In college, the level of thinking that your instructors expect from you exceeds that which you did in high school, in terms of both the questions that are asked and the answers that are expected. If a high school teacher asked, “What are the three branches of the U.S. government?” there was only one acceptable answer: “Legislative, executive, and judicial.” A college instructor, on the other hand, might ask, “Under what circumstances might conflicts arise among the three branches of government, and what does this tell you about the democratic process?” There is no single or simple answer, and that’s the point of higher education. Questions with complicated answers will require you to think deeply. The shift to this higher or deeper level of thinking can be an adjustmentit might even catch you off guard and cause you some stress.

Important questions usually do not have simple answers, but to answer them well, you will have to discover many ways of thinking. The Nobel prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman describes two types of thinking: “fast thinking” and “slow thinking.”1 He characterizes fast thinking as automatic, emotional, stereotyped, and subconscious. This type of thinking is certainly useful in some situations. Sometimes it works to make quick decisions based on what seems easiest, results in the least conflict, or conforms to personal beliefs. Other times, though, you might notice people who depend on others to think for them or think what they believe is true simply because they wish, hope, or feel that it is true without ever examining the underlying assumptions that support those beliefs. People without good thinking skills are easily convinced to buy a product, accept an idea, vote for a political candidate, or do something against their will by those who provide misleading information. Have you ever stopped to consider whether people who don’t do any real critical thinking have much control over their lives or have any real power in business or society?

Slow thinking takes more effort, more careful attention, and is more logical, rational, and deep. By improving your slower and more logical thinking abilities and strategies, you will become a better learner and problem solver. Slow thinkers are comfortable with uncertainty. They examine problems; ask questions; suggest new answers that challenge the existing situation; discover new information; question authorities, traditional beliefs, and conclusions (even when presented by “experts”); make independent judgments; and develop creative solutions.


People who do have good thinking skills tend to be successful, whether it’s earning an A, getting a promotion, or making connections in the community. And it shouldn’t surprise you that strong thinking skills are among the most valued by college admissions counselors and employers. When employers say they want workers who can find reliable information, analyze it, organize it, draw conclusions from it, and present it convincingly to others, they are describing employees who are good critical thinkers.

Whatever else you do in college, make it a point to develop and sharpen your critical-thinking skills. You won’t become a great critical thinker overnight, but you will improve a lot between now and when you graduate from college. With practice, however, you can learn how to tell if information is truthful and accurate. Thinking criticallymastering slow thinkingwill help you make better decisions, come up with fresh solutions to difficult problems, and communicate your ideas effectively.