The Experience of Learning to Think Things Through

You may already be good at thinking critically. In some areas you may be very good at it. In fact, in some areas you may be so good at critical thinking that it occurs naturally – you no longer even recognize it as good thinking. For example, suppose you are driving down a street and a ball bounces out in front of you from between parked cars. You instinctively put your foot on the brake; you instinctively look around, searching for the child who might dart out. Another example: There’s a sudden accident in the cars ahead of you. To get out of the way, you instinctively pull to the right rather than to the left.

These seem instinctive, but they’re not. You’ve learned to do these things, and you haven’t learned them as a conditioned reflex. You’ve learned them by reflection on likely consequences. You’ve internalized the critical thinking so well that it seems natural, instinctive. But these actions are still the product of critical thinking.

For many people, it is difficult to learn a new skill from a course. Think of learning how to drive a car, or dance ballet, or write. To acquire skills like these from scratch, it may be essential to have feed-back: “Is this the way to parallel park?” “Should I position my feet like this?” But critical thinking is not that way, at least not entirely. You already have a lot of critical-thinking skills. It is an activity you already engage in, maybe to a significant degree. When it comes to skills you already have, reading a book or taking part in a course can improve them dramatically. If you’re able to write, drive, and dance, you can improve those skills by taking courses that guide you through techniques. Of course, it’s not enough just to read the course. You have to try it out, act on it, put it into practice. You have to do the writing, driving, dancing, do the critical thinking.

In fact, you can be confident that if you work your way through this module, your thinking skills will improve significantly. That is so because of the reflectiveness critical thinking requires. By working through this module, you will become more reflective, more aware of the dimensions of your thinking, and the skills will improve.

The trouble is, you may not feel as if your skills are improving. The improvement is not likely to be obvious. Many people have the opposite reaction. They feel they are getting worse at reasoning as they work through a course that emphasizes critical thinking.
That happens for a number of reasons. First, working through a disciplined process of critical thinking will slow your thinking down. A problem that you once effortlessly thought your way through will now take much longer. You will have to focus on all the parts of the thinking you previously took for granted.

Second, questions will start to arise for you where none arose before. “Am I being clear?” “Is this really an implication?” “Maybe I’m jumping to a conclusion here.” “How can I check up on this?” Questions are a sign of growth, of opening to new ways of thinking. But we often believe that questions are a sign of not understanding, that it is better to have no questions at all. Critical thinking lives in questions.

Third, the reflectiveness of critical thinking can cause you to start second-guessing yourself, especially at the beginning, or when you are feeling down on yourself. Before, you might have confidently asserted an answer; now, however, you might reflect, “Wait a minute, maybe I’m jumping to a conclusion here,” or, “Is this really an implication of this author’s position? Maybe I’m being unduly influenced by the fact that I disagree with her.”

Fourth, some of your certainty about things can be a bluff to cover up the threatening fact that you really don’t know, or don’t know for sure. The main person you are bluffing may be yourself. Studying how to think critically often calls your bluff. You start asking, “What assumptions does my automatic response rest on?” Answers you might have given before with utter certainty now seem much shakier.

Finally, as Michael Scriven explained in a classic text on reasoning, if you are a swimmer or a tennis player and you start studying with a professional coach, you’ll find that you have to change many of the ways you do things, unlearning certain moves and learning others. This will feel awkward, and it will slow you down – at first. But that slowing down is really the only way to build up proficiency and reliable speed. “Speed builds slowly.”

Here is a list of reactions many people have to studying critical thinking. You should not be surprised, or troubled, by experiencing many of them. (In fact, as a teacher I would be troubled if you experienced none of them.)
■ difficulty applying critical-thinking terms in practice
■ not being able to tell if you have applied them correctly
■ becoming very concerned with how concepts overlap
■ becoming confused about things that seemed clear before
■ persistently doubting that you will ever improve
■ having initial confidence in an answer, followed by nagging doubt
■ feeling that your teachers are not teaching enough because they generate more questions than answers

When trying to learn to think critically, what’s important is to engage in the activities of critical thinking, not just read about them. Unfortunately, many people have a model of thinking that does them disservice. They conceive of thinking as a solitary activity, something you do in the privacy of your own head.
But one of the best ways to learn to think things through, especially in a discipline, is with cooperative learning. Critical thinking is best when it is not done in a vacuum. It helps to have the give-and-take of discussion, to receive feedback on your thinking, to weigh other viewpoints, other approaches.

Getting Started: Clarifying with SEE-I

As we have seen, critical thinking begins with asking the questions you need to ask. Asking questions is a way of starting to get clearer: by formulating questions you are focusing your mind on what you need to address. In general, a good way to begin any critical-thinking process is by clarifying, by making things clearer.
A very useful process for clarifying almost anything is called SEE-I. This module contains many critical-thinking processes that accomplish far more than you would ever expect at first glance, and SEE-I is one of them. The letters stand for four steps that help make whatever you are working on clearer:

S: State it
E. Elaborate (explain it more fully, in your own words)
E. Exemplify (give a good example)
I. Illustrate (give an illustration: maybe a metaphor, a simile, an analogy, a diagram, a concept map, etc.)


