Critical Thinking and Why it’s Important on the IELTS

July 23, 2018 by Tony Rusinak

Have you ever tried to memorize every answer to every question for an exam? You know there's a long list of questions and a long list of answers, and then, you work hard and try and remember each and every one. As an IELTS expert, I sometimes encounter students trying to do this as they prepare for their IELTS test. I always ask them if they plan to memorize the answer to every question in the English language. Doing this isn’t only impossible and daunting, but it can also be frustrating and tedious. IELTS test-takers have to understand that the test is for the English language. Unless you're a robot, language is a living, complex, and ever-changing thing. You have to use your mind to build and remember the grammar and vocabulary of the language, but you must also use your brain to think in the language. And yes, IELTS will test you on this. Enter critical thinking.

critical thinking

So what's critical thinking? There are many definitions out there. Simply put, critical thinking is using your knowledge and experience to think logically about the world around you. So, in language terms, to listen to or read something, and think about its meaning, then produce a thoughtful response. On test day, if you just produce memorized responses on your tests, then you're not going to get a good score. If you look at the IELTS scoring guide, it says that for an IELTS 8 or IELTS 9, you have to show full understanding, deal with complex situations, and demonstrate detailed argumentation.

So what does this all mean? How can someone learn a language and think critically at the same time? The answer is closer than you think. All you have to do is look at some IELTS practice tests. The writing questions, the speaking points, the listening exercises, and the reading tasks all require you to think carefully about your responses. Let’s have a look at some examples from each of the tests.

To get a higher score in your essay writing, you have to develop clear, coherent, and logical arguments. There are thousands of topics, and there's no way you can memorize every one. So at this point, you're going to have to brainstorm. Brainstorming means thinking about many different ideas and opening up your mind. After you brainstorm, you will hopefully have lots of ideas to work with. From there, you’ll thoughtfully organize these points into clear arguments that respond to the essay topic. This mental process of gathering, organizing, and delivering your ideas are all critical thinking skills.

Emirati businessman reading file at office.

Let’s look at the reading test. There are many examples of critical thinking here. One glaring instance is the True | False | Not Given. This task will exercise your ability to read carefully and think about the ideas in the text. By truly understanding what you read, then thinking about it, you should be able to reason if something is correct, incorrect, or if the information isn’t there. You may get lucky with some simple questions, but many will require you to think about what you read to get the correct answer.

As for the listening test, there are lots of examples there, too. One case is the matching task. In this task, you have to match two lists of items to each other. By listening to the audio text carefully you will have to get both main ideas and details, then thoughtfully combine the content to produce an answer. For example, if you hear the word park, you have to listen carefully for the other information around it. If you don’t, you won’t know if it is park as in the verb to park your car, the place as in city park, or even as a proper noun, as in Mr. Park from Korea. Making those mental connections and guesses is another essential critical thinking tool to keep in mind.

The speaking test will also require lots of quick and thoughtful language. Although you may be able to survive Part 1 and Part 2 of the speaking test with only memorized phrases and descriptions, the Part 3 discussion will challenge your critical thinking. This five-minute part of the test is an open discussion. The examiner is trained to ask you increasingly more challenging questions. These questions often require you to think carefully about what you say and expand on your responses. Without critical thinking skills here, you may risk getting a lower score.

College students talking in group in classroom

So when you're preparing, remember not just to memorize phrases and lists of vocabulary. You aren’t a robot. Exercise your critical thinking and do it in English. It’s more interesting, it will make you a sharper thinker, and it might even get you that high mark in IELTS you're aiming for!    

IELTS Expert

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