Critical Thinking: A Necessity in Any Degree Program

Critical thinking is the process by which concepts, facts and ideas are analyzed, internalized and comprehended. While the extent and process of critical thinking varies depending on the field of study or project, almost all educational programs require students to utilize critical thinking skills. Despite this, however, many students have never investigated the components of critical thinking. Advanced interpretation of topics and issues is not an inherent skill.

Thinking critically is a process that must be learned and continuously evaluated for its effectiveness in a given situation. Teachers and professors focus on instilling in students the importance of critical thinking and also on providing opportunities to exercise the skill. The fact is, though, that critical thinking is a field of study in itself. The technique consists of six elements: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Each of these elements is equally important, but may not be relevant to every study.

Understanding which of the six are pertinent and which are irrelevant in a given situation is just as important as knowing how each operates. Knowledge Knowledge refers to the ability to recall the information currently being evaluated. Memorization, understanding terms and identifying major concepts are components of the initial step in thinking critically. Important, too, is the ability to correctly answer questions about the topic or issue. At this point, students should focus on explaining the topic rather than analyzing its aspects.

  • Occurrence: immediately after reading or studying the subject
  • Keywords: The 5 W's and 1 H: Who, What, When, Where, Why & How
  • Main abilities: recollection, description, listing, identifying
  • Questions to test knowledge: “Who was”; “Where is”; “How would you describe”


Comprehension refers to the ability to demonstrate an understanding of the material. In this step, information gleaned from reading or studying is internalized and main ideas are developed into the beginning stages of analysis. Students should be able to summarize, demonstrate and interpret the material, but are not yet engaged in a full analysis. Comprehending studied materials indicates that its main tenants have been identified and are familiar.

  • Occurrence: after the subject has been thoroughly investigated
  • Keywords: interpret, rephrase, explain
  • Main abilities: comprehension, recitation, summarization
  • Questions to test comprehension: “What can you say about”; “How would you best summarize”; “Interpret in your own words”


During the application element of critical thinking, students begin to solve problems or questions raised by the material. This stage of the critical thinking process is typically rudimentary in that it only requires a superficial application of the material to a particular issue. Potentially, however, this process may be performed in a manner previously unused by the student that was learned from the initial study of the material. An example of this would be the use of a new calculation method to solve a mathematical problem.

  • Occurrence: after full comprehension of the material's basic facts
  • Keywords: solve, apply, construct, develop
  • Main abilities: simple analysis, basic interpretation
  • Questions to test comprehension: “What would be the result if”; “What facts can be used to show”; “How would you approach”


At this stage of the critical thinking process, students break the material into parts and analyze those parts independently. This analysis includes categorizing, classifying, relating or distinguishing the individual parts. Analysis of these parts may also include identifying the motives or origins of the relevant issues. A thorough analysis usually requires evidentiary support for a belief, interpretation or conclusion.

  • Occurrence: after the initial, cursory application of materials
  • Keywords: differentiate, interpret, infer
  • Main abilities: classification, comparison, inference, conclusion
  • Questions to test comprehension: “What justifies”; “What can be concluded from”; “What evidence can be found….”


During the synthesis stage students begin to restructure analyzed materials. This restructuring can be done in accordance with a newly developed configuration for the information or by compiling together previously distinct concepts. Included in this step are consideration of how different aspects of the material could be combined and the potential result of the combination. Evidentiary support is often required to support the method or manner of the synthesis.

  • Occurrence: after a thorough analysis of the material
  • Keywords: modify, change, improve, adapt
  • Main abilities: design, suppose, formulate, predict
  • Questions to test comprehension: “What would be an alternative”; “How would you design”; “What would be the potential outcome if'


During this last stage of the critical thinking process students judge the material's concepts, ideas or quality. This evaluation, however, is not based on personal beliefs, but rather on an established set of criteria for the field. An example of a set of criteria is the scientific method that is universally used during experimentation. If the previous steps in a critical analysis result in the material conflicting with established criteria, judgment may be made about its reliability or validity.

  • Occurrence: after completion of synthesizing the material
  • Keywords: criticize, defend, evaluate
  • Main abilities: assessment, recommend, prioritize, comparison
  • Questions to test comprehension: “How would you explain”; “Assess the importance of”; “What evidence supports the conclusion'

Additional Resources

To learn more about critical thinking and its six components, visit the sites below.