To state something is, essentially, to say it briefly, clearly, and as precisely as possible. Sometimes it means constructing a good definition, but it also includes, for instance, stating the thesis of a chapter by trying to capture the heart of what the chapter is saying in a single, clear, well-formulated sentence.


To elaborate on something is to expand on it, to explain it in your own words, at greater length, so the reader gets more of the fullness of what is meant. For instance, I can state the law of conservation of energy; I can then elaborate on it, explaining it in more depth, in greater detail, spelling out what it is saying. You can begin your elaboration by saying, “In other words, . . .”


Here, the goal is to give a good example – not just any example, but a well-chosen one, one that will clarify for yourself or for a reader what you mean. Usually, it should be your own original example, not one from the book or the teacher, and it should fit well with your statement and elaboration. Thus I might try to clarify the concept of falling in love: First I would try to state in a sentence what falling in love is; then I would elaborate on it; and then I would give a good example of falling in love, one that the reader can connect with. (Romeo and Juliet come to mind, but it could be a personal example as well.) You can begin your exemplification by saying, “For example, . . .”


An illustration is literally a picture (as in “an illustrated book”). To clarify something, it helps to give readers something they can picture in their minds. Sometimes, it can be an actual picture (Figure 1.2 of this course is a visual illustration of the process of critical thinking). In some cases it can also be a graph, a diagram, or a concept map. More usually, your illustration will be a picture in words: an analogy, simile, or metaphor that captures the meaning. For instance, Rush Cosgrove was clarifying the concept of civil disobedience. He stated his definition of it in a sentence; then he elaborated on it; and then he gave a good example of civil disobedience. (His example was Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus.) Then he gave an illustration: He said that civil disobedience was like being a cliff at the edge of the ocean – the waves crash against it, but the cliff remains there.
To me, that illustration captures vividly what Cosgrove means by civil disobedience. You can begin your illustration by saying, “It’s like….”

There are two aspects of clarifying something. The first is getting clear in your own mind; the second is communicating clearly to others, communicating so they understand you well. SEE-I works well for both of them. You can improve your writing in a major way by taking each main idea and developing it in your paper with an SEE-I. The result, with practice, can be a smooth flow of richly understood and well-communicated ideas. SEE-I can make both your thinking and your writing dramatically better. It is also a way of testing your understanding of what you learn (and is thus a valuable way to study for exams). If you can accurately S, E, E, then I a concept or a principle in a course, it means you almost certainly have a good grasp of it, that you understand it to a much greater degree than if you are merely able to state it. Similarly, SEE-I is a method your teacher may use to test your understanding, to assess how clear you are about concepts and issues in the course.

The Flexibility of SEE-I

All of the critical-thinking processes in this module are flexible, adaptable. They can be shaped to a great variety of circumstances that call for critical thinking. Critical thinking is seldom simply a linear activity. That is so for SEE-I also: It is not a rigid process. For instance:
■ Though the idea is to go step by step – first state, then elaborate, then give an example, then illustrate – you don’t simply finish one step and then you’re done with it. You will find that as you elaborate, you will often need to revise the statement you formulated in step 1. Similarly, both your example and your illustration may cause you to refine or even change your mind about the earlie steps.
■ An ideal clarifying statement is a single, clear, well-formulated sentence. But in some cases it may take two. Similarly, you will usually elaborate in one or two paragraphs – but with complex ideas, more elaboration than that may be needed. The point is not really how long – the point is to capture the essence in a statement, and to explain it in its fullness in an elaboration.
■ Sometimes you can skip the illustration step with very little loss. Often, though, a striking illustration will make the subject suddenly come into focus. It allows your creativity to come forward.
■ In exemplification, you give an example. But sometimes what really clarifies the issue is to give both an example and a contrasting example. Thus, with civil disobedience, I can say that Rosa Parks is an example of it, but that cheating on my income tax to protest tax laws is not an example – it is doing something self-serving under the guise of civil disobedience. (Notice that the example might cause me to revise my statement of what civil disobedience is.)
■ Much of the time, the statement-part of your SEE-I will be your own formulation, a definition or thesis statement that you yourself construct. But sometimes it is beneficial to take the statement step from some authoritative source, such as your teacher or the textbook. You then clarify your understanding of that statement in your elaboration, give a good example of your own, and an illustration that conveys it well. Thus an anatomy and physiology text gives a definition of “anatomy” as “the study of internal and external structures of the body and the physical relationships among body parts.” Writing out this statement does not, of course, show that I grasp what anatomy is, or how it is different from physiology. But I can clarify my understanding of it in my own mind, and convey that understanding accurately to a reader, by elaborating on that definition in a paragraph or two, by giving a good example of an anatomical structure (and maybe a contrasting example of a non-anatomical process), and by giving an apt illustration of anatomy.

