If 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. And understand why critical thinking has gotten more and more important as time moves on.
Since that is kind of counterintuitive in the age of AI, let’s dive in with a critical thinking exercise of our own.
Why Critical Thinking Skills Are More Important Now Than Ever
As the author of this blog on memory and thinking for over a decade, people ask me often if any of these skills matter anymore.
I’ve gotten the question even more frequently since AI tools like chat-GPT and Midjourney have appeared.
“Do we really need memory techniques anymore, now that I can search the Internet for anything at any time?”
“Why should I improve my thinking skills when I can read a simple summary of any book just by asking an AI?”
First, it’s still the case that a vast percentage of information has never appeared online. It’s imperative that people understand this and do hands-on, practical research with a variety of sources offline.
That said, there are certain use cases where using an AI seems to make sense. I recently published a case study demonstrating the positive use of chat-GPT for language learning, for example. But there are a few reasons we don’t want to relegate our thinking and learning to machines.
The big one is that we don’t own the platform and we certainly don’t own the data. Nor do we have general access to the people who do.
That’s troublesome because I’ve noticed bias that makes the text generators much different than the kinds of bias produced by a standard search engine. For example, instead of just getting the results, you might get a mini-discussion that essentially assumes it knows the intent behind your question.
This happened to me while working on my “Memory Detective” series. I thought it would be fun to get some feedback and ideas from chat-GPT, but it was anything but amusing.
In fact, the software effectively accused me of being biased about the bad guy I was exploring – which of course I was, just not in the way the software assumed. It’s a bad guy I was developing, after all. And moreover, I was working on fiction and made this evident in my request, even though the AI seems to have ignored this crucial point.
Here’s the kicker and the reason I’m dwelling on this point: Discovering that chat-GPT is itself biased let me to the point of feeling, however briefly, offended by the people who designed such preachy features into the program.
It’s only because I’ve done some of the critical thinking exercises below that I’m aware of my own memory biases, and was able to continue using the software objectively. We are all going to need to be increasingly objective as “the powers that be” inject their agendas into the tools we use.
In sum, even if each and everyone one of us ultimately winds up owning and designing our own personal Artificial Intelligences, we’re still going to need to think critically about both inputs, outputs and our interpretations of them. And in order to keep our critical thinking skills mobile, we’re going to need ongoing mental training.
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?
- Who gets any kind of special benefit if the interpretation of the data falls in their favor?
Asking questions like these provides a powerful 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.
Another version of this exercise is to think of ways you can use your mind to box with one hand tied behind your back.
For example, you can practice debating with a timer on and give yourself increasingly smaller amounts of time to make your case. There are many lists of debate topics online to choose from, and you can sharpen your skills anytime by going through the Rhetorica ad Herennium.
Three: The Research Response Exercise
Take the following argument:
Pesticides harm the environment more than they’re worth.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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:
- Ars combinatoria
- Giordano Bruno
- Petrus Ramus
- John Venn (who introduced Venn diagrams)
- Peirce’s Existential Graphs
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 or hear them in a conversation.
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:
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 to Reach Peak Critical Thinking
For thousands of years, people have asked “Who am I?”
You might not think about this as an exercise that relates to critical thinking strategies at large, 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?
To practice this exercise with more structure, get 15-20 index cards and write down personal qualities on each. They can be qualities like:
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.