Critical Thinking Skills with UniScoops

Our friends at UniScoops wrote this amazing guide on improving your critical thinking skills for your personal statement and interview, and on how UniScoops can help you.

🧠 What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking involves the ability to analyse information, evaluate evidence, and form your own well-reasoned arguments. What’s important is that it’s not just about memorising facts or regurgitating information. Rather, it’s about understanding concepts, identifying connections, and asking questions.

Some key skills in critical thinking include:

  • Analysing information: Breaking down complex information into parts and identifying key elements.
  • Evaluating arguments: Assessing the strength of arguments, and comparing its’ relative strength to other arguments.
  • Forming arguments: Thinking creatively and independently to form your own well-supported arguments.

🌟 Why is critical thinking important?

Personal Statement

You may have heard about ‘super-curriculars’: these are activities that you pursue outside of your normal schoolwork which are still related to your academic interests. This might include reading books/articles, watching documentaries/lectures, listening to podcasts, or even going to museums! They are a great way to further explore your subject and demonstrate that you’re serious about your area of study. This is why they’re a great enhancement for your personal statement!

However, what you don’t want to do is take a scatter-gun approach and simply ‘list’ everything you’ve ever read. Instead, you should think about the ideas you are learning about, consider what arguments are being made, and then form your own thoughts and opinions about them. How do you do this? You know what I’m going to say… critical thinking, of course!

Interview

Dr Matthew Williams, Access and Career Development Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, described critical thinking as 🔗 “perhaps the most important [skill]” 🔗 for Oxford interviews. No matter what subject you’re being interviewed for, there’ll most likely be multiple solutions at play. The interviewers will want to see you coherently defend your argument, and then evaluate its strengths relative to another proposed argument. This is why interviewers might offer alternative arguments to yours, or question you on a possible counterargument; they’re not looking to ‘catch you out’, but to see how you use your critical thinking skills to defend or adapt your answer!

Later life at university

One of the biggest jumps from school to uni is the shift from simple recall of information/someone else’s ideas to analysis, problem solving, and critical thinking. At university, you’ll be expected to not take the information in front of you at face value, and to evaluate it so you can make up your own mind on the issue.

⚡️ How can I improve my critical thinking skills?

UniScoops

UniScoops 🔗 🌟 is a great resource that helps you supercharge your critical thinking skills with only 5 minutes a week. In their weekly newsletters, they provide whistle-stop breakdowns of university-level topics, before then providing a detailed list of some key takeaways, as well as some prompts to help you think critically and independently about the content. There are even links to additional resources if you want to explore the topic further (psst… remember super-curriculars? 😉)

You can check out their website here 🔗 or, even better, sign up to their weekly newsletters 🔗 to get exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox, and be the first to know about important events to help you smash university applications!

Using UniScoops to improve critical thinking skills

With the weekly scoops, you can not only learn new information, but you can practise honing your critical thinking skills. ‘What if the scoop is not about my subject?’ you might ask. Well, what’s great is that critical thinking isn’t just limited to one subject, and you can still engage with the scoop to practise thinking independently and creatively (whilst also learning something new which will definitely be great chat in the canteen queue). You can even challenge yourself to see how your chosen subject(s) can be applied to the scoop!

Let’s see how this works in practice…

For this example, we’re going to use this scoop 🔗 titled ‘Is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?’

Philosophy: Is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? 🎂🍪

The title of this scoop is already a question. Think: What is my initial response to this? Why do I think this?

One of the classical debates that get people into philosophy is the following classic: is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? Jaffa Cakes, manufactured by McVities, have a spongy base, and some orange goo on top, covered by a thin coating of chocolate. Does that make them a cake or a biscuit? This is a question in ontology, which is the branch of philosophy that revolves around being and how things should be classified. This is also a case of philosophy acting in the real world: in 1991, McVities was actually in a dispute with HM Customs and Excise in the UK over this very question…

In the breakdown section, we’ve been given a new term (ontology). To make sure I understand this, can I summarise this idea in my own words? Would I be able to explain it clearly to a 5-year old?

💡 Things to consider

Blurred Lines: Usually when we categorise things, we’re able to categorise them with a lot of certainty i.e. we can say that this thing should be in group X whereas this thing should be in group Y. For example, if I ask you to look at a bowl and I ask you the question ‘Is this a plate or a bowl’, you’ll be pretty certain just by looking at it that it’s a bowl. But, at what point does a bowl become a plate? Is there a point when we should classify a really tall-walled plate as a bowl, or a really low-walled bowl as a plate? How does this apply to our debate on whether a Jaffa Cake is a cake or a biscuit? It might help to delve into the Sorites Paradox.

One of the sentence points starts with ‘usually’. This suggests that the following point might not always be the case. Can you think of any counter-examples? Do you agree with the assumption?

A world where biscuits don’t exist: Scary, I know! But, why do we even have words for things like biscuits? Why do we not just classify them as a type of cake e.g. a small cake? Reflect on how language can shape the way we classify things, and the limits of our knowledge.

Scoops often already include questions and prompts to guide your critical thinking. Try to construct your own answer. What are the implications of your answer? What might someone else say? Why is your answer stronger?

Law and Philosophy: The court decided that, legally, Jaffa Cakes are considered a cake. This was considered a big win for McVitie’s, as it meant they didn’t have to pay Value Added Tax (VAT) on Jaffa Cakes in the UK. Should the court’s decision actually have any bearing on whether we should consider a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? There have been many times in the past when legal systems allowed some pretty awful stuff (think racist segregation laws in the USA). Do you think that we should look to the law when trying to tackle questions in philosophy?
Here, the scoop is considering the wider implications of the information, and connections between subjects.

🔎 Find out more

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Sorites Paradox 🔗

What is Sorites Paradox | Explained in 2 min (YouTube) 🔗

Want to explore the topic further? Check out the extra resources at the end of the scoop. Make connections, and keep an open mind so you can potentially adapt your argument.

As you can see, a big part of critical thinking is about being curious and asking new questions in response to the information presented to you. Check out this great website from Brown University 🔗 with questions to provoke critical thinking. Best of luck with university applications! 🙌

Did you spot a typo or formatting issue? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected].