Image of a man posing next to a wall with a thought bubble painted on it.

“thought bubble called confusion : san francisco (2011)” by torbakhopper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today, one of my students told me she was attending a seminar on commas and semicolons because she wanted to do everything in her power to improve her academic writing. I applauded her for being proactive and taking charge of her academic experience. However, I lamented the fact that she had subscribed to one of the most misguided beliefs about writing out there – that good writing is about good grammar.

Listen, I love semicolons as much as the next gal. Probably a little more. However, a semicolon can’t make a vague and uninteresting sentence better. What can make a vague and uninteresting sentence better? A good idea.

All good pieces of writing – academic or otherwise – start with good ideas. If you want to learn to write better, you have to learn to think better. You have to improve your critical thinking skills. If you change the way you think, you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your writing and (hopefully) your scores.

So, how can you up your critical thinking game?

Question Basic Assumptions

If you want to become a skilled critical thinker, you have to channel your inner 4-year-old. 4-year-olds are never satisfied with simple answers. They always want to know why something happens. One question leads to another. That question leads to another and another, and so-on and so-forth. That’s what critical thinkers do. They look at basic assumptions – things that most of us take for granted, and they ask why. Why is this so? Why do I believe this? Why do others accept it? They question everything!

Reflect on Your Own Biases

Critical thinkers aren’t afraid to question basic assumptions, nor are they afraid to question their own biases. Our life circumstances – our age, our socio-economic class, our education, our gender, our cultural background – all of these things impact the way we process information. Critical thinkers understand their biases and they try to move beyond them.

Look for the “Gray”

Most people prefer to see things in black and white. They think in extremes. Not critical thinkers. Critical thinkers understand that there are more than two possible solutions, outcomes, or ideas. When they look at a problem or a situation, they see shades of gray.

Use Evidence to Draw Conclusions

Non-critical thinkers use feelings and emotions to develop their ideas. Critical thinkers, on the other hand, use evidence to draw conclusions and make inferences. They go where the evidence takes them; they don’t try to manipulate the evidence to fit their needs.

Entertain Opposing Viewpoints

We all have issues that we feel passionately about. We all have strong opinions. However, critical thinkers welcome the opportunity to debate those opinions. Critical thinkers aren’t afraid to have their ideas challenged, nor are they afraid to change their minds if someone else presents a logically sound point!

Take Risks

Non-critical thinkers make the obvious points; they make the expected observations. Critical thinkers aren’t afraid to make a bold assertion or make an unusual connection. They take interpretative and analytical risks, but they support everything point with evidence! Their bold assertions always have a logical base.

Bottom Line: Anyone can be a critical thinker. You just have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and ask hard questions.