Academic inquiry, at its most basic, is simply asking questions. When many students enter college, they tend to approach research and writing as a means to answer or “prove” an existing position or stance. However, this is not how research and writing should work. Instead, we should approach our research, reading, and writing as a means of inquiry and exploration. So, how do we do this?
You have probably heard the term “critical thinking” before. Critical thinking refers to a broad set of skills that aid higher-order thinking. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines it as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (Paul & Scriven, 1987). In short, “critical thinking” is a combination of skills, exercises, or processes that help thinkers and scholars intellectually approach information and ideas. Some of these processes are overt, whereas others become intrinsic over time and practice.
Critical thinking, and the skills associated with it, is a core tenet of academic inquiry. If academic inquiry is the process of asking increasingly complex questions through exploring new ideas, critical thinking is the means by which we approach and conceptualize the information we encounter in this process.
Approaching information critically and with an open, inquiring mind helps us make connections between ideas, analyze existing viewpoints, identify potential gaps in the research, and make informed, evidence-based decisions. It also provides the context needed to enter the ongoing scholarly conversation in your field of study. Furthermore, thinking about research in this manner can prevent us from falling into common writing mistakes, like making tautological arguments.
In the end, it is important to remember that research and writing aren’t meant simply to demonstrate understanding but should also serve as vehicles for additional learning. You can learn more about how to approach your research from a place of inquiry on our Research and Academic Inquiry page.
Paul, R. & Scriven, M. (1987). Defining critical thinking [Conference presentation]. Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform.
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