Critical thinking skills help college students reason through content. Final exams are conducted primarily to assess this reasoning process and your overall knowledge and retention of important facts and processes from the course studied.

However, exams are filled not only with memorization of facts and figures, but also of thought processes, problem-solving, deductions, and inferences based on previously presented or known information. During finals week, make sure to utilize your critical thinking skills to prove that you’ve mastered the concepts.

Students can practice critical thinking

Critical thinking involves developing the ability to understand and articulate concepts that describe how the world works. Students should learn new concepts and master the conceptualizing process.

You can do this by reading the textbook, listening to lectures, taking notes, doing assignments, asking questions, and applying the concepts to practical examples. These practice measures help you become comfortable with material, understand underlying concepts, retain information, and apply this information for filling out exam questions.

According to John Chaffee in the book Thinking Critically, Eleventh Edition, “To do well on an exam, you need to define the problem (what areas will the exam cover, and what will be the format?), identify and evaluate various alternatives (what are possible study approaches?), and then pull all these factors together to reach a solution (what will be your study plan and schedule?)” (Chaffee, 106).

Importance of critical thinking

According to the writer in “Overview of Critical Thinking Skills,” posted at the American Dental Education Association, “Critical thinking is also regarded as intellectually engaged, skillful, and responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it requires the application of assumptions, knowledge, competence, and the ability to challenge one’s own thinking. Critical thinking requires the use of self-correction and monitoring to judge the rationality of thinking as well as reflexivity. When using critical thinking, individuals step back and reflect on the quality of that thinking.”

Critical thinking process

Critical thinking is more than memorizing facts; it’s analyzing information through a thorough process to derive the best answer. Exams always cover material already discusses in class and in the readings, so the questions should not be a surprise to you. Using critical thinking skills during an exam involves recalling that previously presented information, synthesizing it into the question being asked, and critically evaluating possible answers to find the right one.

Here is an example of the critical thinking process:

  • Define the terms used in this test and explain their meaning in this context.
  • Gather information from different sources, such as textbooks, lectures, professional writing, etc.
  • Analyze information from multiple perspectives and from different angles.
  • Be open minded about all possible answers.
  • Approach complex problems in an orderly manner and deconstruct problems into easier to manage elements.
  • Think through the process, interpreting and evaluating the information.
  • Consider two conflicting view points, and identify the strong and weak arguments of each side.
  • Elaborate on various answers, and list pros and cons.
  • Choose the most appropriate answer to the question.

Reference: Chaffee, John. 2015. Thinking Critically, 11th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

How have you applied critical thinking when taking exams? What are your best study tips for exam prep?