Graduate College of Drexel University
Critical thinking versus problem solving.
Many people lump critical thinking and problem-solving together into one basket, and while there are similarities, there are also distinct differences. Critical thinking utilizes analysis, reflection, evaluation, interpretation, and inference to synthesize information that is obtained through reading, observing, communicating, or experience to answer the following questions:
- Is this information credible?
- Is the purveyor of the information credible?
- What is the issue?
- How do I feel about this information and how will it inform my decisions?
- Where does this information lead me?
Problem-solving uses many of the same skills, such as observing, analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting, but it takes the process a step further to identify obstacles and then to strategically map out a set of solutions to solve the problem.
So, how can you develop these skills to be a better critical thinker and a better problem solver? You cannot train yourself to be a critical thinker or a problem solver overnight; you should start slow. Work on one sub-skill at a time. Let’s look at each of these sub-skills:
Regardless of position, you can develop analytical skills by analyzing issues, programs, experiences, etc. to break them down into easier to digest chunks to gain a better or deeper understanding. To do this:
- Be more observant
- Ask questions such as who, what, where, when, how, and why
- Learn as much as possible about the given topic
- Map out the topic or issue to gain a visual understanding
- Figure out the difference between fact and opinion
Learning to be reflective is something you can do with nearly every aspect of your professional and personal life. Start a journal and continually ask yourself questions and explore the answers honestly. This experience will open your mind to reflection, which is the process by which you look at your role in a given situation or experience. The best part of journaling – you can go back and re-read and see your progress over time. To begin the process:
- Ask yourself why you did something or reacted in a certain way
- Be open to look at yourself through an honest and critical lens
- Explore your experience through writing
- Ask trusted colleagues for feedback on your findings
We evaluate things all the time without realizing it – products, services, etc. Begin by being aware of this act. Similar to deepening your analysis skills, you can evaluate any issue, topic, program, procedure, policy, etc. through the means listed below to enhance your evaluation skills.
- Compare different issues, topics, programs, etc. – how are they similar, different?
- Look for trends
- Look for conflicts or barriers
- Don’t make assumptions, ask questions to gather information
The act of interpreting something is using a combination of analytical and evaluation skills, but it is a little more difficult to learn on your own. It is best to partner with someone to hone these skills – a trusted colleague or even a mentor, with whom you can put the following into practice.
- Understand your own biases or opinions
- Understand any cultural input, barriers, etc.
- Look at the situation, experience, issue, topic, etc. through different lenses
- Educate yourself about the situation, experience, issue, topic, etc.
- Synthesize the information, data, etc. to develop a deeper understanding
One of the best ways to begin to develop strategic thinking skills is to do some long-range planning. You can start with your own professional goals, think about short-term goals and how those will help you get from point A to point B, and more importantly, how they lay the groundwork for longer-range goals. Keep practicing by employing these tactics.
- Obtain the perspective of others & brainstorm
- Educate yourself about the situation, experience, issue, topic, etc.
- Be forward-thinking in both the short-term and the long-term
- Think about all parties involved and how decisions, etc. will impact them
- Be creative and innovative
We utilize many of these skills each day, even multiple times a day; however, often we do it without realizing it. The first step to enhancing your critical thinking and problem solving skills is to think about them, become aware of them, then you can actively practice to improve them. Critical thinking and problem-solving are two important “soft” or essential skills hiring managers are looking for. According to a Linkedin survey, 57% of business leaders say soft skills are now more important than hard skills. Abby Guthrie, a communications team leader at Findcourses.com argues, “Every soft skill that you develop will be something you will eventually draw on in your career.” These skills are anything but soft, they are essential to your career.
Anne Converse Willkomm Assistant Clinical Professor Department Head of Graduate Studies Goodwin College Drexel University Sources:
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Critical thinking vs. problem solving: the definitions
I was recently chatting with a colleague about the kinds of skills kids need to develop to be successful on the job, and in life. I started running down a list, and she said something along the lines of, “Well, critical thinking and problem solving… they’re the same thing right?” That’s a really interesting question! For my colleague, “critical thinking” and “problem solving” are just phrases that are out there, somehow related to learning. And just like with anything else in life, when you haven’t had a reason to investigate them deeply, they might just be ideas that seem to mean something vaguely similar… but what do these ideas really mean?
First, let’s start with some basic definitions. Critical thinking, according to dictionary.com, is “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence.” Well, that certainly sounds like something I want my kids to be proficient in! According to Merriam-Webster, problem solving is “the process or act of finding a solution to a problem”, and there’s another no-brainer, definitely something I want to instill in my children. Can we move from these definitions to a real understanding of the differences between these two skill sets?
