Typically honed when people become young adults, critical thinking skills are key to being successful in almost all walks and aspects of life, as well as to growing to become well-rounded individuals.
They are described by the University of Galway as “higher order” skills – that is, skills requiring ways of thinking that are deeper and more complex than the kind of “everyday thinking” we use to, say, cook a meal, or learn our times tables.
These skills involve analysing and evaluating the information that you encounter, and then making inferences or drawing conclusions based upon your analysis and evaluation.
Developing these skills will make it possible for you to master the key skill of reflective judgment or the ability to make a reasoned judgment, based on the available information, while also being cognisant of the nature and limits of knowledge and knowing.
An important point to note is that being critical does not imply being negative. Being critical means considering things in a balanced and objective way, and using reason and logic – rather than instinct, emotion, or belief – to reach a conclusion.
University of Galway director of entrepreneurial development Natalie Walsh has another word for it: design thinking.
The college has spearheaded a collaborative innovation space known as IdeasLab as a means to support its students in their development as the next generation of creators, problem-solvers and innovators.
“In essence, we are asking students to engage in design thinking,” says Walsh. “We see it like a Swiss Army Knife – versatile, practical and fun.
“When you enable and empower students with these skills, it’s our experience that you are giving them the foundation to tackle challenges with a creative and adaptable mindset.”
Students work in teams. On occasion they are required to think critically, and in some instances they are asked to communicate their ideas “with style and flair”.
“It can start off with what seemingly appears as an abstract design requirement, or a challenge they have to solve,” says Walsh.
“Take the Galway International Arts Festival, which has a strong partnership and relationship with the university.
Consider how the solution at hand may impact others... this can help you better understand the effects of your decision and weigh them appropriately— Sarah Carroll, Indeed
“We asked students to work on the future of festivals in a post-Covid world and how we could leverage technologies to connect audiences with the culture, creativity and craic of Galway city during the festival season.”
Students used a blend of virtual reality and augmented reality combined with a sensory subscription box that included the tastes, smells and sounds of Galway for global audiences.
In another example, the university worked with US biotech group Boston Scientific and asked students to meet a CAT lab nurse who needed to immerse her hands in freezing cold water for nine minutes to prepare a stent.
“We replicated the issue in IdeasLab – students immersed their hands in ice water and tried to thread a needle,” says Walsh.
“It’s an experience of the challenge which drove them to then come up with the solution of a dexterous thermal glove. Better outcome for the nurse and potentially a better standard of care for patients.
“Experience of skills development like this gives people the power to transform their ideas – sometimes wild, sometimes wonderful – into reality. They are solving complex problems in a very human-centred way.”
Walsh says the university is also taking the combined challenges and opportunities posed by artificial intelligence further this year.
“We have integrated it into our programmes and each week one of the teams in each programme will use ChatGPT to complete activities towards developing their solution direction,” she explains. “We then compare and reflect on the activities as a learning group.
“Students experience artificial intelligence in action – how to leverage it; how to make the most of it; while also becoming aware of its limitations, particularly in relation to critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation.
“Many of the challenges that our students work to solve are created in partnership with companies that span the creative, technology, health and space sectors, so there is something for everybody and lots of opportunities working with IdeasLab.”
The university has also created a new module called Empathy in Action, spearheaded by Prof Pat Dolan and Dr Bernadine Brady, who are both internationally recognised experts in the area.
“Students are effectively asked to place themselves in the position of others – walk in their shoes – to create new products and services, with and for society,” Walsh says.
“Students get access to what we call the Empathy Lab, which uses a blend of role-play, interviews, virtual reality and simulation to develop emotional intelligence, self-awareness and resilience.”
Sarah Carroll, a careers expert with jobs website Indeed, says critical thinking skills are vital to understanding problems that you will encounter at work daily throughout your entire career, whether as an entry level grad or a C-suite executive.
“Critical thinking ensures you fully understand a situation and its potential effects at the outset, rather than diving head first into solution-mode,” is how she puts it.
“Graduate roles are all about learning and absorbing new information, making it an ideal time to develop and hone your critical thinking skills.
“New grads need to expand their horizons, taking the space to explore new areas of business and understand the types of problems they are trying to solve.
“This might mean sitting in on meetings, job shadowing and asking questions to learn more about the different types of customers, departments, and aspects of the industry beyond the area they directly work in.
“By understanding the wider challenges the business faces, you can develop a more lateral view and see how your work fits into the bigger picture, which is crucial as you climb the career ladder.”
Some of her practical tips to help critical thinking include understanding your own thought process.
“Understanding how you interpret, react or listen to information, and how your personal beliefs affect your thought processes, can help you be more objective in your decision-making,” she explains.
Another tip is to consider the wider picture: “Consider how the solution at hand may impact others,” she says. “Although not always a deciding factor, this can help you better understand the effects of your decision and weigh them appropriately.”
Sometimes students feel that if they disagree with another person, this might be considered rude or impolite. But much new knowledge and thinking stems from respectful disagreement with others— Advice from University of Galway
Her final tip is to practise what she calls “active listening” in your day-to-day and professional life. “Make an effort to be a better listener, actively concentrating and considering what someone has to say,” she says. “Don’t just let your eyes glaze over and nod along.
“If needed to clarify, recap your meeting notes in an email to make sure you understand the issue correctly.”
Sigmar Recruitment chief executive Frank Farrelly believes work experience is one of the best ways to work on your critical thinking faculties.
“For those who did general degrees or who want to work outside their qualification, getting work experience is a great way to expand your mind,” he says.
“Different companies, mentors, managers, will spark creative thinking. Starting your career as a temporary agency worker is a great way to get exposed to different companies, sectors and to different managers.
“Learning from a variety of colleagues with different approaches, styles and mindsets is brilliant. Seeking out different experiences will give candidates the internal data to allow them to develop and calibrate ideas and solve problems.
“While I am a fan of hybrid and flexible work, in person work experience really helps many people develop critical thinking.”
The University of Galway has also has some tips for developing your critical thinking skills.
“Accept that criticism and disagreement are not the same as conflict,” it says. “It’s okay to hold different views to a classmate, friend or lecturer. Learn how to disagree and to offer and accept criticism without it ever being personal.
“Sometimes students feel that if they disagree with another person, this might be considered rude or impolite. But much new knowledge and thinking stems from respectful disagreement with others.”
A way to practise this it to get involved in tutorial discussions in college. “These are your main opportunity to really flesh out what has been covered in lectures, so make use of them: ask questions, offer your opinion, and question the opinions of others,” the college says.
“Let your lecturers or tutors know if you feel strongly about something that they have taught you, or about feedback that they have given you. This applies whether you agree, disagree, or just want to know more.”