9 Critical Thinking Exercises That Actually Improve Your Mind

critical thinking exercises that actually improve your mind feature imageIf you’re looking for critical thinking exercises that lead to actual improvements, you’re probably frustrated right now.

After all, the Internet is loaded with generic exercises like “read books written by leaders.”

Sorry, but that’s not a specific exercise. That’s a generic activity.

On this page, we’ll dive into specific exercise for critical thinking targeted at specific outcomes. Each exercise is designed to help you boost precise aspects of thinking so you can feel improvement as you go.

First, however, it’s good to understand what makes an exercise worthwhile. 

So let’s dive in.

9 Critical Thinking Exercises That Create Laser Sharp Intelligence

Authentic critical thinking exercises must always involve:

  • New learning by working with information you have not encountered before
  • Variety so that you experience growth in multiple areas and don’t “burn out” on just one area
  • Varying levels of complexity so you experience different challenges
  • Consistent practice over time

Follow those guidelines and you will succeed.

Critical Thinking Exercises For Students

Students have many needs. Above all, they need to be able to understand how people make arguments and substantiate their claims with evidence. 

One: The News Exercise

One great source for practice is the news. 

For this exercise, head over to any news website. Look for an article that includes graphs, numbers, or any representation involving numerical data.

Here’s the kind of news representation I’m talking about:

As you examine the news, ask the following questions:

  • How is the news trying to help you understand the data? 
  • Does the representation of the data make sense? 
  • How can you determine whether or not the graph is reliable?
  • How can you determine whether or not the presenter is reliable and free from bias?

This is a power exercise that will sharpen your mind whenever you are presented with scientific data. 

Two: The Abilities Exercise

Do you know anyone living with a disability?

I do and you can learn more about my mentor Jon Morrow in his article 7 Life Lessons from a Guy Who Can’t Move Anything but His Face.

After reading his post, imagine what it would be like if you could only move one part of your body. Write an essay that describes how exactly your life would change from the way it is.

Three: The Research Response Exercise

Take the following argument:

Pesticides harm the environment more than they’re worth. 

pesticides spray

As you think through this statement, answer the following questions:

  • What kind of research do you need to conduct in order to answer both for or against this statement?
  • How would you outline your responses? Use a structure like this: “if A then B, and if B then C, and if C then D, and in conclusion, if A then D.”

Critical Thinking Exercises For Business

People in business need to successfully navigate sales meetings and negotiate multiple levels of management in their careers. Here are some critical thinking exercises that will help you develop skills in these areas.

Four: The Prison Exercise

Pretend that you’ve been hired to sell a neighborhood council on building a new maximum security prison. This particular neighborhood is upper-class and filled with mansions. 

What benefits can you bring together to explain why it would be a great thing for this neighborhood to house prisoners in this area?

What incentives can you include in the full package? As you consider both the benefits and the incentives, reign yourself in.

You want to think logically in order to make this a critical thinking exercise. If you indulge in flights of fancy, then it will be creative thinking exercise instead. 

Anytime you get off track, these critical thinking examples will help you get back on this path.

Five: The Facial Expression Exercise

One way to improve business success is to develop your empathy. 

photographs hanging in a line

For this exercise, gather a number of photographs from the newspaper or some magazines. 

As you look through the photographs, practice identifying the emotions. If you feel like you’re lacking in vocabulary for the task, consider reading The Dictionary of Emotions. You can also use an online dictionary or thesaurus to come up with words. 

Next, do some role playing. Pick one person from the photographs and imagine meeting them in real life. 

List all the questions you would ask them in order to connect with them better based on the emotion you listed when you first saw the photograph. 

Six: The Competitor Exercise

Think about your competitors in business. 

As you go through each, list their purpose for being in business. What is it that they are trying to accomplish?

Be non judgemental, realistic and focus on the most significant aspects of their purpose. 

Then, think about how you can contribute to the growth of their success without damaging your own. 

