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Critical Thinking and Writing

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 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.

Interactive Resource

Reading and Writing Critically: Interactive 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. 

Launch Digital workshop

The Bloom model of learning hierarchiesBloom's Taxonomy

The model of Bloom's Taxonomy (see right) 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. This short video explains the thinking behind the Bloom model, how it applies to university assessment and how you can use it to help develop your own analytical skills. 

What does critical analysis look like 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 and/or gaps: is the research robust? What limitations have the author(s) 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 (i.e. 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/hypothesis?

Download this Critical Analysis Framework to help structure your analysis of multiple sources according to these stages. 

Please explore the tabs below for more information on different forms of online communication.

From Description to Analysis

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 could express in your writing include: 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 writing Analytical writing

States what 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/relevance of a theory in relation to a topic/idea

Explains how something works

Indicates why something will work (best)

Notes the methods used

Evaluates whether the extent to which the methods used were fit for purpose

Says when something occurred

Identifies why timing is of importance

States the different components

Weighs up the importance of component parts

States links between items

Shows the relevance of links between pieces of information

Gives information

Draws conclusions

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 template and use it to explore an example of your work - have you found the right balance of description and critical analysis?

How do the experts do it?

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. These phrases are organised around categories such as 'being critical', 'comparing and contrasting' and 'giving examples'. Visit the Academic Phrasebank to get some ideas on how to organise and structure your critical writing.

Useful Resources

Socratic Questioning

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 question 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 alternatives 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...
  • However, more recent studies suggest...
  • A further question that needs to be asked, however, is...

Useful Resources

Legitimation Code Theory

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. This wave 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.

A visual representation of the semantic wave of unpacking and repacking an idea


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

  • Description: How you would describe what you have read/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 (see graph above). 


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/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/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/essay paragraph.

Applying LCT in Practice

When critical analysis is lacking in a piece of writing, it's structure will often look like the incomplete wave below. 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.

A visual representation of a broken semantic wave

In contract, 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.

A visual representation of a complete semantic wave

The following model maps the LCT wave onto a typical critical paragraph structure:

LCT Paragraph Structure
Section of Paragraph Description
1. Concept Introduce the concept and main idea (also known as the controlling idea) being developed. This is also known as the ‘topic sentence’.
2. Unpacking Elaborate on the concept/context to ‘unpack’ or explore the concept in a more specific way.
3. 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'.
4. Repacking What can be learned or drawn out of the example(s) to shed further light on the concept? This ‘repacking ‘ process demonstrates your interpretation/understanding of the concept.
5. 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.

Useful Resources


Top Tips

Top tips

  • Look for a range of high quality evidence (from published sources with references, rather than anecdotal)
  • Express your interpretation of the evidence as well as just describing what has been written
  • Be prepared to question everything, regardless of the perceived authority of the source; remember that the experts are not always right!
  • 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
  • Have a look at some published texts to see how writers present their critical interpretation in practice
Academic Skills Certificate

Recognition for your skills development

The 301 Academic Skills Certificate provides an opportunity for you to gain recognition for developing your skills and reflecting on this experience. Through this reflection you will be able to identify changes and improvements to your academic skills that will lead to long-term benefits to your studies. The 301 Academic Skills Certificate acknowledges your commitment to enhancing your academic and employability skills and personal development.

You can find more information on the 301 Academic Skills Certificate here.

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