Lesson 3: Prioritize


Ever heard the phrase "jumping to conclusions"? A critical thinker takes the time to analyze not just the issue at hand, but also the potential solutions. As you've learned, it is rare for a problem to have only one possible solution. In this lesson, we will discuss methods to evaluate and choose between potential solutions, and to analyze and prioritize between trade-offs. We will discuss ways to evaluate solutions after they have been implemented and determine if they need to be adjusted.

critical thinking chart step three

At the end of this module, students will be able to:

  • Identify guidelines for prioritizing solutions
  • Determine solution limitations
  • Determine evaluation criteria

Guidelines for Prioritizing

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Solutions to complex situations rarely address all facets of the problem equally and sufficiently. When making a decision, you must determine the types of values to apply in the situation. Your guidelines will be based on three key factors - the importance of the issue, the amount of risk or uncertainty, and the reliability of gathered evidence.

Begin by determining which issues you consider most important. Let's take the example of having to choose between multiple job offers. There are a number of factors to consider and balance against each: is a higher salary worth the extra hours they'll expect? is a shorter commute worth a less fulfilling position? Is a dream job worth moving away from family? Your answers will depend on your priorities.

The second factor is risk. Keep in mind that you probably will not have enough information to resolve all the uncertainties. Assess which uncertainties or risks you can tolerate and which you need resolved. Going back to our job offer example, would you be more willing to commit to a high intensity job if you knew the people you'd be working with? What about if your dream job offer was for a proposed project that hadn't yet been awarded?

Identifying the risks and uncertainties associated with a proposed solution can also illuminate gaps in information. Some uncertainties can be eliminated by gathering more data while others may never be resolvable. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How shall I interpret these data?
  • Does this interpretation make sense?
  • What am I basing my reasoning on?
  • Does my solution necessarily follow from my data?
  • Are there other conclusions I should consider?
  • Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?
  • Given all the facts what is the best possible conclusion?

Solution Limitations

Having identified criteria for prioritizing solutions, you must analyze each alternative to determine their limitations. When considering solutions, avoid falling into an either/or frame of mind. Check that you are not making inferences or assumptions.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What am I assuming or taking for granted?
  • What assumption is leading me to this conclusion?
  • What is the (policy, strategy, explanation) assuming?

Evaluation Criteria

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Consider the implications of your chosen solution and the potential consequences. Develop criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of your solution once it is implemented. Critical thinking must continue to be applied throughout this process.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • If I decide to do “X”, what things might happen?
  • If I decide not to do “X”, what things might happen?
  • What is likely to happen if we do this versus that?
  • How significant are the implications of this decision?


In this lesson, we looked at the importance of applying critical thinking to your potential solutions. You need to prioritize based on importance, risks, and uncertainties, to determine limitations, and to think through consequences of your actions.

In the next lesson, we explore Envisioning, and integrating critical thinking into all aspects of your decision making process.

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