Critical Thinking And Problem Solving Essay Ideas

Critical thinking: What would essay writing be without it? Well, you know what Mr. Spock would say.

In fact, without critical thinking, essays would be highly illogical. Critical thinking allows you to dig under the surface to understand and articulate a subject or point of view.

To put it another way: If you want to influence and impress others with your intellect and authoritative grasp of the issues, you have to put those critical thinking skills to good use.

But what exactly is critical thinking? It is the application of decision makingdeductive reasoningcritical analysis, evaluating, and problem solving. In other words, it’s all the ingredients that makes for a great essay.

In this post, I’ll break down the essential parts of critical thinking and show how critical thinking can make your essay writing much stronger.

#1 Decision Making

Decision making is an important skill in critical thinking because it requires you to decide which choice is the best or most useful among the many available alternatives.

You use decision making when you choose your topic and thesis statement, organize your essay, do research, and determine which information is relevant. Decision making is also important in problem-solution essays, because you’ll have to decide which solutions will work best with the problems you’re addressing.

But decision-making also means choosing the best way to argue your opinions. After all, an incoherent opinion is about the same as having no opinion at all.

For instance, an author might be assigned to write an essay on ethics in politics. She decides to write specifically about campaign finance, but what type of essay should she write? Argumentative, problem-solution, persuasive, expository? Each type of essay offers different ways for the author to present the subject, but she must decide on one that will best serve her interests.

Having a firm grasp of the topic, understanding what it means and how it might affect you personally, is a good start to deciding how to articulate topics within essay form. This is why it helps to choose a topic and an essay type you can stand behind 100%.

#2 Deductive Reasoning

You use deductive reasoning every time you sit down to write an essay and whenever you make any important decision in your life. It allows you to determine how to arrive at a decision and how you feel or think about the essential aspects of any topic.

Let’s take a closer look at how deductive reasoning is used in the process of planning and writing an essay.

Deductive reasoning makes specific conclusions from inferences through a singular line of thought. It’s a logical way to understand very broad ideas. Here’s a simple example of deductive reasoning at work:

Notice how the topic starts off very broadly, then narrows its approach as it finds connections between the broad and specific statements. Logically speaking, if all dogs have canine teeth, then Tuffy, who’s a dog, has canine teeth too.

When writing an essay, you’ll have to draw on similar inferences to make specific statements (thesis) or conclusions.

For instance, in an essay about global climate change, an author might want to examine the effects of climate change on food security. An example of how she might use deductive reasoning in her essay might look like this:

The logic of deductive reasoning is being applied here: If climate change causes droughts and droughts affect agriculture, then it goes to figure that climate change will affect access to food.

Of course the author will have to bolster her claims with facts and examples, but  the outline of her essay will generally follow the deductive reasoning in her statement.

Make sure your essay follows a clear, logical path toward its conclusion. An essay with muddled or incoherent logic never grabs or influences readers.

#3 Critical Analysis

Critical analysis is the ability to analyze material and develop underlying judgments or opinions about it.

Any time you explore ideas, opinions, information, or the creative works of others, you employ critical analysis. Let’s look at two types of critical analysis that are common in essays: deep reading and empirical analysis.

Deep Reading

One form of critical analysis is deep reading. Used primarily in literary criticism, deep reading is the close examination of a literary text––a novel, short story, poem, etc.––for its symbolism, metaphors, characters, and plots.

Deep reading is also the exploration of the historical, biographical, and political context in which a literary text was written to explain or understand its subtext.

For instance, an author might explore the gender politics in William Shakespeare’s comedies by examining his use of language, witty dialogue, and gender characterization.

Empirical Analysis

Another form of critical analysis is empirical analysis. Empirical analysis studies a case through the experience or observation of its subjects, i.e., testing the effects of a new drug on a controlled group of patients.

Empirical analysis is especially useful in problem solving essays both to bolster and even refute solutions to specific problems.

For instance, an author might analyze empirical studies on criminal behavior to draw deeper conclusions about how laws, policies, poverty, or societal influences might affect that behavior, and then suggest changes in policy to address the problems she is examining.

#4 Evaluation

Evaluation is an extremely important skill in critical thinking. When you make an argument, you have to back it up with facts and examples, but your argument is only as strong as the information you provide. This means you have to evaluate whether the statements, opinions, facts, and figures you use are valid and logically sound.

