Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Written by internationally renowned author Stella Cottrell, this is an essential resource for students looking to refine their thinking, reading and writing skills. Stella Cottrell’s student-centred approach demystifies critical thinking and breaks down a complex subject into manageable chunks. With clear explanations, relevant examples and plenty of exercises throughout, this book helps students to develop their analytical reasoning skills and apply them to a range of tasks including reading, note-making and writing. This text will turn even the most hesitant student into a proficient critical thinker.

This is an ideal companion for students of study skills, humanities, social sciences, business and arts programmes, where assessment includes essay and report writing. It is suitable for students of all levels.

Table of Contents

1. What is critical thinking?

Abstract
This chapter provides a general orientation to critical thinking. It examines what is meant by ‘critical thinking’, the skills associated with it, and the barriers that can hinder effective development of critical approaches. Many people can find it difficult to order their thoughts in a logical, consistent and reasoned way. This book starts from the premise that skills in reasoning can be developed through a better understanding of what critical thinking entails, and by practice. Critical thinking is a cognitive activity, associated with using the mind. Learning to think in critically analytical and evaluative ways means using mental processes such as attention, categorisation, selection and judgement. However, many people who have the potential to develop more effective critical thinking can be prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons apart from a lack of ability. In particular, personal and emotional, or ‘affective’, reasons can create barriers.
Stella Cottrell

2. How well do you think?

Develop your thinking skills
Abstract
We use basic thinking skills in everyday life, usually with little difficulty. However, many people find it difficult to apply these same skills automatically to new contexts, such as more abstract problemsolving and academic study. This is partly because, although people use these skills in contexts that are familiar to them, they are not always sufficiently aware of the underlying strategies that they are using so as to be able to adapt them to new circumstances. The more used we are to applying skills easily in one context, the more difficult it can be to identify the underlying skills.Critical thinking skills are based on underlying sets of thinking skills or sub-skills, such as: • focusing attention so as to recognise thesignificance of fine details;
Stella Cottrell

3. What’s their point?

Identifying arguments
Abstract
Critical thinking focuses on ‘argument’. This chapter looks at what is meant by ‘argument’ within the context of critical thinking, and how to recognise its key features. If you are able to detect the main argument, you are better able to direct your attention to the salient, or most appropriate, material. This, in turn, enables you to direct your reading to the most relevant material, and to save time by reading more efficiently. There are many short passages used in this chapter to help you practise critical thinking skills. It is worth noting that the activities may ask you to make judgements about the arguments, but none ask whether you agree with them. You may not agree with the reasons or conclusions given. However, critical thinking requires an evaluation of arguments in terms of the merit of their formal features, such as the quality of the reasoning, and not whether these support our own opinions.
Stella Cottrell

4. Is it an argument?

Argument and non-argument
Abstract
We saw in Chapter 3 that an argument consists of particular features. However, other messages may also contain some of those features without being an argument. This chapter looks at messages that are sometimes confused with argument, such as disagreement, description, summary and explanation. Being aware of what is not an argument helps critical analysis by enabling you to categorise different types of material. This, in turn, helps you to find your way around a text or other material more effectively. The most important material is often contained within the argument, so it helps if you can find it quickly. Critical thinking involves distinguishing what is really relevant from other forms of information.
Stella Cottrell

5. How well do they say it?

Clarity, consistency and structure
Abstract
In Chapter 3, we saw that there are normally six features to check for when searching for an argument, as summarised in the table on page 43: • author’s position; • propositions and reasons; • a line of reasoning; • conclusion; • persuasion; •use of indicator and signal words. However, on their own, these features merely help us to identify whether an author is using an argument. They don’t tell us about the quality of the argument, such as whether it is well structured and consistent. This chapter looks at how authors construct clear, consistent and logical arguments. You will have opportunities to look in more depth at how an argument is structured as a line of reasoning through the use of joint and independent reasons, interim conclusions and logical order.
Stella Cottrell

6. Reading between the lines

Recognising underlying assumptions and implicit arguments
Abstract
In earlier chapters, we looked at explicit features of an argument. However, not all aspects of an argument are expressed explicitly. Arguments are often based on unstated assumptions and latent methods of persuasion. This chapter looks at some of the reasons for this, and provides practice in identifying hidden assumptions and implicit arguments. The premises upon which an argument is based are not always immediately obvious either. These can often contain implicit assumptions or be based on incorrect information. If the premises are not sound, the argument can fall down, no matter how well it is argued. This means that a consideration of the premises of the argument is just as important as a consideration of the reasoning. This chapter also looks briefly at latent messages used to reinforce an argument.
Stella Cottrell

