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Why is critical thinking important for Psychology students?

Amy Burrell, Daniel Waldeck, and Rachael Leggett – authors of ‘How to make the most of your psychology degree’ – explain what critical thinking is and why it is an essential skill for all Psychology students.

16 September 2022

So, you're off to university to study Psychology? From day one, in seminars, in lectures, attached to almost every assignment, you will encounter the words 'critical thinking' or 'critical evaluation'. But what does that mean?

Showing your critical thinking is not just a box to be ticked on your assignment marksheet: it is a life skill that helps us to really understand and interpret the world around us. Critical thinking is objective and requires you to analyse and evaluate information to form a sound judgement. It is a cornerstone of evidence-based arguments and forming an evidence-based argument is essential in Psychology. That is why we, your tutors, as well as your future employers, want you to develop this skill effectively.

However, despite all the time we spend learning about critical thinking, there are several common issues that come up. Let us start with the causation versus correlation problem.

Causation versus correlation problem

As researchers, when we see a relationship between two variables, we inevitably get excited. It is very easy to think A caused B but, often, life is more complex than that. What might look like a direct relationship, could in fact be coincidence or due to another explanation. Take, for example, that researchers have found cows who are named produce more milk. It would be easy to get carried away with a media headline. When you read the paper, you will realise that the mechanism for producing more milk is not having a name, it is what that represents – i.e. the quality of the human-animal relationship (or, more simply put, treating cows as individuals).

There are also many examples of spurious correlations – the internet is full of interesting oddities like the correlation between divorce rates and consumption of margarine in Maine, USA or that a shortage of pirates has led to global warming. Whilst there might be a relationship between our two variables we need to be thoughtful when interpreting our findings. We can't just take things at face value. We need to try and understand why these relationships exist.

Limited critique

Another common issue is that, where there is critique, this is often limited. Most students do provide some critique, but this is often very generic – for example, 'my sample size is small and/or non-representative'. This is a good start, but we need to see more depth in critique, and this means being more specific – for example, explaining why a small or non-representative sample might be a problem and what this means for your interpretation of findings.

Another common problem is students being dismissive of non-significant results. Remember non-significant is not insignificant! If your research was conducted to a high standard with the large sample size, it could be that you found a genuine lack of a relationship between variables and that might be really important. Listening to the data is essential.

It is important to be aware of wider issues too – for example, the replication crisis. This describes the situation where the findings of many published studies are difficult to reproduce. It is important that findings are replicated to validate these. The replication crisis is a problem for Psychology too; so much so that this presents opportunities for students – i.e. to conduct replication studies!

How do I think critically?

Ok, so we've talked about why critical thinking is important and pointed out some of the challenges, but how do you docritical thinking? We include lots of advice in our book, but there are some key tips to help you get started:

  • Read, read, and read some more – you are a Psychology student now. If you hate reading, you chose the wrong course! Reading helps us to understand how other people critique and this give us the opportunity to reflect on whether we agree or disagree (and why).
  • It's pretty obvious, but go to class. Not only that, engage in your learning. Don't be a passive person sat on their phone. Get in there, get your hands dirty, so to speak. Your sneaky tutors will have built skills development, including critical thinking, into their class activities. Make the most of this to help you learn.
  • Remember critique can be positive or negative – for example, the study could be methodologically robust, but the small sample size could mean it lacks statistical power.
  • It is useful to consider what the researcher can control as a starting point for critiquing research papers (e.g., sample size, methods used, materials used etc.). You can also consider things they can't control (e.g., the time limits or budget for their study, that the population they are drawing their sample from might be small or hard to recruit).
  • When it comes to critique, there is no limit. There is no magic number of critical points you need to make to get a pass or reach a particular grade. The stronger the quality of your critique, the better your grade.

And, finally, remember critical thinking is not just repeating someone else's critique. By all means consider the critique of others but read the papers they are critiquing for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

To sum up…

So, how do we sum up? Well, at the risk of sounding repetitive, there really is only one message we are trying to get across; critical thinking is an essential skill for Psychology students. And for graduates! Once you get into the workplace, you will find you will need to be able to think critically to do your day job. Add to that, being able to think critically at a broader/strategic level (e.g., the replication crisis!) will only ever put you at an advantage, maybe even a frontrunner for that promotion. So, if you crack it during your degree, you will be at a massive advantage in your career.

Our book How to make the most of your psychology degree: study skills, employability, and professional development is available to purchase here.

Dr Amy Burrell [pictured, left] – formerly Assistant Professor in Forensic Psychology at Coventry University – has considerable experience of tutoring and teaching in Psychology. She is now a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Dr Dan Waldeck [pictured, top right] is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Coventry University, with extensive experience of teaching research methods and study skills.

Rachael Leggett [pictured, bottom right] is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Coventry University and routinely teaches across forensic topics including study skills and employability.