Looking deeper: what skills are involved in critical thinking?
We’ve looked up definitions for critical thinking and problem solving, but these definitions don’t tell us anything about the skills that are involved in each. For instance, what exactly do my kids need to be able to do in order to think critically? Critical thinking skills are habits of mind that help us be more thoughtful, rational, creative, and curious. Critical thinking can involve collecting information, organizing what we collect, analyzing and evaluating the information we have, making connections between different ideas, understanding what’s relevant and what isn’t, and so much more. All of this gives us a basis on which an informed decision can be made.
But when do we make decisions? When we’re confronted with a task, challenge, or problem . Indeed, we apply critical thinking when we are faced with a problem that demands we apply some of those skills. Critical thinking skills are general plans of attack, applicable to a wide array of problems!
Looking deeper: what skills are involved in problem solving?
So now we’ve discovered something interesting: critical thinking skills are problem solving skills! And if you think about it, any critical thinking skill could conceivably be applied to finding the solution to some kind of problem. (In fact, it's hard to define critical thinking skills and not make them about problem solving in some way!) So, every critical thinking skill is a problem-solving skill.
Does that mean that every problem-solving skill is also a critical thinking skill? Actually, no. For starters, there are lots of skills that help us solve problems, but are not thinking skills! For example, brute strength is a body skill that is also a problem-solving skill. (But probably much of the time, you need to figure out how to use that strength, say, so you don't unnecessarily break your best friend’s TV when helping her move to a new home; critical thinking skills to the rescue!)
There are also problem-solving skills that are thinking skills, but just not critical thinking skills. For example, people with “emotional intelligence” can soothe tempers, read other people, and help move ideas forward in contexts that have nothing to do with problem solving. Skills of persuasion and oration are thinking skills, but they don't necessarily have to be critical thinking skills.
There are even problem-solving skills that are the complete opposite of critical thinking, like following directions, and mechanical and rote thinking. For example, learning the steps for solving a linear equation allows you to solve linear equations like a machine, no critical thinking required. However, rote thinking without critical thinking can be dangerous; you don't necessarily want to follow rules without checking that those rules make sense!
Critical thinking and problem solving: sometimes different, sometimes the same
We know that critical thinking skills are fundamental to problem-solving. And we know that there are other skills that help us solve problems, skills that aren’t critical thinking skills. Problem solving involves a wide array of techniques and attacks, some of which fall under critical thinking, and some which don’t. Aspects of critical thinking and problem solving can be different, or the same, but both sets of skills are incredibly important for all kids to have. There isn’t a skill we’ve talked about here where I think “Well, my kiddo could probably live without being able to do that….” Critical thinking is the foundation that allows us to tackle challenges of all kinds, supplemented by other problem-solving skills as needed. We want our kids to have all of these skills at their fingertips, so they can solve problems effectively, using strong evidence, logical thinking, and clear reasoning. All are vital ingredients to a successful and happy grown-up life!
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Critical, Lateral, & Creative Thinking
Critical thinking & problem-solving, introduction.
Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrected. In other words, it is a thought process that involves the evaluation, assessment, and reinterpretation of your own or others’ ideas and thought processes. Critical thinking requires effort and dedication, but pays dividends for the time invested.
Critical thinking comes into play in a wide variety of circumstances. As a citizen of a democracy, it is important to think critically and do background research each time an election is coming up or when there is a news story about which you want to be more informed. As a student, you want to think critically about near term options, such as what courses to take, and longer term decisions, such as how to plan your degree and whether the degree you’re planning should be directed toward current employment, future employment, or your own academic interest that may or may not be related to a current or potential career.
Critical thinking involves analysis, or breaking something (a concept, an argument, a piece of information) down into its parts in order to understand and evaluate it, as a prelude to accepting or rejecting it. You’re expected to think critically when you’re asked to analyze an article for a college assignment, for example, and offer your own opinion on its validity. You also think critically when you analyze real-life situations such as moving your residence, changing jobs, or buying a car.
View the following videos on critical thinking, which further define the concept and offer some steps to apply in order to think critically and solve problems.
What are the key concepts of this video?
What examples do you have of the following?
- creating your own solution to an unexpected problem
- using pros and cons to make a decision
- making assumptions about a person
- unthinkingly applying a bias
The first two concepts often have positive outcomes, while the last two concepts may result in negative outcomes. Most likely you will have done all four of these things subconsciously in the workplace or other situations.