Obviously, this is a very tricky critical thinking exercise, but I’m confident you’ll find it beneficial. If you’re into sports or any other realm where competition plays a role, this exercise is also helpful. 

And if you really want to learn about critical thinking so you’re a master, check out these critical thinking books.

Critical Thinking Exercises For Adults

As mentioned, exercises that stimulate our thinking abilities are best if they are targeted at a particular outcome. 

a man is shooting with a bow and arrows

However, there is some room for general exercises that are good for everyone. Let’s have a look at some of my favorites.

Seven: The Stakes Exercise

Many times when you’re listening to an argument, it’s easy to get hung up on the details.

A great exercise is to simply ask: What’s at stake? 

This means, what’s the real core issue? And who benefits the most if they get to be right on the issue? 

As you complete this exercise, but sure to go through both the objective and subjective reasoning of both sides. 

Also, you’ll benefit if you continually focus on how many possible answers might exist. It’s not always the case that there’s one and only one correct answer, even if situations require us to pick just one.

You’ll want to also spend time interpreting the information on both sides of the argument, and possibly doing follow-up research. In fact, if you don’t, it’s unlikely that you’ll improve your reasoning skills as much as you’d like.

Eight: Make An “Argument Map”

I’ve talked a lot about mind mapping on this blog. But there’s another powerful process called argument mapping.

This technique goes back to Plato. If you’ve read the Meno, you might remember how Socrates draws a set of figures in the dirt to display the concepts that come up during the discussion.

These days, we can use pen and paper or software to create an argument map. Here’s one from Evan Rodriguez.

argument map example

To create one yourself, pick an argument where multiple reasons are involved and break things down. 

In this example, Rodriquez has separated the “because” reasons and then used the graph to help him sort through the truth by visualizing a set of if/then parameters.

Creating such argument maps provide tremendous exercise. They’re also relatively quick to produce.

You might also enjoy learning more about the history of what is sometimes called “graphicacy.” Look up people and processes like:

Nine: Memorize the Fallacies

One of the best critical thinking exercises is to learn the fallacies so well you know them when you see them. 

There are at least two kinds of fallacies: Formal and informal. This list of fallacies is very thorough.

To commit as many of these as possible to memory, you’ll want to learn a technique called the Memory Palace. I’m happy to help you learn it here:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Let’s say you want to memorize argumentum ad lapidem or the “appeal to the stone” fallacy. 

You can memorize the Latin and English along with the meaning by thinking about a chair in your home and imagining yourself having an argument with a stone. In this image, you’re calling the stone’s arguments absurd without providing any evidence for why you believe this to be the case.

It’s a powerful technique and will help you spot fallacies in everyday life. Commit as many to memory as you can. 

The Ultimate Critical Thinking Exercise

For thousands of years, people have asked “Who am I?” 

You might not think about this as an exercise that relates to critical thinking, but if you really submit to the question as a practice, it helps your thinking across the board.

When you take away your name, your title, the roles you play in your profession and all the games of life, who are you really? Is there a “true self” in the mix that you can always trust to be the same? 

a woman is writing something

To practice this exercise with more structure, get 15-20 index cards and write down personal qualities on each. They can be qualities like:

  • Honesty
  • Discipline
  • Enthusiasm
  • Patience
  • Dedication
  • Versatility

Sit down, take a deep breath and mix the cards.

Then, pick one of the cards and reflect on how that quality is perceived by others in your life:

Family, friends, co-workers. You might want to learn about how to think about yourself through the perspective of authors through my autobiographical memory post first. Or just dive in. 

Next, imagine what it would be like if that quality was completely gone from your life. Who would you be without it? Can you glimpse your true self without this label? 

Then pick up another card and repeat the process, linking each with a deep breath. Then follow-up by journaling on your experiences. Making sure to write after completing each of the exercises on this page is key to benefiting from the reflective thinking skills you’ll also want to grow.

Thank you for reading this article, and if you enjoyed these exercises, please consider going through these powerful brain exercises next.

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