Critical thinking and problem-solving

In 2014 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted, a global survey to identify and clearly define the skills new graduates need to be successfully in today's economy. We introduced the eight competencies the inter-disciplined committee singled out last week (link) as the core of Career Readiness. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving was among the top skills identified by employers during the survey list. NACE defines Critical Thinking/Problems solving as the ability to:

Exercise sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems. The individual is able to obtain, interpret, and use knowledge, facts, and data in this process, and may demonstrate originality and inventiveness.

This is not surprising considering that change is constant and now at the speed of the Internet. Whether it be project, contingency or term employment, jobs have become temporary. In education, for example, the trend is to hire more adjunct faculty or long-term substitutes than the traditional tenured-track. Some experts even suggest the word "job" as it was defined in the last century is becoming extinct.

Regardless of such change, however, it is important to remember that while jobs may come and go, there is never a shortage of issues, challenges and problems. All organizations, especially those who are striving to be competitive in today's global market, need workers who can anticipate, recognize, prioritize, and tackle such challenges with energy and creativity. This requires workers to be adaptable and knowledgeable not only about their organization, but about the markets for which their organization operates. For example, a savvy hospital employee would know the needs and trends of their local facility as well as those that impact health care and related industries.

Critical thinking is the foundation for mastering such market intelligenceThe Foundation for Critical Thinking proposes:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking…

The research regarding critical thinking ability is vast. While it is easy to say the essence of critical thinking is "thinking about your thinking," mastering critical thinking is truly lifelong endeavor. It takes practiced awareness to become a "well-cultivated thinker," and even then, we are still subject to common human fallacies. The good news is that most college courses are designed to help students build these skills. The challenge is for students is not only thinking about the issues, challenges and problems discussed throughout their curricula, but to transfer that knowledge to what they learn about the organizations and industry markets. This is the ability that employers state new graduates lack in NACE surveys.

Are you ready for the challenge of transferring your critical thinking skills to your career? Here are some tips for creating and implementing an effective action plan.

Know your style

The quickest place to start is to take the time to think and reflect on your personal style. In her book, Now You're Thinking, Judy Chartrand (2012) suggests that there are seven thinking style preferences: analytical, inquisitive, insightful, open-minded, systematic, timely, and truth-seeking. Do you like to anticipate consequences? Or do you like to focus on the big picture? Perhaps you are more tolerant of differing viewpoints. Or do you like make decisions quickly?  The point is that understanding your preferences helps you identify potential blind spots in your thinking skills.

Build your foundation

Like all competencies, critical thinking can be reflected in other thinking skills. The core thinking skills of focusing, remembering, gathering, organizing, analyzing, connecting, compiling, evaluating and generating provide foundation for more complex abilities including practical thinking, creative thinking and of course, critical thinking. For example, critical thinking utilizes analysis and evaluation and creative thinking relies on generating new thoughts and ideas. Identify strategies to strengthen these skills that will improve your ability to understand and process information. For example practicing different approaches using basic tools such as inductive reasoning, heuristic method, and mean-end analysis is helpful for building analytical skills


There is no way around it. In order to transfer your skills and knowledge, you need to understand how what you learned is relevant. Chances are you won't know this unless you have explored the organization, industry and market where you want to establish and grow your career.  You can start with organization websites to learn about their purpose, history, leadership, products, services, and of course opportunities. Next, you can use Wayne State Library Research Guides explore industries to learn about ratings and competition as well as the business market.  You can also keep yourself current by reading articles, following professional associations and watching trends.

Putting it together

As you explore your organizations, industries and markets, you should also learn about their issues, challenges, and problems. That is using your critical thinking skills! However, since thinking is predominantly an internal function, you will also need to practice demonstrating with your behavior. In other words, you will need to clearly communicate how your skills are relevant at all stages of your career, whether it be a job interview or request of promotion. As all forms of communication will remain critical, next week we will tackle two biggies: oral and written communication.

For more help building your critical thinking skills action plan, visit or contact Career Services at or (313) 577-3390 to schedule an appointment with a Career Planning Counselor.

References and resources