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How to develop your critical thinking skills

Three steps can help you improve how and why you make decisions.

Critical thinking skills will be what sets you apart from others, both in the classroom and when pursuing professional goals.

With technology continuing to revolutionize how we work and live, those entering the workforce won’t have the option of sitting back and slowly getting the gist of how things work in their particular firm or industry, said Susan Wolcott, CPA, Ph.D., founder of the critical thinking development consulting firm WolcottLynch, which is based out of the Seattle area.

You’ll need to hit the ground running and prove to your bosses, clients, and others that you have the skills to make smart, and sound, decisions.

“People will need to demonstrate critical thinking earlier in their careers than in the past,” said Wolcott, who has dedicated much of her career teaching on the university level and consulting to strengthen the critical thinking skills of those entering the accounting profession.

Through research, Wolcott identified three levels of critical thinking ability among most college students:

  • The Confused Fact-Finder: Those with little or no critical thinking, who tend to see problems as having singular solutions, which can lead to being stumped or frustrated by more open-ended challenges.
  • The Biased Jumper: Those with some critical thinking abilities, who can jump to a conclusion and then get stuck on that initial conclusion. This type of thinker can acknowledge different viewpoints, but also tends to discount them.
  • The Perpetual Analyzer: The emergent critical thinker, who realizes that complex problems can have multiple solutions that depend on the context of a situation. This type of person can struggle when it comes to selecting a single conclusion and may, for example, write overly long research papers.

(Wolcott expands on these categories in an article she wrote for the AICPA here.)

Don’t despair if you think your critical thinking skills may be lacking. No one is fixed in any particular slot, and it’s more than possible to improve your skills as you go along, Wolcott said.

Here are three steps to sharpen your critical thinking skills when approaching a problem.

Step 1: Identify the type of problem. Not every problem has a single answer, and knowing how to discern those with concrete answers from more complex issues will help you enormously in an accounting career, Wolcott said. As an accountant, you’ll be asked to think through different strategies. Knowing how to sort out situations where there’s a single right answer and those scenarios where multiple solutions apply is imperative, Wolcott said.

Start now by looking at challenges in your life, whether as part of classwork or issues that pop up in your extracurricular activities or part-time jobs, and then identify the type of problem before you begin to work on it.

Ask yourself whether a problem has only one answer that everyone can agree on or whether it’s the type of problem “where different people can have diverse, legitimate answers,” Wolcott said.

If it is an open-ended problem, where uncertainties prevent a single “correct” answer, get ready to apply further critical thinking skills to reach a sound solution.

Step 2: Objectively weigh the pros and cons of alternatives. This is where it’s time to sit back and start thinking through the arguments for and against each possible solution to an open-ended problem. And the more you brainstorm and develop methods of how to do that, the better your critical thinking skills will develop over time, Wolcott said.

Start by listing pros and cons for a challenge you’re dealing with, which could be something in your personal life, like coming up with a strategy to save for a big purchase like a car, or in your academic life, such as getting ready to write a research paper. Try to avoid forming an opinion too quickly as you explore various approaches.

By taking the time to think through the pros and cons for each solution, you’ll be exercising those critical thinking skills and getting used to working through complicated, thorny problems, Wolcott said.

“The awareness that there are multiple valid ways to look at it is good,” Wolcott said.

Step 3: Make your decision. Finally, it’s time to look through what you’ve done in the first two steps: identifying the type of problem and listing arguments for and against various solutions. This is where you use your critical thinking skills to plot the best path forward, Wolcott said.

If improving your critical thinking skills seems intimidating, Wolcott suggests starting small. If there’s an assignment that you didn’t do as well on as you hoped, reach out to someone who did well and ask them to walk you through their approach. You could also reach out to your instructor or professor afterward to hear how she or he thinks you could have tackled the assignment differently.

Also, realize that you’re using these skills every time you take an alternate driving route or use public transportation to avoid traffic. The same goes when you need to figure out what to order at a restaurant you’ve never been to: You’ll need to sort through various options and arrive at the best solution for you at that time.

Yes, this can be hard at first, Wolcott said. But the more you exercise your critical thinking muscles, the more naturally it will come.

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director, content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.


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