Become a better critical thinker with these 7 critical thinking exercises

From personified problems to trying on hats, you can strengthen your critical thinking skills with these fun and versatile critical thinking exercises.

Critical thinking exercises: brain and dumbbells

Critical thinking is a skill you can use in any situation. Whether you're a student, entrepreneur, or business executive, critical thinking can help you make better decisions and solve problems.

But learning critical thinking skills isn't always an easy task. Many tools, techniques, and strategies are available, and choosing the right one can be challenging. Vague suggestions on the internet like "read more" aren't very helpful, and elaborate business examples don’t apply to many of us.

As average problem-solvers, we need actionable thinking exercises to improve our critical thinking skills and enhance our thinking processes. Regularly performing exercises that specifically stretch our decision-making and reasoning skills is the most effective method of improving our thinking abilities.

This article will explore several exercises that will help you develop critical thinking skills. Whether you are preparing for an exam, making an influential decision for your business, or going about your daily life, these fun activities can build your reasoning skills and creative problem-solving abilities.

Boost your logical thinking skills and start practicing a critical mindset with these 10 critical thinking exercises.

A Quick Look at Critical Thinking

As a thoughtful learner, you likely already understand the basics of critical thinking, but here's a quick refresher.

Critical thinking involves analyzing problems or issues objectively and rationally. Critical thinkers are able to understand their own biases and assumptions, as well as those of others. They’re also able to see the world from a different point of view and understand how their experiences impact their thinking.

Developing critical thinking skills is essential because it allows us to see things from multiple perspectives, identify biases and errors in reasoning, and be open to possible solutions. Making informed decisions is easier when we have a better understanding of the world around us.

Why We Need to Practice Critical Thinking

Critical thinking exercises: brain and four puzzle pieces

We aren't born with critical thinking skills, and they don’t naturally develop beyond survival-level thinking. To master critical thinking, we must practice it and develop it over time.

However, learning to think critically isn't as easy as learning to ride a bicycle. There aren't any step-by-step procedures to follow or supportive guides to fall back on, and it is not taught in public schools consistently or reliably. To ensure students' success, teachers must know higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) and how to teach them, research says.

Unfortunately, although teachers understand the importance of HOTS and attempt to teach it, studies show that their capacity to measure students' HOTS is low. Educator and author Dr. Kulvarn Atwal says, "It seems that we are becoming successful at producing students who are able to jump through hoops and pass tests."

As critical thinking skills become more important in higher grades, some students find it challenging to understand the concept of critical thinking. To develop necessary thinking skills, we must set aside our assumptions and beliefs. This allows us to explore and question topics from a "blank page" point of view and distinguish fact from opinion.

7 Critical Thinking Exercises To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking exercises: steel model of the brain lifting dumbbells

The good news is that by assessing, analyzing, and evaluating our thought processes, we can improve our skills. Critical thinking exercises are key to this improvement. Our critical thinking builds and improves with regular practice, just like a muscle that gets stronger with use.

If you want to become a better critical thinker, here are some critical thinking exercises to try:

Exercise #1: The Ladder of Inference

You can exercise your critical thinking skills by using the Ladder of Inference model. This thinking model was developed by renowned organizational psychologist Chris Argyris. Each rung on the ladder of inference represents a step you take to arrive at your conclusions.

The decision-making process starts when we are faced with a problem or situation. As soon as we observe something problematic or important, we presume what is causing it, and then we use that assumption to draw conclusions. Based on those conclusions, we take action.

For example, say you're at a party and see a friend across the room. You catch their eye and wave, but they turn and walk away. Using the ladder, you might climb the rungs as follows:

  1. Observe that your friend walked away.
  2. Select a few details of the situation, including your wave and your assumption that they saw you.
  3. Meaning is attached based on the environment, making you think your friend must have other people to talk to at the party.
  4. Assumptions are made based on that meaning, assuming that means your friend doesn’t like you as much as them.
  5. Conclusions are drawn from the assumption, and you determine that your friend must be mad at you or doesn't want you to be at the party.
  6. Beliefs are formed, making you think you're not welcome.
  7. Action is taken, and you leave the party.

In this example, you started with a situation (someone walking away at a crowded party) and made a series of inferences to arrive at a conclusion (that the person is mad at you and doesn't want you there).

The Ladder of Inference can be a helpful tool to frame your thinking because it encourages you to examine each step of your thought process and avoid jumping to conclusions. It's easy to make assumptions without realizing it, as in this scene. Perhaps your friend never even saw you wave from across the crowded room.

Exercise #2: The Five Whys

The "Five Whys" technique is an analytical skill that can help you uncover the source of a problem. The activity was created by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, and consists of repeatedly asking “why?” when a problem is encountered to determine its root cause.

This exercise can be difficult because knowing if you've discovered the source of your problem is challenging. The "five" in "Five Whys" is just a guideline — you may need to ask more. When you can't ask anything else, and your response is related to the original issue, you've probably arrived at the end.

Even if you need several rounds of questioning, just keep going. The important part that helps you practice critical thinking is the process of asking "why?" and uncovering the deeper issues affecting the situation.

For instance, say you're trying to figure out why your computer keeps crashing.

