Institute for Academic Development
Institute for Academic Development

Critical thinking

Advice on what we mean by critical thinking, and further reading and resources.

Why is being critical important?

It affects your academic success: if you wish to achieve higher grades, being able to take an informed and analytical approach to your studies is very important. Simply memorising and explaining concepts and ideas will not be sufficient for a strong pass at masters level. You need to be able to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of your subject and give your opinion(s) supported by evidence that you have judged to be appropriate.

It affects your employability: one of the main reasons students undertake postgraduate study is to improve their employment prospects. Higher-level thinking and reasoning skills can be applied across many areas of work e.g. strategic planning, trouble shooting, problem solving, and critical evaluation of projects and processes. They are therefore essential to develop and demonstrate to prospective employers after graduation.

What do we mean by ‘critical’?

Being ‘critical’ does not mean just being negative, or pointing out what is wrong about something. At masters level, ‘critical’ means “Fully informed, capable of supporting in-depth analysis and assessment” (Scottish credit and qualifications framework, level descriptors).

You can find out more about the framework at :

SCQF level descriptors (PDF)

Taking a critical approach in your studies and professional development can include behaviours such as:

  • thinking carefully about what you read and why: judging what resources are credible, reflecting on and developing your search techniques, not just looking for and reading the obvious and / or the first things you come across
  • questioning and testing what you read: do the author’s viewpoints and ideas appear justified? Why – or why not?
  • looking for connections (or disparities), and constructing your own arguments supported by a range carefully considered viewpoints, not just repeating the ideas of others
  • being inquisitive, and asking good questions – of others, and of yourself
  • spotting and challenging potential bias, distorted views, prejudice, and self-interest – in the work of others, and in your own thinking
  • challenging ideas - where appropriate, and based on credible evidence
  • looking for gaps, and suggesting new or different solutions
  • reflecting on and adapting your own professional practice based on your developing insights

You can find out more about being critical in your studies in the following factsheets:

Critical’ in University work means being thoughtful, asking questions, not taking things you read (or hear) at face value. It means finding information and understanding different approaches and using them in your writing.

Getting Critical (Pocket Study Skills), pviii. Kate Williams

Critical thinking ‘stairway’

The Open University (2009) outline a useful ‘stairway’ to help students understand the skills in thinking critically.

The lower steps are the basics that support moving to the higher-level thinking skills that can underpin taking a critical approach.

  1. Process - Take in the information (i.e. in what you have read, heard, seen or done).
  2. Understand - Comprehend the key points, assumptions, arguments and evidence presented.
  3. Analyse - Examine how these key components fit together and relate to each other.
  4. Compare - Explore the similarities, differences between the ideas you are reading about.
  5. Synthesise - Bring together different sources of information to serve an argument or idea you are constructing. Make logical connections between the different sources that help you shape and support your ideas.
  6. Evaluate - Assess the worth of an idea in terms of its relevance to your needs, the evidence on which it is based and how it relates to other pertinent ideas.
  7. Apply - Transfer the understanding you have gained from your critical evaluation and use in response to questions, assignments and projects.
  8. Justify - Use critical thinking to develop arguments, draw conclusions, make inferences and identify implications.

Source: ‘Critical thinking: online guidance’, the Open University (2009) - no longer available. The current version can be found at

Further reading