How to improve your critical thinking skills
At some point in every student’s life there comes a realisation: success doesn’t simply involve remembering what you are told. While learning formulae and how to apply them is important, you also need to be able to assess the information that you are given, rather than accepting it at face value. These critical thinking skills are more relevant in some subjects than others, but they are something that every trainee dispensing optician needs to develop. In this article, you can find out more about what critical thinking is, and how to do it. You may even find that you are doing it already!
Critical thinking skills allow you to look at research or manufacturers’ literature and weigh up what you are being told, then translate how it applies in practice. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information, something that is key when you are studying through blended learning, with the advantage of both periods of study and periods of practical application. You are probably already returning to practice and testing out what you are learning in real life situations. Critical thinking is even more vital if you are taking a degree, whether the BSc in Ophthalmic Dispensing, the Vision Sciences top-up degree, or a masters level course. Critical thinking skills are essential when it comes to writing an essay or extended project, as you will be asked to not just repeat other’s research, but to assess its relative validity and develop your own conclusions.
If you think back to primary school, you took what you were told as fact – parents and teachers seemed to know everything. At some point in your journey through school and college, though, you will have been asked to read around a subject and come up with your own views. This is where your critical thinking skills begin to develop. As a critical thinker, you need to rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accept them at face value. You need to determine whether ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture. Critical thinking can sound vague or even daunting. If you are unsure whether you can do it, you can break the process down into a number of stages. Firstly, you need to think about a topic or issue in an objective and critical way. This might mean that you need to identify your ‘gut reaction’ to the topic, and consider if there are other points of view. This takes you on to the next stage: identifying the different arguments there are in relation to a particular issue. If you are looking at a research paper, it is likely that the researchers will come to a certain conclusion. However, if you look beyond the abstract and conclusion you may find that they explore a range of possibilities in the introduction.
Alternatively, you may need to look at different textbooks or a wider range of research papers to find alternative points of view. At this stage, why not make a mind map of the possible theories and ideas in the field you are researching. Look for gaps too: finding a gap in current knowledge can be the first step in thinking about your own research projects. Once you have identified two or more arguments, you need to make your own assessment of how strong or valid each one is. If you have a research question and a number of papers each of which have a different verdict, you might want to examine the different methodologies, the number of people in the study etc, before deciding on the relative validity. Try to spot any weaknesses or negative points that there are in the evidence or argument and see if that backs up or weakens your initial view. It can be helpful to make notes of the strong points and weak points for each point of view, which you can then extend into a structured evaluation that gives a rationale for your final verdict. If this seems all too distant from everyday practice, remind yourself that critical thinking will help you make better decisions and generally understand things better on all levels. As you practise throughout your studies, reading around a subject and weighing up the evidence will become second nature. When faced with real-life decisions, such as which lenses are best for a patient, and a pile of manufacturers’ brochures, websites and research, take a moment to apply your critical thinking skills.
By weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of different solutions in a critical way you will be able to help the patient to the best of your abilities, and you may well find that you are putting your critical thinking skills – and all the knowledge you have acquired through your studies – into use automatically.