Thinking critically and evaluating information

In an assignment you not only need to show that you have researched and understood the topic, but that you have thought about it and can express your thinking.

Thinking critically, analysing and evaluating the information that you find during your research is an important part of this.

Thinking critically

Critical thinking is a process used to think about and evaluate information and reach a conclusion. In this context the word critical is not negative.

It means that you shouldn't automatically accept that what you are reading is valid, true, applicable or correct. Instead, you should gather the evidence, analyse all aspects rationally and objectively, and with an open mind, so as to reach your own conclusion.

Below are some guidelines to help you think critically.

Identify the issue or problem

Look at the information you have on the topic:

  • What are the key points?
  • What are the arguments?
  • Are there any assumptions (things accepted as true without proof)?

Next look at the problem you have to solve or the issue you need to address. Write it down, and then see if you can break it down into parts and choose one to start with. From there consider:

  • What exactly do you think about the issue?
  • Why do you think the way that you do?
More on critical thinking

Strategies for critical thinking - Study Guides and Strategies website (opens in new window)

Critical thinking - Massey University website (opens in new window)

Analysing information

When you think analytically you examine, or think about, the different parts or details of something so that you can understand or explain it. It requires you to think about some (or all) of the following:

  • cause and effect, the sequence of events and/or steps within a process
  • similarities, differences and/or trends
  • associations and relationships between things
  • complex systems and how they work
  • ways to solve complex problems
  • examples of what is happening.

Ask questions

When you are analysing information, ask yourself questions. For example:

  • Who developed this theory? Who’s involved? etc.
  • Where does the information come from? Where can I find out more?
  • When did it happen? When was the research done?
  • Why did this happen? Why do/did people feel the way they do?
  • What happened before this, and after it? What does it really mean? What do others think about it?
  • How do the bits fit together and relate to one another?
  • Are there any similarities or differences? Compare the various ideas.
  • What if it hadn’t happened? What if it had been done differently?
  • So what - Why does it matter?
Use 'for example', 'why' and 'so what?'

You could also use the phrase: ‘For example, why and so what?’ to help with your questioning.

For example, say you were thinking about the problems caused by high student fees. Start with the topic and ask yourself: ‘Can I think of any examples?’

Basic idea: High student fees.

  • For example: Course costs are as high as $8,000 a year.
  • Why: More students want to study, so there is less tax money per student for higher education.
  • So what? Poorer students might be put off studying.

Now take each new idea and apply ‘for example, why and so what’ to it. This will lead to more ideas, which you can apply the same technique to.

Remember to look at opposing views. In the example above you might consider reasons why students should pay their own way.

Use diagrams

You can also use diagrams or mind maps to help you see how ideas relate to one another. You could use a diagram (for example, an organisational chart, a flow diagram or a mind map) and use arrows to:

  • Show sequence: ‘This is followed by . . .’
  • Cause and effect: ‘A leads to B because . . .’
  • Mean 'for example’ mean ‘A causes B’
  • Mean ‘This is important because of that’.
  • Hierarchy.

Evaluating information

To decide what information is most appropriate for your purpose, you need to evaluate it carefully.

Evaluating sources

Start by evaluating the sources to ensure they are reliable. Use the ABC checklist for this.

A is for author

  • Is the author clearly identified?
  • What is the author’s level of expertise on this subject?

B is for bias

  • Is the purpose of the information to inform or to persuade?
  • Is the information fact or opinion? If it's opinion, is it backed up with evidence?
  • Is the language emotive or neutral?

C is for currency

  • When was the information published? Check the copyright date on a book’s imprint page (back of the title page), the date of issue for magazines, journals or newspapers, or for a website when it was last updated?
  • Is the information itself up to date?
Evaluate the content

When you have your sources, you can evaluate the various views, looking at:

  • What evidence is there for the various viewpoints?
  • Which points are in agreement, which ones disagree?
  • Make sure you consider all sides of the argument, especially those you disagree with.
  • Are there logical connections between the various sources and ideas?
  • Compare what you’ve found with your initial thinking about the topic? Do you still think the same way or have your views changed at all?
  • Which of the ideas you’ve found are relevant to your needs?
More on evaluating information

Evaluating Sources - Purdue Online Writing Lab website (opens in new window)

Evaluating Sources - Colorado State University Writing Studio website (opens in new window) 

Synthesise and write

When you have done your critical thinking, analysis and evaluation the next step is to bring your ideas together and develop a reasonable response (in your view) for your assignment. Think about:

  • Is there more than one response?
  • What works best in this situation?
  • Use these ideas in your assignment to construct an argument, identify implications and reach a logical conclusion. 

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