  1. You ask "why," and the answer is that there's a software problem.
  2. Why? Because the computer keeps running out of memory.
  3. Why? Because too many programs are running at the same time.
  4. Why? Because too many browser tabs are open.
  5. Why? Because multitasking is fragmenting your focus, you're doing too many things at once.

In this example, working through the "why's" revealed the underlying cause. As a result, you can find the best solution, which is concentrating on just one thing at a time.

Exercise #3: Inversion

Wooden blocks with seven black arrows and one red arrow

Inversion is another critical thinking exercise that you can use in any situation. Inversion is sort of like taking on the role of the devil's advocate. In this exercise, adopt the opposite view of whatever issue you're exploring and consider the potential arguments for that side. This will help broaden your critical thinking skills and enable you to see other perspectives on a situation or topic more clearly.

For example, let's say you're thinking about starting your own business. Using inversion, you would explore all of the potential arguments for why starting your own business is bad. This might include concerns like:

  • You could end up in debt.
  • The business might fail.
  • It's a lot of work.
  • You might not have time for anything else.

By exploring these potentially adverse outcomes, you can identify the potential risks involved in starting your own business and make a more sound decision. You might realize that now is not the right time for you to become an entrepreneur. And if you do start the company, you'll be better prepared to deal with the issues you identified when they occur.

Exercise #4: Argument Mapping

Argument mapping can be a beneficial exercise for enhancing critical thinking skills. Like mind mapping, argument mapping is a method of visually representing an argument's structure. It helps analyze and evaluate ideas as well as develop new ones.

In critical thinking textbooks, argument diagramming is often presented to introduce students to argument constructions. It can be an effective way to build mental templates or schema for argument structures, which researchers think may make critical evaluation easier.

Argument maps typically include the following:

  • Conclusion: What is being argued for or against
  • Premises: The reasons given to support the conclusion
  • Inferences: The connections made between the premises and conclusion

The argument map should be as clear and concise as possible, with a single word or phrase representing each element. This will help you make connections more easily. After the map is completed, you can use it to identify any weak points in the argument. If any areas aren't well-supported, additional premises can be added.

Argument mapping can be applied to any situation that requires critical thinking skills. The more time you take to map out an argument, the better you'll understand how the pieces fit together. Ultimately, this will help you think more creatively and critically, and make more informed decisions.

Exercise #5: Opinion vs. Fact

Critical thinking activities that focus on opinions and facts are particularly valuable and relevant new learning opportunities. Our constantly-connected world makes it easy to confuse opinions and facts, especially with sensationalist news articles and click-bait headlines.

How can you tell a fact from an opinion? Facts are generally objective and established, whereas opinions are subjective and unproven. For example, "the cloud is in the air" is a fact. "That dress looks good on you" is an opinion.

Practice your critical thinking skills by reading or listening to the news. See if you can identify when someone is stating an opinion rather than a fact. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is saying what? What reasons might be behind their statements?
  • Does the claim make sense? Who would disagree with it and why?
  • How can you tell if the data is reliable? Can it be fact-checked? Has it been shared by other credible publishers?
  • How do you know whether or not the presenter is biased? What kind of language is being used?

This powerful exercise can train your mind to start asking questions whenever presented with a new claim. This will help you think critically about the information you're taking in and question what you're hearing before accepting it as truth.

Exercise #6: Autonomy of an Object

In her book "The Critical Thinking Tool Kit," Dr. Marlene Caroselli describes a critical thinking exercise called "Living Problems, Lively Solutions." This exercise uses the autonomy of an object as a problem-solving tool to find a possible solution.

To do this, you'll personify your problem and place it in another context — a different time or place. This allows you to uncover unique solutions to the problem that might be tied to your mental associations with that setting.

For example, if your problem is poor time management, you might personify the issue as a thief of your time. The idea of a thief could make you think of jail, which might prompt thoughts of locking up specific distractions in your life. The idea of jail could also make you think of guards and lead you to the possible solution of checking in with an accountability buddy who can make sure you're sticking to your schedule.

The autonomy-of-object technique works because it stimulates thoughts you wouldn’t have considered without the particular context in which you place the problem.

Exercise #7: The Six Thinking Hats

Wooden blocks with different colored hats drawn on it

Designed by Edward de Bono, the Six Thinking Hats is a critical thinking exercise that was created as a tool for groups to use when exploring different perspectives on an issue. When people use other thinking processes, meetings can become challenging rather than beneficial.

To help teams work more productively and mindfully, de Bono suggests dividing up different styles of thinking into six categories, represented as hats:

  1. The white hat is objective and focuses on facts and logic
  2. The red hat is intuitive, focusing on emotion and instinct
  3. The black hat is cautious and predicts negative outcomes
  4. The yellow hat is optimistic and encourages positive outcomes
  5. The green hat is creative, with numerous ideas and little criticism
  6. The blue hat is the control hat used for management and organization

With each team member wearing a different hat, a group can examine an issue or problem from many different angles, preventing one viewpoint (or individual) from dominating the meeting or discussion. This means that decisions and solutions reached using the Six Thinking Hats approach will likely be more robust and effective, and everyone’s creative thinking skills will benefit.

Train Your Brain With Critical Thinking Exercises

Using critical thinking regularly in various situations can improve our ability to evaluate and analyze information. These seven critical thinking exercises train your brain for better critical thinking skills. With daily practice, they can become habits that will help you think more critically each day.


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