Applying Hyper-Connected Critical Thinking in Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"Critical thinking…the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself."

In my most recent post, "Develop Hyper-Connected Critical Research Skills for Higher Education," I outline a process by which students can thoughtfully acquire information in any facet of their lives that can then be evaluated in order to make the most well-informed, globally aware, intellectually contemplated decision possible. Now that you know how to get the information necessary for critical thinking, here is a process that you can employ to put that data to work for you and to develop lifelong habits that will help make you a valuable contributor to society.

What is Critical Thinking? A Refresher
The basic concept behind the idea of critical thinking as summarized by from Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (1987).

"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. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness."

The important aspects of this definition for the college student are that critical thinking is a set of skills for actively "conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating" information about the world we live in. In short, this is a process for making sense of the world around you.

Not coincidentally, the steps of critical thinking mirror the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning which provide a structure for the most efficient way that people learn: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Combining these two models provides an excellent plan for undertaking a process of critical reflection, particularly in a media rich, hyper-connected world. Here’s my model for "Hyper-Connected Critical Thinking" and some suggestions for how you can apply it within the existing framework of your higher education.

Stage 1: Researching – Conducting solid, informed research is the basis of all critical thinking in the Information Age, and thus is deserving of its own post, which can be read here, "Develop Hyper-Connected Critical Research Skills for Higher Education." 

Stage 2: Evaluating– Critical thinking is an iterative process, meaning that as you learn more, you return to earlier steps to invest what you have discovered back into previous levels of the process. You will be evaluating both the information you are finding and your own though process continually as you work through the critical thinking progression. This process is also addressed in "Develop Hyper-Connected Critical Research Skills for Higher Education," but at the most basic level, you will want to make sure that the sources you are incorporating are reputable. Here’s how from George Mason University.

The process of critically evaluating your own thought process is far more complex and involves developing self-awareness and open-mindedness. For starters you should create a list or diagram that captures your own perceptions of the issues and the effects of your potential findings. I would suggest a simple SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) that describes your stake in the issue.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In the case of the sample diagram, think of the areas as relating to you personally. For example, are there personal strengths you have that would help you understand the issue? Are you a member of the group or organization you are studying? If so, this also can be a weakness as your ability to see clearly may be effected by your involvement. For Opportunities and Threats, are there personal gains that you will achieve as a result of your findings? Those will need to be factored into your critical understanding of the issue.

Stage 3: Conceptualizing – Once you have conducted your initial research and evaluate it you need to create a conceptual model, either in your head or physically, of how the information you are finding fits together. In formal academic courses, your professors may do some of this for you by presenting historical contexts or explicitly emphasizing links to ongoing events or research. If they don’t, or you are working outside of formal educational channels, you can do this for yourself using free online concept mapping tools. This list from Indiana University contains several suggestions. Additionally you could use PowerPoint or Prezi, particularly if you are looking to collaborate with others. 

Stage 4: Analyzing – In the critical thinking process, analyzing applies to discrete pieces of information, the larger issue being considered, and your own thought process. The process of analysis is where true critical perspective begins to develop. Take all of the information you have acquired, the broad concepts you have formulated, and your own burgeoning self-awareness from the SWOT analysis, and put them all together to form a complete picture of the issue(s) and your place in relation to it. This process will be different for every problem you tackle, but basically you should consider the mainstream perspective on an issue and then as many alternative perspectives as you have encountered or can conceive of. Refer back to your education to think about these alternative points of view. World history, political science, philosophy, classics, and other disciplines will help provide divergent perspectives. Additionally, return to the Internet and consult discussion boards, affinity groups, and social media sites to find real people whose opinions you can elicit.

Stage 5: Synthesizing – It is now time to begin putting everything together to synthesize your new critical perspective on the issue or topic. The best way to synthesize the information you have gathered, conceptualized, and analyzed is to clearly articulate your position. You have done all of the necessary legwork to take this step, but formalizing your point of view will be intellectually challenging. This is the point of the process where social media and face-to-face contacts are essential to developing a clear articulation of your conclusions. Talk to friends, family, and experts in the field such as professors or professionals available online and walk through your process with them and your conclusions. As this is an iterative process, you should remain flexible about incorporating any new information into your developing understanding.

Stage 6: Creating – Finally, in the Information Age, the end result of any critical thinking endeavor is to create and share a product that will add value to the ongoing conversation and solidify your thinking on the topic. If you are in a class, the guidelines for this production will be clear – PowerPoint, paper, or some other project. If you are coming to your critical perspective on your own, you can create a blog, video, video game, or some other piece of media that takes your synthesis and turns it into something that articulates and shares your newfound understanding.

For hyper-connected critical thinking this sharing and the ensuing conversation that follows from it will serve to further enhance your view, and should be funneled back into the process. Critical thinking will never end, and every new piece of information you receive should be incorporated into your ongoing process.

Keep It Going
Hyper-connected critical thinking is an ongoing process that never stops. Not only will it continue for any individual topic you research, but, if put into play, it will help you to develop the kind of lifelong habits of intellectualism and critical consideration that will make you a thoughtful, concerned, and ultimately successful person. Critical thinking will help you to make the most well-informed, best decision in any event that you encounter, It is a skill that will benefit you and the entire society. Go ahead and start honing your critical thinking skills right now.