Skip to content

Intellectual Tools For Critical Thinking

Helping Students Assess Their Thinking

by Richard Paul and Linda Elder

There are two essential dimensions of thinking that students need to master in order to learn how to upgrade their thinking. They need to be able to identify the "parts" of their thinking, and they need to be able to assess their use of these parts of thinking , as follows:

  • All reasoning has a purpose
  • All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem
  • All reasoning is based on assumptions
  • All reasoning is done from some point of view
  • All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence
  • All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas
  • All reasoning contains inferences by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data
  • All reasoning leads somewhere, has implications and consequences

The question can then be raised, "What appropriate intellectual standards do students need to assess the 'parts' of their thinking?" There are many standards appropriate to the assessment of thinking as it might occur in this or that context, but some standards are virtually universal (that is, applicable to all thinking): clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logic.

How well a student is reasoning depends on how well he/she applies these universal standards to the elements (or parts) of thinking.

What follows are some guidelines helpful to students as they work toward developing their reasoning abilities:

  1. All reasoning has a PURPOSE:
    • Take time to state your purpose clearly
    • Distinguish your purpose from related purposes
    • Check periodically to be sure you are still on target
    • Choose significant and realistic purposes

    • Take time to clearly and precisely state the question at issue
    • Express the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope
    • Break the question into sub questions
    • Identify if the question has one right answer, is a matter of opinion, or requires reasoning from more than one point of view

  3. All reasoning is based on ASSUMPTIONS:
    • Clearly identify your assumptions and determine whether they are justifiable
    • Consider how your assumptions are shaping your point of view

  4. All reasoning is done from some POINT OF VIEW:
    • Identify your point of view
    • Seek other points of view and identify their strengths as well as weaknesses
    • Strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view

  5. All reasoning is based on DATA, INFORMATION and EVIDENCE:
    • Restrict your claims to those supported by the data you have
    • Search for information that opposes your position as well as information that supports it
    • Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue
    • Make sure you have gathered sufficient information

  6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, CONCEPTS and IDEAS:
    • Identify key concepts and explain them clearly
    • Consider alternative concepts or alternative definitions to concepts
    • Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision

  7. All reasoning contains INFERENCES or INTERPRETATIONS by which we draw CONCLUSIONS and give meaning to data:
    • Infer only what the evidence implies
    • Check inferences for their consistency with each other
    • Identify assumptions which lead you to your inferences

  8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has IMPLICATIONS and CONSEQUENCES:
    • Trace the implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning
    • Search for negative as well as positive implications
    • Consider all possible consequences

Print Page Change Text Size: TTT

Valuable Intellectual Traits

  • Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs.


  • Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe.


  • Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.
  • Intellectual Autonomy: Having rational control of one's beliefs, values, and inferences, The ideal of critical thinking is to learn to think for oneself, to gain command over one's thought processes. It entails a commitment to analyzing and evaluating beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence, to question when it is rational to question, to believe when it is rational to believe, and to conform when it is rational to conform.


  • Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one's antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one's own thought and action.


  • Intellectual Perseverance: Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.


  • Confidence In Reason: Confidence that, in the long run, one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves, to form rational viewpoints, draw reasonable conclusions, think coherently and logically, persuade each other by reason and become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.


  • Fairmindedness: Having a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one's friends, community or nation; implies adherence to intellectual standards without reference to one's own advantage or the advantage of one's group.




Valuable Intellectual Virtues (September 2014). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website:

Back to top


Valuable Intellectual Traits


Content Is Thinking, Thinking is Content
Critical Thinking in Every Domain of Knowledge and Belief
Using Intellectual Standards to Assess Student Reasoning
Open-minded inquiry
Valuable Intellectual Traits
Universal Intellectual Standards
Thinking With Concepts
The Analysis & Assessment of Thinking
Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms
Distinguishing Between Inert Information, Activated Ignorance, Activated Knowledge
Critical Thinking: Identifying the Targets
Distinguishing Between Inferences and Assumptions
Critical Thinking Development: A Stage Theory
Becoming a Critic Of Your Thinking
Bertrand Russell on Critical Thinking