This video offers one (of many) ways to consider something critically:
- formulate your question
- gather your information
- apply the information (consider biases, assumptions)
- consider the implications
- explore other points of view
Both videos emphasize the need to consider a question, problem, action, or issue consciously and planfully, breaking it into its parts and considering the parts, before putting them back together with a reasoned solution or multiple potential, reasoned solutions.
Just for fun, here’s a short video on assumptions, a concept related to critical thinking.
initial learning activity
First, read and view information on the Lateral & Creative Thinking page of this text.
Then, write a brief essay (4-5 pages) applying critical, lateral, and creative thinking skills to the solution of a real problem. Use the following format:
- Identify a problem at work or with a community group, or any group or situation in which you are involved (family, friends, daily commuters on the same bus, etc.). In a few paragraphs, explain the problem.
- In another few paragraphs, analyze the problem. What are the component parts of the problem? Are there inherent assumptions and/or biases involved?
- In another few paragraphs, offer some possible solutions that you can identify immediately and logically. Identify and discuss the pros and cons of each immediate and logical solution.
- Then, try to think differently about the problem by applying lateral and creative approaches. You may want to identify the positives, negatives, and interesting aspects of the problem. You may want to consider solutions that could only happen “in your wildest dreams.” Brainstorm, and/or create a persona and ask yourself “how would X approach this problem?” Apply these and techniques suggested by the article and videos to posit at least one or more different solutions to the problem. Explain these different solutions in another few paragraphs, and posit what would need to be in place in order to enact this more creative solution.
- Conclude by reflecting on this exercise in a final few paragraphs. What did you learn about your own thought processes by completing this activity? How might you apply what you learned to your academic studies?
Submit: essay applying thinking skills
in-depth learning activity
Then, read the publication, Robot-Ready: Human + Skills for the Future of Work . (You may have read excerpts from this in other sections of this text.)
The authors of Robot-Ready assert a number of things, including that:
- Human skills will be more valued in the workplace of the future.
- Human skills are often best taught through liberal arts courses in college.
- Educators and employers do not yet have a common language for discussing the same skill sets.
- Education needs to become more problem-based in order to help develop the “both/and” that will be required in the workplace of the future (both technical knowledge and human skills).
Consider these assertions critically. Do you accept the evidence provided? What assumptions, if any, are inherent in the information? What biases, if any, are inherent in the information? Is there enough data to back up the assertion, and is that data valid?
Then choose one assertion that you feel is sound, based on your analysis. Apply critical (and lateral and creative) thinking processes to problem-solve and project a way of enacting the concept asserted. For example:
- How might you propose teaching one of the human skills in the workplace?
- How can a liberal arts college course be more obvious in its focus on human skills so that students get a sense of the real-world application of learning gained from that course?
- How might you propose that employers and educators collaborate?
- Consider a college course you already completed, one in which you learned what the authors of Robot-Ready would consider “technical knowledge.” How might you revise a learning activity in the course to make it more problem-based?
- your analysis
- your problem-solving proposal for enacting one of the concepts asserted
Related college Learning Goals
Active Learning: Assess and build upon previous learning and experiences to pursue new learning, independently and in collaboration with others.
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Evaluate, analyze, synthesize and critique key concepts and experiences, and apply diverse perspectives to find creative solutions to problems concerning human behavior, society and the natural world.
For more information, see the College Learning Goals Policy .
- Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving. Authored by : Susan Oaks; adapted from team work by Nan Travers (lead), Cathy Davison, Elaine Handley, Linda Jones, Jessica Kindred, Gohar Marikyan, Lynette Nickleberry, Susan Oaks, Eileen O'Connor. Project : Educational Planning. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
- first two paragraphs under the heading Critical Thinking. Authored by : Tom Mackey and Trudi Jacobson. Provided by : Metaliteracy.com. Located at : https://sites.google.com/view/metaliteracy/empowered-learner/critical-thinker/reevaluate . Project : Metaliteracy Badges. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
- Critical Thinking video. Located at : https://youtu.be/6OLPL5p0fMg . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- 5 Tips to Improve Your Critical Thinking. Authored by : Samantha Agoos. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dItUGF8GdTw&t=5s . License : Other . License Terms : Youtube video
- The Danger of Assumptions. Authored by : Elaine Powell. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjv_5X9FpVE&t=3s . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
- image of male face with question marks. Authored by : geralt. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/en/man-boy-face-view-direction-479670/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
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Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
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Definition Critical thinking is the exploration and examination of issues, ideas, artefacts and events before accepting or forming an opinion and/or reaching a conclusion. Problem solving is the process of designing, evaluating and implementing a strategy to answer a question or achieve a desired goal.