7. Does it add up?

Identifying flaws in the argument
Abstract
Chapter 3 demonstrated that an argument has several components: an author’s position, a line of reasoning that uses reasons to support a conclusion, and the intention to persuade. In Chapters 4 to 6, we saw that an argument can collapse even if it appears to have those components. We have already seen how an argument may be weakened by poor structure, logical inconsistency and hidden assumptions. This chapter will look at some other ways of evaluating the strength of an argument. It will enable you to consider many common types of flaws that can occur, such as: confusing cause and effect; failing to meet necessary conditions; attacking the character of a person rather than evaluating their reasoning; misrepresentation; and using emotive language.
Stella Cottrell

8. Where’s the proof?

Finding and evaluating sources of evidence
Abstract
We do not always need to be an expert in a subject to evaluate an argument. In many instances, we will still be able to evaluate whether the reasons support the conclusion and whether the line of reasoning is ordered in a logical way. However, in order to evaluate many arguments, we have to know whether the evidence used to support the reasoning is true. This means that we need to go to other sources, either people or material resources, to check the facts that underlie the reasons given. Evidence may be convincing in one context, such as in everyday conversation or a magazine, but not in others, such as in a court of law or for academic or professional writing. In the latter cases, it is expected that greater efforts are made to check that evidence is all that it appears to be.
Stella Cottrell

9. Critical reading and note-making

Critical selection, interpretation and noting of source material
Abstract
Although critical thinking can be used in any context, it is likely that you will apply it most when using written materials. The material presented in previous chapters is relevant to critical reading. This chapter focuses on applying critical thinking skills when reading for a specific purpose, such as writing a report or assignment. It looks at issues such as: • identifying theoretical perspectives; • categorising information to assist with its selective use; • using a critical approach to note-making when reading. Critical reading is different from other kinds of reading such as skimming or scanning text. The latter are useful strategies for locating information in a text and to develop a general feel for a subject. These strategies offer a useful starting place, although used on their own, they would usually result in a more superficial reading of the material.
Stella Cottrell

10. Critical, analytical writing

Critical thinking when writing
Abstract
Critical writing draws together other aspects of critical thinking in order to present a forceful case to readers. This means that it must continue the process of selecting and forming judgements about the evidence. However, the writing must be produced with its eventual readers in mind. This chapter considers the characteristics of critical, analytical writing from the perspective of writing text, as opposed to considering written arguments from the reader’s point of view. As well as looking at general characteristics, it focuses on the language used to present written arguments. Previous chapters emphasised the importance of developing a clear line of reasoning.
Stella Cottrell

11. Where’s the analysis?

Evaluating critical writing
Abstract
In this chapter, you have the opportunity to compare two longer pieces of writing on the same subject. These essays are based on the texts found on pages 229–33, which were also used for the reading and note-making activities in Chapter 9. Assume that the authors of the essays have access to all the texts on pages 229–33, and, therefore, are making choices about what to include from those materials, and what to leave out. On page 172, you will find a checklist to structure your evaluation of Essay 1, followed by the essay and then a commentary. A similar set of materials is provided for Essay 2. The checklists are provided as a tool, and you do not have to use them if you prefer to take a different analytical approach.
Stella Cottrell

12. Critical reflection

Abstract
It is easy to become caught up in everyday routine such that we lose sight of the reasons for thinking, feeling, believing and acting as we do. Diverse aspects of our experiences and emotional responses – and our interpretations of these – can become entangled in ways that may not be apparent to us. This can distort our perspective and block understanding, which isn’t helpful to us in the longer term. Critical reflection is used increasingly in professional and academic contexts as a means of focusing our attention back onto our own experience. Reflection in this context refers to specific kinds of mental discipline. It involves clarifying our thinking, deepening understanding and reinforcing learning in ways that, ideally, lead to transformation and change.
Stella Cottrell

13. Critical thinking for your future career and employability

Abstract
Critical thinking skills are highly valued in the workplace, nationally and internationally, and can make the essential difference to the development of your career and success in the job market. That means it is well worth putting time aside to bring a critically analytical and reflective approach to your consideration of the world of work and your place within it. Most people need to refresh their job-hunting and application skills when looking for work, as trends in the labour market change over time. It is also useful to step back from time to time and think critically about your life and work decisions ‘in the round’, as you, too, may have changed.
Stella Cottrell
Additional information