The research you use shouldn’t be biased or slanted, (i.e., cherry-picking data to fit the conclusions). Nor should it mislead readers with information that is erroneous or has been debunked. The statements you use should also have some basis in logic.

For instance, a statement that claims gay marriage will lead to decriminalizing child sex or bestiality is not very logical or sound, because the acts of consenting adults isn’t the equivalent of those that aren’t. It’s also biased.

Always use information that is up-to-date, especially when it comes to scientific or medical reviews and journals. A good rule of thumb: At least half of the bibliographical material you use should be within five to eight years old. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what has been updated, debunked, or found inconclusive.

Evaluation is also important to problem solving because you have to weigh the validity of one solution over the other. This means evaluating the pros and cons and reviewing data and actual examples. When the information you use is biased, slanted, or has been thoroughly debunked, then the argument you make won’t be very convincing.

#5 Problem Solving

Problem solving is another critical thinking skill that you’ll find useful in essay writing. In fact, it’s the most important of all because, no matter how skilled, all writers will encounter problems.

Problem solving involves breaking a problem down to its finest parts and figuring out what’s not working. It’s sort of like what happens when you run a diagnostics test on your computer to find out why it crashed. A diagnostics test is a process of elimination that examines each essential part to determine which one has failed.

You use the same process when you encounter problems in your writing. Let’s say an author is having trouble organizing her ideas coherently. This is a common problem essay writers encounter.

The author might handle this problem by breaking it down and evaluating or eliminating possible causes: Is the topic too broad? Are there too many ideas to contain within a five-structure essay? Could any one of those ideas be an essay topic in itself?

For instance, if the topic broadly explores how Shakespeare wrote about women, the author might narrow it down to characters like Lady MacBeth and how their positions of power reflected the gender politics of Elizabethan society.

By breaking down the problem and examining it thoroughly, you’ll be able to figure out the cause and come up with a solution that works best. That is the very essence of critical thinking.

Let’s Apply What We Know

So now that you know the basics of critical thinking, let’s put it to good use and see how it’s applied in an actual essay.

I pulled this New York Times op-ed “The Global Benefits of Binocularity” by Erik Parens. It investigates neurological studies that determine whether humans have free will. The op-ed draws several conclusions about the usefulness of this empirical work and what it might actually say about us as human beings.

I made up this chart to show how the author applies basic concepts of critical thinking to arrive at the conclusions he makes in the essay.

As you can see from the op-ed, Parens sets up his argument by agreeing largely with many of the neurological studies and their general importance. By critically analyzing and evaluating different sources on the subject, however, he arrives at a different conclusion about whether humans are singularly affected by neurological impulses. As the above chart demonstrates, he applied all the tools of critical thinking to arrive at this conclusion.

You’ll also notice that he combines the expository and problem-solution style essays, as well. He sets up much of his essay to actually refute claims made by Francis Crick, then offers his own solution about how we should go about studying free will.

To learn about writing problem solution and expository essays, read “How to Write a Problem-Solution Essay” and “How to Write an Expository Essay That Pops” for additional help.

Final Thoughts on Critical Thinking in Essay Writing

Isn’t it apparent how important critical thinking is to writing a good essay? You’ve already used some of these skills without realizing it. However, it’s helpful to know what you’re doing so that you’ll be able to effectively apply these skills to your next essay.

If you need additional help, read “10 Thesis Statement Examples to Inspire Your Next Argumentative Essay,” to give you some ideas on how to get started. I also recommend reading this blog post by Peter J. Francis, a teacher who explains logic on the grammatical level.

Lastly, I suggest you browse these essays to get more examples that apply critical thinking skills effectively.

So really, it’s not that hard. By following the basic rules of critical thinking, you’ll be able to write an essay that is compelling, persuasive, and logical.

Good luck and have fun!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Critical Thinking


What is Critical Thinking?

When examining the vast literature on critical thinking, various definitions of critical thinking emerge. Here are some samples:

  • "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Scriven, 1996 ).
  • "Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo, 1995, p. 6 ).
  • "Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself" ( Center for Critical Thinking, 1996b ).
  • "Critical thinking is the ability to think about one's thinking in such a way as 1. To recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, 2. To recast the thinking in improved form" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996c ).