Benchmark for Achievement The graduate shows an awareness of personal assumptions, questions some of these assumptions, and reaches a conclusion that is logically tied to the information that has been examined and assessed and is related to the question or situation presented.
- Identifies various sides of an issue
- Questions assumptions, and identifies the strengths and weaknesses of these assumptions
- Uses a variety of thinking skills to anticipate and solve problems
- Applies a systematic approach to problem-solving
- Discusses the impact of the results of the analysis on a final solution or decision
At the Program Level The program provides opportunities, through multiple tasks and assignments, which require students to complete analyses of various texts, data, or issues to inform decisions or reach conclusions.
Questions to Guide Mapping
- Are the attributes and behaviours of a critical thinker discussed?
- Do students compare their own thinking process against models of critical thinking?
- Is a framework or model for critical thinking taught, demonstrated or provided as a guide?
- Are learning activities structured to support student practice in asking questions without fear of reprisal or judgment?
- Are students asked to compare and contrast and provide supportive rationale for their responses?
- Do students engage in interpreting and analyzing information and examining assumptions?
- Are students taught to explore all aspects of an issue, differentiate relevant from irrelevant information, and then come to a rationalized conclusion?
- Do students analyze situations/cases that reflect a failure in critical thinking and explore the consequences, remediation, and/or prevention?
- Do students engage in identifying several solutions to problems and critique the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions?
- Do students have opportunities to practice solving problems that have no one correct answer?
- Are cases or situations explored from the perspective of shifting contexts?
- Do students take on the perspective of different stakeholders in a situation and then have to collaborate to create agreed-upon solutions?
- AAC&U Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric The Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric explains AAC&U’s definition of critical thinking, lists the fundamental criteria and describes four levels of performances for each criterion.
- AAC&U Problem Solving VALUE Rubric The Problem Solving VALUE Rubric defines problem solving (according to AAC&U), lists the fundamental criteria, and describes four levels of performances for each criterion.
- Critical Thinking: What it Is and Why it Counts by Peter Facione Dr. Facione’s essay describes the meaning and importance of critical thinking. It is periodically updated to reflect new findings.
- Critical Thinking Rubric from Galileo Educational Network Galileo Educational Network’s rubric lists five criteria of critical thinking (for assessment purposes) and describes four levels for each criterion.
- Critical Evaluation Toolkit from Griffith University The Critical Evaluation Toolkit defines critical thinking, lists the characteristics of a critical thinker, offers teaching tips to develop your students’ critical evaluation skills and guidelines for assessment, and provides principles of effective analysis and critical evaluation skills, additional resources and handouts.
- Learning 101: Critical Thinking – a SlideShare from the University of North Texas The University of North Texas’s Learning Center created this introduction to critical thinking presentation: some topics include thinking versus critical thinking, types of thinking, Bloom’s taxonomy, critical reading, critical thinking, critical writing, how to be a critical class participant.
- Opposing Viewpoints from Gale – Access this resource via Seneca Libraries Opposing Viewpoints is a collection of online resources covering social issues. The resources explore the issues from all perspectives.
- Teaching Problem Solving from Vanderbilt University The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University offers tips and techniques to teach problem solving.
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Critical thinking vs problem solving: what’s the difference.
In our blog “Importance of Problem Solving Skills in Leadership ,” we highlighted problem solving skills as a distinct skill set. We outlined a 7-step approach in how the best leaders solve problems.
Table of Contents
Critical thinking vs. problem solving
But are critical thinking and problem solving the same? Also, if there are differences, what are they? Although many educators and business leaders lump critical thinking and problem solving together, there are differences:
Problem solving uses many of the same skills required for critical thinking; e.g., observation, analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and reflection. Critical thinking is an important ingredient of problem solving.
Critical thinking vs. problem solving: Not all problems require critical thinking skills
Not every problem-solving skill is a critical thinking skill. That is because not every problem requires thinking. A problem like opening a stubborn pickle jar could simply require brute strength. On the other hand, it becomes a thinking skill when you remember to tap the edge of the pickle jar lid to loosen the seal.
