controlled experiment scientifically and applying the proper statistical methods to attempt to confirm or disconfirm an empirical hypothesis?

Beyond being able to interpret, analyze, evaluate and infer, good critical thinkers can do two more things. They can explain what they think and how they arrived at that judgment. And, they can apply their powers of critical thinking to themselves and improve on their previous opinions. These two skills are called "explanation" and "self-regulation."

The experts define explanation as being able to present in a cogent and coherent way the results of one*s reasoning. This means to be able to give someone a full look at the big picture: both "to state and to justify that reasoning in terms of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, and contextual considerations upon which one*s results were based; and to present one*s reasoning in the form of cogent arguments." Thesub-skills under explanation are describing methods and results, justifying procedures, proposing and defending with good reasons one’s causal and conceptual explanations of events or points of view, and presenting full and well-reasoned, arguments in the context of seeking the best understandings possible. Your examples first, please... Here are some more: to construct a chart which organizes one*s findings, to write down for future reference your current thinking on some important and complex matter, to cite the standards and contextual factors used to judge the quality of an interpretation of a text, to state research results and describe the methods and criteria used to achieve those results, to appeal to established criteria as a way of showing the reasonableness of a given judgment, to design a graphic display which accurately represents the subordinate and super-ordinate relationship among concepts or ideas, to site the evidence that led you to accept or reject an author*s position on an issue, to list the factors that were considered in assigning a final course grade.

Maybe the most remarkable cognitive skill of all, however, is this next one. This one is remarkable because it allows good critical thinkers to improve their own thinking. In a sense this is critical thinking applied to itself. Because of that some people want to call this "meta-cognition," meaning it raises thinking to another level. But "another level" really does not fully capture it, because at that next level up what self-regulation does is look back at all the dimensions of critical thinking and double check itself. Self-regulation is like a recursive function in mathematical terms, which means it can apply to everything, including itself. You can monitor and correct an interpretation you offered. You can examine and correct an inference you have drawn. You can review and reformulate one of your own explanations. You can even examine and correct your ability to examine and correct yourself! How? It*s as simple as stepping back and saying to yourself, "How am I doing? Have I missed anything important? Let me double check before I go further."

The experts define self-regulation to mean "self-consciously to monitor one*s cognitive activities, the elements used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis, and evaluation to one*s own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming, validating, or correcting either one*s reasoning or one*s results." The two sub-skills here are self-examination and self-correction. Examples? Easy — to examine your views on a controversial issue with sensitivity to the possible influences of your personal biases or self-interest, to check yourself when listening to a speaker in order to be sure you are understanding what the person is really saying without introducing your own ideas, to monitor how well you seem to be understanding or comprehending what you are reading or experiencing, to remind yourself to separate your personal opinions and assumptions from those of the author of a passage or text, to double check yourself by recalculating the figures, to vary your reading speed and method mindful of the type of material and your purpose for reading, to reconsider your interpretation or judgment in view of further analysis of the facts of the case, to revise your answers in view of the errors you discovered in your work, to change your conclusion in view of the realization that you had misjudged the importance of certain factors when coming to your earlier decision.

The Delphi Method

The panel of experts we keep referring to included forty-six men and women from throughout the United States and Canada. They represented many different scholarly disciplines in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and education. They participated in a research project that lasted two years and was conducted on behalf of the American Philosophical Association. Their work was published under the title Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. (The California Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990). You may download the executive summary of that report free. Visit

You might be wondering how such a large group of people could collaborate on this project over that long a period of time and at those distances and still come to consensus. Good question. Remember we’re talking the days before email.

Not only did the group have to rely on snail mail during their two-year collaboration; they also relied on a method of interaction, known as the Delphi Method, which was developed precisely to enable experts to think effectively about something over large spans of distance and time. In the Delphi Method a central investigator organizes the group and feeds them an initial question. [In this case it had to do with how college level critical thinking should be defined so that people teaching at that level would know which skills and dispositions to cultivate in their students.] The central investigator receives all responses, summarizes them, and transmits them back to all the panelists for reactions, replies, and additional questions.

Wait a minute! These are all well-known experts, so what do you do if people disagree? And what about the possible influence of a big name person? Good points. First, the central investigator takes precautions to remove names so that the panelists are not told who said what. They know who is on the panel, of course. But that*s as far as it goes. After that each expert*s argument has to stand on its own merits. Second, an expert is only as good as the arguments she or he gives. So, the central investigator summarizes the arguments and lets the panelists decide if they accept them or not. When consensus appears to be at hand, the central investigator proposes this and asks if people agree. If not, then points of disagreement among the experts are registered. We want to share with you one important example of each of these. First we will describe the expert consensus view of the dispositions which are absolutely vital to good critical thinking. Then we will note a point of separation among the experts.


Introduction and Definition Back Next Disposition Toward Critical Thinking

Find a link that's no longer valid?   Please let us know.
Please Note: The information presented online in the "In A Nutshell" series, is offered as a free, and hopefully, helpful service.
Time constraints, however, make it impossible to provide specific answers to individual inquiries.