Critical thinking and writing

Information about the importance of critical thinking in your academic work.

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Critical thinking in study

Whatever you’re studying, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to use and demonstrate critical thinking. This term covers a range of things across different subjects, but, in essence, it means a willingness to ask questions.

"Why has this experiment turned out the way it has?" "How might the design of this product be improved?" "What influenced this author's opinion?" 

When you think critically:

  • you don't just accept information or situations that are given to you
  • you try to understand why they are the way they are
  • you ask what other possibilities exist, and what you might be able to do about them

Thinking critically is the pumping heart of academic work, keeping the whole business alive. If we aren't prepared to think critically about the world around us, who will?

Critical thinking is also an everyday skill that we need to navigate the world around us, from advertising to politics and fake news.

Like many core skills, thinking critically in an academic environment will build on our existing capabilities but it should also stretch them.

Just like physical exercise, there's an element of necessary discomfort in this. However, the outcome will ultimately be positive, and you should leave university with a wider range of tools for thinking – and acting – critically.

301 Recommends: Critical Reading and Writing Digital Workshop

This interactive digital workshop will introduce some of the key principles of critical reading and writing and suggest a number of strategies that you can apply to your academic work. 


Bloom's taxonomy

The model of Bloom's taxonomy (view on google slides here) represents a hierarchy of learning that is used to develop learning activities, assessment and marking criteria.

All levels of the Bloom model are important to demonstrate in your work: from a strong foundation based on understanding and applying the right facts, knowledge and information through balanced analysis and evaluation and a peak comprised of your own original interpretation and thinking.

Making sure you engage with all levels of the model including the higher critical skills of analysing, evaluating and creating is essential to work towards achieving higher grades on your course. 

Our short video on the Bloom taxonomy explains the thinking behind the model, how it applies to university assessment and how you can use it to help develop your own analytical skills. 


Critical analysis in practice 

A paragraph or section of critical analysis will demonstrate not only that you have read one or more sources, but also that you understand what the implications of the sources are for your own work.

It is likely to involve the following stages, organised within a single paragraph or across multiple paragraphs in a longer section of analysis:

  1. Describe the evidence: what does the source tell us? If you agree with it, use strong reporting language (Jones et al demonstrate, Jones et al identify). If not, show your scepticism with weak reporting language (Jones et al argue, Jones et al claim)

  2. Identify limitations or gaps: Is the research robust? What limitations have the authors themselves identified? Does other research help to fill in the gaps?

  3. Highlight alternatives: Are there other possible interpretations? Does other research contradict the findings? Has there been a chronological development of the field (ie have views changed over time?)

  4. Synthesise sources to show your interpretation: Can you summarise your position based on the process you have followed above? What does this mean for your argument or hypothesis?

Download this Critical analysis framework (PDF, 52.6KB) to help structure your analysis of multiple sources according to these stages. 


From description to analysis

You might read about the need to demonstrate critical thinking, writing or analysis in your academic feedback, but remain unsure as to how to make the change from description to critical analysis.

Some description is usually necessary to set the scene in each paragraph, but you need to make sure that you aren't just telling the story of other people's findings and theories.

Things that you could express in your writing include considering the below questions:

  • Is this research or evidence credible?

  • How could it be improved?

  • Have other people made opposing claims?

  • How does it relate to the other evidence in your argument?

Here are some examples illustrating the differences between descriptive and critical analytical writing.

Descriptive vs. critical writing
Descriptive writing Analytical writing
states what happened, when it happened and how it happened identifies the significance of something that happened
states what something is like evaluates its strengths and weaknesses
states the order in which things happened structures information in order of importance
explains what a theory says discusses the importance, failings or relevance of a theory in relation to a topic
explains how something works indicates why something will work (best)

Adapted from: Cottrell, S, (2008) The Study Skills Handbook, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, p286.

Have a go at identifying how descriptive or critical you have been in your own writing. Have a look at the Descriptive or critical writing (PDF, 416KB) template and use it to explore an example of your work – have you found the right balance of description and critical analysis?


Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning is a rigorous evaluation technique that can be used to test claims and assumptions. It is named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who encouraged his students to reach their own conclusions by questioning and examining ideas, rather than accepting ideas and information at face value. 

Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking the poison hemlock for daring to challenge the authority of the Athenian state, or in the words of his disciple Plato, for "not believing in the gods of the state".

His legacy is an approach that foregrounds the importance of seeking evidence before making assumptions and being willing to question authority. 

Types of Socratic question

There are six categories of Socratic questions set out below, with prompts on how you might apply these to your own evaluation of sources and evidence. 