Critical-Thinking Template

Here is a simple critical-thinking template, which can be applied in any area where you and others are trying to think things through.
■ Find four or five other people who are also trying to think critically about this area. (This can be done in person or on-line.)
■ Figure out the three most central organizing concepts or ideas that underlie the area. (For example, the three main concepts in a chapter you are studying for this course.)
■ Begin with writing an SEE-I: State, elaborate, give an example of, and illustrate each of the three concepts.
■ Next, write a paragraph or so explaining how the concepts fit together, how they operate in the world, in your life, in the subject matter. Duplicate both pieces of writing so that everyone has a copy. (It is important that your responses be written, even if they are just jotted down. Written responses are concrete and allow you to confront your thoughts in black and white.)
■ Critique one another’s thinking. (Remember that critiquing is not the same as criticizing or finding fault.)

FIGURE 1.1 The process of reasoning

1. There are elements of reasoning. The elements are the basic building blocks of reasoning or thinking. Assumption is an element. When people reason things out, they make assumptions. So one way to examine their reasoning is to focus on that element of their reasoning: assumption. We can ask, “What assumptions are they making?”
So if the question is Q, we can picture the reasoning process thus far as shown in Figure 1.1.
2. There ae also standards of reasoning. They can also be called “standards of critical thinking.” These standards determine whether people are reasoning through the question well or not.

Accuracy is an example of a standard. So one way to examine how well they have reasoned it out is to focus on that standard of reasoning: accuracy. We can ask, “Are the assumptions they have made accurate?” You can picture the standards as a set of filters (see Figure 1.2). They are used to filter out reasoning that doesn’t meet the standards.

FIGURE 1.2 The process of critical thinking: reasoning through the elements and standards

FIGURE 1.3 The process of critical thinking in a discipline

3. Suppose the question being addressed is one related to the discipline or field you are studying. Maybe it is a question your teacher has assigned; maybe it’s from the textbook in the subject; maybe it’s your own question.

There are ways of thinking that lie at the heart of the discipline you are studying. These include fundamental and powerful concepts, and central questions of the discipline. Disciplines are not bits and pieces; they are not assemblages of facts. Instead, there is a logic to thinking in each discipline. For example, if the course you are taking is in sociology, then that logic, taken all together, constitutes the way a sociologist thinks. In biology, the goal is to think biologically, to think the way a biologist thinks. In history, the goal is to think historically.

The concepts differ from field to field. Social patterns is an example of a fundamental and powerful concept in sociology. So one way to examine how well people have reasoned out a question in the discipline of sociology is to focus on that fundamental and powerful concept: social patterns. We can ask, “Have they drawn conclusions, accurate conclusions, in terms of what we know about social patterns?”

You can picture the discipline as a lens or set of lenses through which people reason. Figure 1.3 gives us a full picture.

Some Outcomes

At the end of this course . . .

1. You should be able to run your finger slowly down the table of contents and identify the main concepts of course:
■ reflective thinking; reasonable thinking
■ misconceptions about critical thinking
■ the role of emotions in critical thinking
■ impediments to thinking more critically
■ and so forth

2. With the course closed, you should be able to state, elaborate, exemplify, and illustrate each of these concepts, using examples from your own life, learning, and experiences. You should be able to give contrasting examples as well (e.g., of unreflective thinking, or of a mistaken idea of the role of emotions in critical thinking).

3. You should be asking more questions – about your thinking, about the discipline you are studying, about everything. You should also be reflecting more on your reasoning.

4. You should be able to identify which aspects of critical thinking are getting clearer for you and which are still unclear.

You should not expect to achieve the outcomes just listed in a way that is perfect. But you can expect to be improving in them, to find them increasing in your behavior. Not all of these will be directly observable by your teacher. You yourself may often not notice them. Changes in critical-thinking abilities are usually gradual and subtle.

Critical-Thinking Character Traits

In addition to the outcomes just discussed, you may notice some character traits changing in you. Here are two to reflect on:

■ Intellectual Courage. Intellectual courage involves the willingness to face up to challenges to your settled beliefs and your habitual ways of thinking about things. Critical thinking will definitely challenge long-established ways of thinking you may have. Be alert to noticing that your intellectual courage is developing.
■ Confidence in Reason. This describes the willingness to try to figure things out, to rely on thinking your way through things, to the best of your ability, rather than on all the other influences that shape your thinking without your knowing it.
Both this module and the discipline you are studying rely on your commitment to use your best thinking to address questions.

Back to: Module 2. Critical thinking, creative problem solving