5 tips to improve your critical thinking

Every employer would like an employee who is a good problem solver. But in a world that increasingly puts an emphasis on technical skills, how important is thinking on your feet?

More important than ever, according to an opinion piece in The Washington Post. In June, the heads of eight Washington-area high schools announced they are removing their AP course offerings. They stated concerns with the “breadth over depth” approach that prioritizes mass memorization over critical thinking.

The National Association of College and Employers identifies critical thinking/problem solving as one of their essential competencies in career readiness. The employers they questioned determined that exercising sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions and overcome problems was one of four ideal traits for employees to possess.

Improving your critical thinking usually means leaving your comfort zone for new horizons. Here are five tips to help you become a better decision-maker.

1. Join a new group or class

Learning to understand others’ perspectives is vital to critical thinking. It allows you to bridge any gaps in understanding and move toward a conclusion. And what better way to get exposed to new perspectives than joining a new group?

“You have to do activities and things that are weird and different. If you’re pre-med, you have to go to pre-med societies and all that. But if you want to stand out, you have to develop your morals and values in other places, too,” says Jose Rodriguez, who has lectured at the Honors College since 2008.

Rodriguez teaches a performance course in which each student is privately assigned a character, background and an objective that he or she must work diplomatically to obtain. These classes take place in the context of a major historical event like the French Revolution or the birth of democracy. They are one of many avenues the Honors College offers to improve its students’ critical thinking.

“[As a student], I took a course in Egyptian history because I wanted to be Indiana Jones or whatever. But I ended up being so excited to go to class. He would talk about all the cool stuff he did on archaeological digs. There should be room for exploration in your academics,” says Rodriguez.

The university itself has a multitude of different student organizations and clubs to explore.

2. Master the art of explaining

Communication is key to the critical thinking process. It allows you to solidify underlying assumptions between people and move toward a solution.

One cog of communication that encapsulates the skills of critical thinking is explaining, says Kenton Harris, a faculty member of the philosophy department at the College of Arts, Sciences & Education who teaches a critical thinking course.

“Think about the cognitive skills needed for explaining. I have to think about where you are. I have to figure what I know, and how I’m going to package it in a way you know how to access. It’s a challenge,” says Harris.

If you keep practicing the art of explaining, then you might just become a better problem solver.

3. Prepare in advance

Integrating intention into your preparation can make you more attractive to employers.

Nancy Richmond is a faculty member in the marketing department at the College of Business, who lectures on social media. While growing your various online platforms can help you find a job, she says, you have to grow them purposefully, too.

“You have to be strategic from a networking standpoint. [On LinkedIn] you can’t start sending invitations when you want a job, you have to start before,” Richmond says.

For her social media students, Richmond recommends anticipating what multimedia skills you might need. Upping your PowerPoint skills and using spare time for technical training helps.

“Social media is constantly changing. You’ll have to constantly be learning and adapting. [Your employer] will never say, ‘Use this tool to solve this problem,’” Richmond says.

4. Determine your goals

With everything involved in problem solving, determining the problem is perhaps the most important part. And it’s important to be specific.

“Critical thinkers have to be on guard against empty words, ambiguity and vagueness,” Harris says.

Room for interpretation in a conclusion is unproductive for the critical thinker. Instead, it helps to flesh out exactly what your endgame is, how you’ll get there and what the results might be.

“When we’re doing critical thinking, we’re trying to understand an argument and why something is the way it is. We have to understand how those assumptions lead to a conclusion. What might be the consequences?” says Rodriguez.

5. Read and grow your knowledge

Carnegie Mellon University found in a 2009 study of young children that reading generated white matter in the brain, which improves one’s ability to process information. In other words, reading is scientifically proven to improve critical thinking.

“Read periodicals like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Read professional journals associated with your major. It engages you intellectually, and you see how other people phrase things,” Harris says.

Other media like podcasts and TED Talks can also introduce you to new ways of thinking.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers found creativity as a crucial characteristic for employees, too. Check out our five tips on how to unlock your creative side.