Also, some problem-solving skills are the exact opposite of critical thinking. When you follow directions or use muscle memory or rote (memorization) thinking, there is no critical thinking required. Likewise, skills of persuasion or public oratory are thinking skills, but aren’t necessarily critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking vs. problem solving: The role of emotional intelligence
In our blog “ What is the role of communication in critical thinking ?” we highlighted one author’s argument that critical thinking and problem solving is not always a purely rational process. While critical thinkers are in great demand in the hiring marketplace, employees who are emotionally intelligent bring even greater value to an organization.
Writing for Business News Daily , editor Chad Brooks describes emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand your emotions and recognize the emotions and motivations of those around you.”
So, when looking for star performers, research shows “that emotional intelligence counts for twice as much as IQ and technical skills combined in determining who will be a star performer.”
Further, in today’s collaborative workplace environment, “hiring employees who can understand and control their emotions – while also identifying what makes those around them tick—is of the utmost importance.”
Finally, one expert notes that dealing with emotions is an important part of critical thinking. Emotions can be at the root of a problem. They are frequently symptomatic of problems below the surface. Problem solving when dealing with emotions requires openness to authentic emotional expressions. It requires the understanding that when someone is in pain, it is a problem that is real.
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Critical thinking and problem solving: A deeper dive
A recap of the distinct differences between critical thinking and problem solving.
Critical thinking, according to an article on Drexel University’s Graduate College webpage “utilizes analysis, reflection, evaluation, interpretation, and inference to synthesize information that is obtained through reading, observing, communicating, or experience.”
The goal of critical thinking is to evaluate the credibility of both the information and its source. It questions the central issue and how the information will inform intelligent decisions. Finally, it asks the question, “Where does this information lead me?”
Problem solving , as previously mentioned, uses many of those skills, but “it takes the process a step further to identify obstacles and then to strategically map out a set of solutions to solve the problem. That extra step in problem solving is identifying obstacles as well as mapping out a strategic set of solutions to resolve the problem.
How to develop critical thinking skills to become a better problem solver
1. develop your analytical skills..
Pay attention and be more observant. Ask the questions “who, what, where, and why” and learn as much as possible about the topic or problem. Map everything out to imprint or gain a visual understanding and focus on the differences between fact, opinion, and your own bias.
2. Learn the skill of evaluating
As a subset of analysis, you can become skilled in evaluation by:
- comparing similar and related topics, programs, and issues. How are they different, and where are the similarities?
- looking for trends that support (or refute) what you intuitively feel is the solution
- recognizing barriers or conflicts to successful problem resolution
- asking questions and gathering information—assuming nothing, ever.
3. Interpretation with the help of a mentor or someone more experienced
Interpreting a problem accurately employs both analytical and evaluating skills. With practice, you can develop this skill, but to hone your interpretation skills, it is advisable to seek the help of an experienced mentor.
You’ll need to do the following:
- know how your own biases or opinions can be a roadblock to the best decision making
- recognize that cultural differences can be a barrier to communication
- look at the problem from the point of view of others
- learn as much as you can about the problem, topic, or experience
- synthesize everything you have learned in order to make the connections and put the elements of a problem together to form its solution
4. Acquire the skill and habit of reflection.
Being reflective is applicable to almost every aspect of your personal and professional life. To open your mind to reflection, think back to your educational experience. Your instructor may have asked you to keep a reflective journal of your learning-related experiences. A reflective journal requires expressive writing, which, in turn, relieves stress.
Perhaps you have just had a disagreement with a coworker, who became abusive and personal. Not everyone can come up with those instant snappy comebacks on the spot, and it is usually best to disengage before the situation gets worse.
Here’s where reflective journaling helps. When you’re in a calmer state of mind, you can journal the incident to:
- gain deeper insights into your thought processes and actions—How do you feel about not defending yourself from the colleague’s accusations or personal abuse? What was the perfect response that eluded you in the stress of the moment?
- build a different approach to problems—It could be that your co-worker perceives you as unapproachable or unreceptive to suggestions and criticism. Maybe it’s time to have a frank discussion to help you see yourself through the eyes of the coworker.
- get closer to making significant changes in your life—Your journal entries may have displayed a pattern of your behavior on the job, which elicits consistent negative reactions from more than one co-worker.
- When evaluating critical thinking vs. problem solving, the elements of both appear to blend into a distinction without a difference.
- Good problem solvers employ the steps of critical thinking, but not all problem solving involves critical thinking.
- Emotional intelligence is an attribute that is a hybrid skill of problem solving and critical thinking.
- You can hone your critical thinking skills to become a better problem solver through application of analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and reflection.
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Is Critical Thinking Overrated? Disadvantages Of Critical Thinking
11 principles of critical thinking .
Founder of Eggcellentwork.com. With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.
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