Perhaps the simplest definition is offered by Beyer (1995) : "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Basically, Beyer sees critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.).


Characteristics of Critical Thinking

Wade (1995) identifies eight characteristics of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking, "Ambiguity and doubt serve a critical-thinking function and are a necessary and even a productive part of the process" (p. 56).

Another characteristic of critical thinking identified by many sources is metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking. More specifically, "metacognition is being aware of one's thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing" (Jones & Ratcliff, 1993, p. 10 ).

In the book, Critical Thinking, Beyer elaborately explains what he sees as essential aspects of critical thinking. These are:

  • Dispositions: Critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fair-mindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view, and will change positions when reason leads them to do so.
  • Criteria: To think critically, must apply criteria. Need to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable. Although the argument can be made that each subject area has different criteria, some standards apply to all subjects. "... an assertion must... be based on relevant, accurate facts; based on credible sources; precise; unbiased; free from logical fallacies; logically consistent; and strongly reasoned" (p. 12).
  • Argument: Is a statement or proposition with supporting evidence. Critical thinking involves identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments.
  • Reasoning: The ability to infer a conclusion from one or multiple premises. To do so requires examining logical relationships among statements or data.
  • Point of View: The way one views the world, which shapes one's construction of meaning. In a search for understanding, critical thinkers view phenomena from many different points of view.
  • Procedures for Applying Criteria: Other types of thinking use a general procedure. Critical thinking makes use of many procedures. These procedures include asking questions, making judgments, and identifying assumptions.

Why Teach Critical Thinking?

Oliver & Utermohlen (1995) see students as too often being passive receptors of information. Through technology, the amount of information available today is massive. This information explosion is likely to continue in the future. Students need a guide to weed through the information and not just passively accept it. Students need to "develop and effectively apply critical thinking skills to their academic studies, to the complex problems that they will face, and to the critical choices they will be forced to make as a result of the information explosion and other rapid technological changes" (Oliver & Utermohlen, p. 1 ).

As mentioned in the section, Characteristics of Critical Thinking , critical thinking involves questioning. It is important to teach students how to ask good questions, to think critically, in order to continue the advancement of the very fields we are teaching. "Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996a ).

Beyer sees the teaching of critical thinking as important to the very state of our nation. He argues that to live successfully in a democracy, people must be able to think critically in order to make sound decisions about personal and civic affairs. If students learn to think critically, then they can use good thinking as the guide by which they live their lives.


Teaching Strategies to Help Promote Critical Thinking

The 1995, Volume 22, issue 1, of the journal, Teaching of Psychology , is devoted to the teaching critical thinking. Most of the strategies included in this section come from the various articles that compose this issue.

  • CATS (Classroom Assessment Techniques): Angelo stresses the use of ongoing classroom assessment as a way to monitor and facilitate students' critical thinking. An example of a CAT is to ask students to write a "Minute Paper" responding to questions such as "What was the most important thing you learned in today's class? What question related to this session remains uppermost in your mind?" The teacher selects some of the papers and prepares responses for the next class meeting.
  • Cooperative Learning Strategies: Cooper (1995) argues that putting students in group learning situations is the best way to foster critical thinking. "In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher" (p. 8).
  • Case Study /Discussion Method: McDade (1995) describes this method as the teacher presenting a case (or story) to the class without a conclusion. Using prepared questions, the teacher then leads students through a discussion, allowing students to construct a conclusion for the case.
  • Using Questions: King (1995) identifies ways of using questions in the classroom:
  • Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Following lecture, the teacher displays a list of question stems (such as, "What are the strengths and weaknesses of...). Students must write questions about the lecture material. In small groups, the students ask each other the questions. Then, the whole class discusses some of the questions from each small group.
  • Reader's Questions: Require students to write questions on assigned reading and turn them in at the beginning of class. Select a few of the questions as the impetus for class discussion.
  • Conference Style Learning: The teacher does not "teach" the class in the sense of lecturing. The teacher is a facilitator of a conference. Students must thoroughly read all required material before class. Assigned readings should be in the zone of proximal development. That is, readings should be able to be understood by students, but also challenging. The class consists of the students asking questions of each other and discussing these questions. The teacher does not remain passive, but rather, helps "direct and mold discussions by posing strategic questions and helping students build on each others' ideas" (Underwood & Wald, 1995, p. 18 ).
  • Use Writing Assignments: Wade sees the use of writing as fundamental to developing critical thinking skills. "With written assignments, an instructor can encourage the development of dialectic reasoning by requiring students to argue both [or more] sides of an issue" (p. 24).
  • Dialogues: Robertson andRane-Szostak (1996) identify two methods of stimulating useful discussions in the classroom:
    • Written dialogues: Give students written dialogues to analyze. In small groups, students must identify the different viewpoints of each participant in the dialogue. Must look for biases, presence or exclusion of important evidence, alternative interpretations, misstatement of facts, and errors in reasoning. Each group must decide which view is the most reasonable. After coming to a conclusion, each group acts out their dialogue and explains their analysis of it.
    • Spontaneous Group Dialogue: One group of students are assigned roles to play in a discussion (such as leader, information giver, opinion seeker, and disagreer). Four observer groups are formed with the functions of determining what roles are being played by whom, identifying biases and errors in thinking, evaluating reasoning skills, and examining ethical implications of the content.
  • Ambiguity: Strohm & Baukus advocate producing much ambiguity in the classroom. Don't give students clear cut material. Give them conflicting information that they must think their way through.

