Skip to Main Content

Library Services


Critical thinking at university

Conduct and communicate your application of critical method with confidence - evidence analysis, evaluation and reasoned academic opinion to assessors by developing your vocabulary of academic criticality.

What is criticality?

Criticality is an important aspect of university study

In the context of university study and wider academic research, the term criticality refers to the application of a multifaceted intellectual skill set used as part of an approach to learning that goes beyond simple passive teaching and rote memorization of basic information. It involves the systematic analytical and evaluative examination of evidence, theories, concepts, and arguments. A critical approach to learning will involve the processing of basic experiences, information or evidence by a learner or researcher in order to make sense and construct an explanation of it themselves and in doing so generate a deeper and more meaningful form of learning. As such, university students are encouraged to question assumptions, explore diverse perspectives, and engage with complex issues, fostering a deeper understanding of subject matter as well as the development of critical cognitive skills.

A key aim of common approaches and activities used in university teaching and learning is the cultivation of critical skills and abilities. Critical thinking is nurtured through various methods, including class discussions, debates, research projects, and problem-solving exercises. It encourages students to confront ambiguity, consider alternative interpretations, and grapple with real-world complexities. Additionally, critical thinking is closely linked to communication skills, as students must articulate their ideas persuasively and engage in constructive discourse. Ultimately, fostering critical thinking at the university level equips students with skills that extend beyond academia, enabling them to navigate an increasingly complex and information-rich world. It empowers individuals to approach challenges with intellectual rigor, make informed decisions, and contribute meaningfully to discussions on a wide array of topics.

Key aspects of critical approach:
  • Analysis: Critical approach begins with the ability to dissect complex problems, arguments, or situations into their constituent parts. This involves breaking down information into manageable chunks, identifying patterns, and understanding the relationships between different elements.
  • Evaluation: It's about assessing the quality, relevance, and credibility of information and arguments. Students must learn to question assumptions, recognize biases, and consider the source, context, and evidence behind the information they encounter.
  • Synthesis: Critical thinkers can take diverse pieces of information or ideas and combine them into a coherent whole. This skill is essential for creative problem-solving and for generating innovative solutions to complex issues.
  • Application: Critical thinking is not just theoretical; it's practical. It enables students to apply their analytical and evaluative skills to real-world problems, both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Inference: Students should be able to draw logical and well-supported conclusions from the information and evidence available to them. This includes the ability to make sound predictions and generalizations.
  • Reflection: Critical thinking encourages self-awareness and metacognition. It requires students to reflect on their own thought processes, biases, and potential limitations in their reasoning.
  • Communication: Effective communication of one's thoughts and ideas is integral to critical thinking. This includes the ability to articulate arguments clearly, persuasively, and coherently, whether in writing or through oral discourse.
  • Problem-Solving: Critical thinking equips students with problem-solving skills. They can identify issues, gather relevant information, and develop practical solutions based on their analysis and evaluation.
  • Open-Mindedness: Critical thinkers are open to different perspectives and are willing to consider viewpoints that may challenge their own beliefs. This openness fosters intellectual growth and the ability to engage in constructive dialogue.
  • Decision-Making: Critical thinking helps students make informed decisions based on a careful consideration of all available information, weighing pros and cons, and anticipating potential consequences.

Why is it important to you?

Criticality as a defining characteristic of academic practice

Criticality is the hallmark of the academic pursuit of knowledge as well as the methodological rigour that confers its validity among academic communities of research and indeed the wider world. Critical approach informs the design and execution of rigorous research methods for collecting core evidence, aiming to ensure it is objective, reliable and that the method is replicable by other researchers. Criticality underpins processes of analysis of core evidence in order to form logical explanations or interpretations of it that also make sense in the context of existing academic knowledge. Critical approach also lies at the heart of the logical inference or arguments used as the basis of broader conceptual and theoretical conclusions that not only explain the basic evidence, but also serve to structure deeper, more nuanced, more insightful and more rigorous academic knowledge and understanding within a discipline or subject area.

Criticality (and the deployment of component thinking skills as a method) lies at the heart of two fundamental academic practices: firstly the ability to deconstruct the arguments and evidence presented by others and secondly the capacity to construct our own coherent and well-reasoned arguments which use evidence appropriately and effectively to support our own viewpoints and conclusions:

