Use your head: By following a critical-thinking framework, internal auditors can better hone this sought-after skill.

Author:Jacka, J. Michael

The need for internal auditors to understand and apply critical thinking seems self-evident, especially with research showing the importance chief audit executives (CAEs) place on this skill. It's also made an outstanding showing in The IIA's annual Pulse of Internal Audit survey over the years. In 2018, 95% considered critical-thinking skills essential to their function's ability to perform its responsibilities.

Unfortunately, while everyone agrees that critical thinking is important, they find it hard to define exactly what it is. If you ask 10 CAEs, you are likely to get 10 different answers. And at the core, those answers boil down to nothing more than internal auditors using their brains.

Fortunately, The Foundation for Critical Thinking provides a more practical definition: "The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."

Using this definition, the Foundation for Critical Thinking developed an outline for critical thinking based on eight elements, described in the book, The Thinker's Guide to Analytic Thinking, by Linda Elder and Richard Paul. Following is a framework for internal auditors' use of critical thinking based on these elements.


Critical thinking requires understanding the purpose of the individual task toward determining the question to be answered. It also involves recognizing the various points of view brought to the task, as well as the assumptions, concepts, and theories upon which the work will be based. Information is gathered, leading to inferences or preliminary conclusions, which come together to provide final conclusions and consequences.

Thinking critically about the audit process means thinking critically about audit engagement tasks. This requires evaluating the tasks, such as interviews, functional tests, and risk assessments to better understand not only how they are completed, but also how critical thinking was used and how it can be used more effectively in the future. Some people consider critical thinking to be "thinking about how you think."

Understand the Purpose Identifying the objective of an audit engagement is fundamental. But the first step in critical thinking applies this concept to each activity conducted within the audit, providing guidance for the critical thinking that follows. The objective of an interview might be to learn the interviewee's...

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