References & Resources

  • Angelo, T. A. (1995). Beginning the dialogue: Thoughts on promoting critical thinking: Classroom assessment for critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 6-7.
  • Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Cooper, J. L. (1995). Cooperative learning and critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 7-8.
  • Jones, E. A. & Ratcliff, G. (1993). Critical thinking skills for college students. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University Park, PA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 358 772)
  • King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum: Inquiring minds really do want to know: Using questioning to teach critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22 (1) , 13-17.
  • McDade, S. A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.
  • Oliver, H. & Utermohlen, R. (1995). An innovative teaching strategy: Using critical thinking to give students a guide to the future.(Eric Document Reproduction Services No. 389 702)
  • Robertson, J. F. & Rane-Szostak, D. (1996). Using dialogues to develop critical thinking skills: A practical approach. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39(7), 552-556.
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Strohm, S. M., & Baukus, R. A. (1995). Strategies for fostering critical thinking skills. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 50 (1), 55-62.
  • Underwood, M. K., & Wald, R. L. (1995). Conference-style learning: A method for fostering critical thinking with heart. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 17-21.
  • Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28.

Other Reading

  • Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, & active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Bernstein, D. A. (1995). A negotiation model for teaching critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 22-24.
  • Carlson, E. R. (1995). Evaluating the credibility of sources. A missing link in the teaching of critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 39-41.
  • Facione, P. A., Sanchez, C. A., Facione, N. C., & Gainen, J. (1995). The disposition toward critical thinking. The Journal of General Education, 44(1), 1-25.
  • Halpern, D. F., & Nummedal, S. G. (1995). Closing thoughts about helping students improve how they think. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 82-83.
  • Isbell, D. (1995). Teaching writing and research as inseparable: A faculty-librarian teaching team. Reference Services Review, 23(4), 51-62.
  • Jones, J. M. & Safrit, R. D. (1994). Developing critical thinking skills in adult learners through innovative distance learning. Paper presented at the International Conference on the practice of adult education and social development. Jinan, China. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 373 159)
  • Sanchez, M. A. (1995). Using critical-thinking principles as a guide to college-level instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 72-74.
  • Spicer, K. L. & Hanks, W. E. (1995). Multiple measures of critical thinking skills and predisposition in assessment of critical thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, TX. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 391 185)
  • Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students' critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 23-39.

On the Internet

  • Carr, K. S. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking. Eric Digest. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://ericps.ed.uiuc.edu/eece/pubs/digests/1990/carr90.html
  • The Center for Critical Thinking (1996). Home Page. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Ennis, Bob (No date). Critical thinking. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/teach/for442/ct.htm
  • Montclair State University (1995). Curriculum resource center. Critical thinking resources: An annotated bibliography. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.montclair.edu/Pages/CRC/Bibliographies/CriticalThinking.html
  • No author, No date. Critical Thinking is ... [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://library.usask.ca/ustudy/critical/
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Sheridan, Marcia (No date). Internet education topics hotlink page. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://sun1.iusb.edu/~msherida/topics/critical.html

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