  • Of core importance is the capacity to analyse information with impartial objectively. This includes the data collection and research we ourselves undertake and that proposed by others. Key to objective analysis is the ability to identify logical patterns, connections and relationships that exist within source information as well as potential implications and explanations that arise as a result.
  • A rigorous critical approach requires the ability to evaluate the validity or reliability of source evidence as well as the arguments made about it. This will often involve an appraisal of the methodologies used in the collection and analysis of source evidence as well as assessment of the logical coherence of inferences, arguments and conclusions made in response (be that by ourselves or in the work of others). Key here can be the 'breaking down' of complex conceptual explanations or theoretical arguments into their constituent parts, in order to assess their internal coherence and thus their critical validity.
  • In evaluating the arguments of others we develop our capacity to discern or distinguish between what amounts to a credibly evidenced and critically reasoned argument and conclusion (which upon acceptance by a wider academic subject community contributes to agreed academic understanding within a field) and arguments that amount to no more than mere conjecture which are often presented or 'disguised' as academic argument but which rely on uncritical, invalid, incomplete or unreliable means of reaching its conclusion.
  • Also relevant and of critical importance whether constructing our own argument or deconstructing the work of another is the ability to identify potential biases that may exist in chosen processes of methodology, analysis and argument which could distort and undermine the objectivity of conclusions made. This becomes of even greater importance when engaging in formal academic research (most often at postgraduate or doctoral level) in order to avoid any accusations regarding the rigour of research methods and conclusions and is achieved by demonstrating awareness (and where necessary a robust strategy for negating the impact) of potential forms of bias, for example those that may exist or emerge in relation to: the application of common data collection methodologies and analysis; the discipline, subject or research topic area itself; the personal or professional experiences, viewpoints or backgrounds of the researcher or research participants.

Criticality and critical thinking in your studies

Applying criticality is a fundamental aspect of academic practice and something you will need to do in a range of activities, for example:
  • when making notes in lectures or seminars - decision making as to how best to structure your notes or perhaps what information to include and what to leave
  • when asking questions of the the lecturer or your learning peers
  • when taking part in discursive learning activities or those that require you to quickly research a topic before presenting back to the class
  • when considering how you will follow up your directed learning with your own independent study in order to maximise your understanding.
  • thinking about the key ideas or concepts involved in your subject learning
  • when constructing for yourself, the knowledge maps or information architectures that shape academic understanding of your discipline
  • when thinking about how broad or specific topics encountered in one module relate to those covered in another or that you will address in future years
  • when making strategic decisions about which modules or specific topic areas will be assigned independent study time
  • when planning how you will approach and complete a particular learning or assessment task
  • when making planning decisions about how invest the independent study time you assign to the development of your academic practice
  • when planning how you will approach and complete a particular learning or assessment task
  • when engaging with assessment feedback from your tutor and planning how to address areas of your performance
  • when creating a revision timetable that assigns appropriate revision time to all necessary topics whilst also allowing for additional focus on areas that require more attention
  • when reading and appraising academic literature as part of your wider independent study
  • when evaluating (the strengths and weaknesses of) academic arguments and viewpoints of others
  • when undertaking a literature review as part on an assessment task that addresses a specific question or topic of investigation
  • when deciding which of your identified academic sources you will prioritise as supporting evidence for an academic argument
  • when you first recognise that you no longer agree with current academic consensus and are able to rationalise, reason and articulate why not
  • when formulating your own academic arguments during the research stage of a written assignment
  • when structuring a series of convincing evidence-based logical supporting statements that will enable a watertight argument and conclusion to be made
  • when planning how you will assign time to the different stages of a written assessment task
  • when planning the written structure of a written assessment task
  • when developing your own academic voice or academic writing style in order to put your own stamp on your work
  • communicating your critical approach with clarity to your assessors
  • when gathering data
  • when choosing methods for analysing data
  • when writing up your results

Academic argument


Argument analysis - This form offers prompts for analysing academic arguments, use it to dissect, describe and assess the effectiveness of academic propositions made by others or apply it to your own academic writing as a means of self-assessing your work as you draft your assignment.

Argument evaluation - Use this form to evaluate an argument once you have analysed it. Whereas an analytical approach will enable you to identify the component parts of an author's argument, an evaluative approach will enable you to critically appraise and assess the clarity of the overall argument itself and importantly, the author's presentation of it. Evaluation is a key skill required for formulating and demonstrating your own reasoned thought regarding an academic topic.

Argument planner - Use this form to formulate, analyse and evaluate your own argument. Use the prompts to effectively develop your own ideas, supporting arguments and collate your evidence. Your summaries, analysis and thoughts regarding your argument can later be copied, pasted and edited into your assignment or thesis.

Socratic questioning - This helpful guide contains a range of Socratic questioning to help you in developing your critical capacity for probing the academic viewpoints of others. As with the worksheets above it can equally be used as a means of probing your own academic arguments and writing as an effective means of self-assessment!

These external links are provided with respect to the quality of general information and advice they provide about this particular academic practice subject area.

A small disclaimer: be aware that the resources linked to on this page are created and authored by institutions and individuals outside of Cardiff Met and that specific information and advice given, particularly with regards to the policies, services, provision and practices of other universities does not refer to those of Cardiff Met. We highly recommend visiting the Cardiff Metropolitan University Academic Handbook to clarify relevant policies, processes and procedures that apply to students of Cardiff Met should you need to.

Critical thinking


Critical thinking | University of Leeds - A useful section that proposes a model for critical thinking whilst also discusses the important role of reading and writing critically as well as the evaluation of information.

Critical thinking | University of Sussex - Among the helpful video overviews, this site defines critical thinking in relation to descriptive writing, offers an informal quiz based on exemplars of different writing types and provides a model for evaluating web sources.