Critical Thinking and Problem Solving


“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks.”  Christopher Hitchens


At its most basic level, critical thinking involves four basic essential steps.

  1. A problem or issue is identified.
  2. Two or more possible solutions or courses of action are recognized.
  3. The positive and negative likely results from each solution are explored.
  4. A solution or course of action is selected.

Critical thinking begins with a particular mindset or a disposition.  Some folks are inherently more predisposed to think critically than others.  However, everyone can take steps to open themselves up to becoming a critical thinker.  But nobody is perfect when it comes to critical thinking.  We all can work on our critical thinking skills.  Some of us just may need to put in a bit more effort.

People with strong critical thinking skills might identify with these statements.

“I hate talk shows where people shout their opinions but never give any reasons at all.”
“Figuring out what people really mean by what they say is important to me.”
“I always do better in jobs where I’m expected to think things out for myself.”
“I hold off making decisions until I have thought through my options.”
“Rather than relying on someone else’s notes, I prefer to read the material myself.”
“I try to see the merit in another’s opinion, even if I reject it later.”
“Even if a problem is tougher than I expected, I will keep working on it.”
“Making intelligent decisions is more important than winning arguments.”

Alternatively, a person who is not as strong in critical thinking skills might identify with these statements.

“I prefer jobs where the supervisor says exactly what to do and exactly how to do it.”
“No matter how complex the problem, you can bet there will be a simple solution.”
“I don’t waste time looking things up.”
“I hate when teachers discuss problems instead of just giving the answers.”
“If my belief is truly sincere, evidence to the contrary is irrelevant.”
“Selling an idea is like selling cars, you say whatever works.”[1]


Want to test your critical thinking mindset:

Critical Thinking Mindset Self-Rating Form


Critical thinking skills can be applied to both real world questions that you might face each day and to research questions you work on in the classroom.  There are many real-world questions that you have to answer every day.  You make many of these decisions every day without giving it much detailed thought, such as whether you should fill up your gas tank now or wait until the weekend.  Other real-world decisions will take a bit more reflection on your part, such as whether you should work more overtime this week.

In your classes, you will eventually have to do some research.  Critical thinking is an inherent part of research.  You will use critical thinking skills when you decide on your topic, when you develop an outline of the paper, when you select your sources and quotations, and when you reach a conclusion at the end of your paper.  Sometimes, using your critical thinking skills also will allow you to connect your research to real world questions.  For example, you might do research on oil drilling in the United States.  The information you get from that research might help you to be informed on the topic and affect who you vote for on election day.

Before you get started on the four basic steps involved in critical thinking, it is important that you do an honest self-assessment.  Each of us must be aware of the biases and conceptions we have of others and those related to various issues.  We all have such biases and conceptions.  Anyone who says that they do not is not doing an honest self-assessment.  Critical thinking requires that we account for these biases and conceptions and to avoid, as much as possible, letting those interfere with the critical thinking process.


STEP 1:  Identify the Problem or Issue

In class research, this may be determined by your instructor.  In real world scenarios, the problem or issue may be self-evident.  It may be a decision you have to make.  In any case, it is important that you clearly understand the problem or issue.  You do not want to waste your time or effort working through an issue just to realize that you were considering the wrong information.  For example, if you are deciding whether to work an extra shift this week and you are worried that you may not get to see your sister this week even though she said she was free any day to visit, you are not really getting at the issue.  Instead, factors such as the conflict between more money and study time for your classes may be the real issue.

Step 2: Recognize Possible Solutions

You should make every effort to identify every possible solution.  This may include solutions that seem unlikely or outside of your comfort zone.  You never know if a solution may turn out to be the best once you have gathered and compared all the relevant information.  As you go through and recognize possible solutions, it is often helpful to brainstorm with a friend or colleague.  They will most likely have a different perspective that will be helpful to you.  This also is a good way to guard against those biases and conceptions that we all carry.

Step 3: Explore Possible Results for Each Solution

In this step, you get to do a bit of fortune telling.  You need to make reasonable estimates and inferences as to what may happen if one solution is chosen over another.  It is important that you do not shortchange the process here.  You have to explore both the likely positive results and the likely negative result for each solution.

The word reasonable also is important here.  You are not trying to come up with results that are implausible.  If you are deciding on whether to fill up your gas tank today or this weekend, it would make sense not to waste the time today if aliens are going to conquer the Earth on Thursday.  However, the possibility of aliens attacking is implausible and not relevant in this scenario.  The attack of the aliens might be relevant if your decision involves what to do if aliens attack.  But, as you recall, that is not the problem or issue identified in this case.

Step 4: Determine the Best Solution

Now you get to put all your information and possibilities on the examination table.  You have to look at the information from a detached, non-emotional frame of mind.  You might be surprised by the results.  This can cause emotional dissonance.  We often get very attached to our beliefs, conceptions, and understanding of the way and why things happen.  Be prepared to get emotional uncomfortable if necessary, so that you make a solid fact driven decision.

You must be prepared to do a bit of reflection here.  When you look at a particular issue, often you will come up with apples and oranges comparisons.  One solution may give you more money, while another may give you more time with your sister.  You have to be prepared to place a value on those things.  Money, for example has no inherent value.  Its only value lies in the things you can do with it or the things you can purchase with it.  If you need more money to pay your rent, then it may be more valuable.  But if it is just a bit of coin to take to the club, then it may have less value.

After you have made the decision and selected a solution to your problem or issue, you should be open to re-evaluating your decision.  Perhaps you over estimated the money you would earn or the time it would take to earn it.  In that case, it would be appropriate to amend the information in your critical thinking process.  The key and the entire point of critical thinking is to make the best decision or do the best research.  Sometimes that involve circling back and double checking your decision.


It is Friday afternoon, your boss offers to let you work overtime Saturday and Sunday.  You have an exam first thing Monday morning in your class at Harper.  What would you decide?  Make sure to go through the step-by-step critical thinking process to gather your information and make you choice.


Watch video about Critical Thinking and Arguing 

  1. Facione, Peter. “Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts 2020 Update.” Measured Reasons LLC, 2020, p. 12.


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