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.
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.
The model of Bloom's Taxonomy (see right) represents a hierarchy of learning that is used to develop marking criteria across university assessments. All levels of the Bloom model are important: from a strong foundation based on the right facts, knowledge and information to 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:
- 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)
- 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?
- 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?)
- 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:
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.
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.
"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:
|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.
This involves taking an academic text, being able to identify the important points, and transferring this into more accessible language. This encompasses:
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:
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.
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.
The following model maps the LCT wave onto a typical critical paragraph structure:
|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.