Seeking clarification
  • How does this relate to the topic?
  • What else do you need to find out about the topic?
Probing assumptions
  • What is the claim based on?
  • Can the claim be checked or verified elsewhere?
Probing evidence
  • What is the evidence or proof?
  • What examples are provided?
  • Are the evidence and examples valid, reliable and sufficient?
Questioning a viewpoint
  • What are the alternative views or opinions?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the claim?
Questioning implications
  • What might this mean in practice?
  • What are the likely consequences?
Questioning the question
  • Why is the question important?
  • What other questions might also be relevant?

So how might I use this in my writing?

Each time you locate and read a source, these questions will help you to interpret it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.

It is your role, as a critical writer, to report on the evidence accurately in your writing. Some of the following phrases taken from Manchester University's Academic phrasebank might help:

  • Previous studies have not dealt with…

  • The research to date has tended to focus on…

  • The research does not take into account…

  • The main weakness of the study is…

  • The main limitation of this argument is…

  • The study overlooks…

301 Recommends: Academic Phrasebank

The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank is the output of a project that examined published academic writing from across disciplines and areas of study and broke it down into the most commonly used phrases.

Visit the Academic phrasebank to get some ideas on how to organise and structure your critical writing.


Legitimation Code Theory

Critical reading and writing are important skills to help you draw out key information from a text and use it critically in your own writing. Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is a useful way to think about the process in a visual way.

What is LCT?

LCT is a theory that can be applied to a wide range of academic situations and uses what is known as a semantic wave.

It represents the different stages of understanding and applying academic sources of information, as well as how you then apply these sources to your own academic work.

It is useful for helping to visualise the critical reading of a text, as well as for structuring essay paragraphs.

Unpacking

This involves taking an academic text, being able to identify the important points, and transferring this into more accessible language. This encompasses the below:

  • Description: How you would describe what you have read or are writing about to demonstrate that you understand?

  • Evidence: What evidence or examples could be used in support of the description? This shows you understand the context.

By the end of the unpacking section, you should have reached the bottom of the semantic wave.

Repacking

This is where critical analysis comes in. Visually seeing that you need to complete the wave can be really useful in helping you to understand if you have critically analysed or not.

This includes thinking about why what you have read or written in the unpacking section is important to your work. This means putting the context-independent topic introduced during the unpacking stage into the context of your reading, essay or assignment.

Detailing this shows that you understand why including the points you have raised are important and relevant.

To finish the wave, think about concluding and drawing together all of the information you have explored, and summarising it so that it leads nicely onto the next piece of reading or essay paragraph.

Applying LCT in practice

When critical analysis is lacking in a piece of writing, its structure will often look like an incomplete wave.

The sources have been described (unpacked) but have not been effectively analysed (repacked). It is easy to visualise how a lack of critical analysis means that the flow of your essay looks disjointed and incomplete.

You can check your work by identifying the different sections of the wave in each of your paragraphs using the LCT writing framework (.doc, 44.3KB).

In contrast, a critical essay or piece of reading will typically follow a wave pattern like the one below. Ideas are unpacked, evidence and examples are explored, then the ideas are repacked using your own words to summarise and connect.

It is easy then to visualise how all your paragraphs fit together, and how the essay has a coherent connecting thread that runs through it.

LCT paragraph structure:

  • Concept: Introduce the concept and main idea (also known as the controlling idea) being developed. This is also known as the topic sentence.

  • Unpacking: Elaborate on the concept or context to unpack or explore the concept in a more specific way.

  • Evidence and examples: Introduce some concrete examples to illustrate the (now unpacked) concept. This will typically be introduced with phrases like "findings demonstrate", for example.

  • Repacking: What can be learnt or drawn out of the examples to shed further light on the concept? This repacking process demonstrates your interpretation or understanding of the concept.

  • Rounding off: Summarise and draw together the points made about the controlling idea to create a complete message of what is discussed within the paragraph.

For further information on Legitimation Code Theory please visit the LCT Centre: Resources and further information


Top tips and resources

Look for a range of high-quality evidence (from published sources with references, rather than anecdotal). Visit the University of Sheffield Library research skills and critical thinking workshops and online tutorials for more information.

Express your interpretation of the evidence as well as just describe what has been written. Visit Manchester University Academic Phrasebank to view examples. 

Be prepared to question everything, regardless of the perceived authority of the source. Remember that the experts are not always right! Visit English for Academic Purposes Reading Critically

Try to synthesise more than one perspective whenever possible to identify potential issues or limitations

Try the LCT model as a way to visualise your critical engagement with sources through a piece of writing. Visit the LCT Centre for resources and further information.

See also:

Williams, K. (2009) Pocket Study Skills: Getting Critical. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

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