Embedding critical thinking and writing

Group of students at a lecture, taking notes

It is not always obvious to students what is meant by critical thinking and analysis, much less how to demonstrate it. The classroom activities and models outlined on this page provide ideas on how to embed critical thinking into your teaching.

Critical thinking, critical analysis, critical appraisal; these terms are often used (sometimes interchangeably) in assessment rubrics, marking criteria and in student feedback. But it is not always easy for students to understand how they are expected to demonstrate critical engagement with sources and evidence in their work.

For some students, particularly those with an educational background outside that of the Western European critical tradition, the very concept of questioning and challenging published sources may be unfamiliar. But for all students, it might not be obvious how to apply a critical approach in a systematic way that makes it easy for examiners to award marks.

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In practice

The following classroom activities and models might provide ideas on how to embed critical thinking into your teaching.

1. Socratic Questioning

Socratic Questioning is a method of probing claims and assumptions that aims to reveal the full complexity of beliefs, motivations and evidence that may underpin them. Socratic Questioning can provide a helpful introduction to critical analysis by reminding students not to accept any given information at face value. The following are commonly-used categories of Socratic Questions:

  1. Questions for clarification: what information is missing? What information do we need?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions: what are the underlying assumptions or motives?
  3. Questions that probe evidence: what would be an example? How strong is the evidence?
  4. Questions about viewpoints: what are the alternative perspectives?
  5. Questions that probe implications: what would be the possible consequences?
  6. Questions about the question: what other questions should we be asking?

Socratic Questioning can be used as a general philosophical approach to facilitating classroom dialogue based on the use of open-ended questions, or it can be used in a more structured way to encourage students to engage critically with evidence.

Suggested Learning Activity: Socratic Questioning

Time requirement: 20-30 minutes

Provide students in advance with an example of an academic or journalistic text, ideally related to something that has been newsworthy or otherwise controversial in the field. Ask them to formulate a claim about the text and come to class ready to examine it more thoroughly. For example:

  • "Should wearing a cycle helmet be mandatory?"
  • "Is five items of fruit and veg a day the right public health guidance?"
  • "Would you eat lab-grown meat?"

Use Socratic Questioning as a way for students to interrogate their own interpretations of the evidence provided. This might work well as a small group exercise or in pairs or threes. Having worked through the questions, ask students to revisit their original claim. Has their thinking developed or even changed completely? Can they add any further nuance to their original position?

2. Descriptive versus Analytical Writing

It is all very well to be able to think critically, but unless students are able to demonstrate their critical engagement with evidence in their writing, they will not get the credit they deserve for it. Some description is usually necessary in order to share the important background or contextual information, but students may find it difficult to progress their work beyond description.

As a simple rule of thumb, each time a new piece of evidence or an example is introduced, there should be an element of related analysis in the students’ own words. Students might find it helpful to think of this in terms of unpacking and repacking a source, following the model of Legitimation Code Theory.

Code Theory

According to Legitimation Code Theory, the process of unpacking and repacking a complex concept can be visualised as a ‘semantic wave’ (Blackie, 2014) as the student engages with the concept at the wave peak, unpacks it to achieve understanding at the wave trough, then repacks it using their own academic vocabulary to return to the wave peak.

Once the student has introduced a concept, theory or source and 'unpacked' it by providing an overview, paraphrase or summary then they can demonstrate their critical engagement by 'repacking' it; i.e. providing their own interpretation and indicating how and why that information is relevant to their overall piece of writing.

A good piece of critical analysis will often take the form of a sine wave of unpacking and repacking.

Suggested Learning Activity: Critical or Descriptive Writing?

Time requirement: 10-15 minutes

Ask students to have a look at an example of their own writing, or a published academic source. What is the balance of descriptive and critical writing? Students can use the 301 Critical or Descriptive Writing template to audit their writing by identifying when and how they have performed the actions outlined in the template.

As a follow up, ask students to share their audit with a partner. How appropriate is the balance of description and analysis? Does it follow a pattern through the work? Are there sections of the work where description is more important than analysis (for example a methodology section)?

3. A framework for critical writing

To write critically, students need to feel empowered to build on their objective use of evidence to adopt a stance or express an opinion. This may come more naturally to some students than others. Some may be more comfortable presenting evidence and sources at face value; others may be inclined to make overly bold claims without backing them up sufficiently with evidence.

A common question from students is: ‘How can I be expected to form an opinion on published academic work when I am just a student?’ The simple answer is: they don’t need to. All robust academic work should identify its own weaknesses and limitations explicitly. By synthesising two or more sources (identifying relationships, commonalities and discrepancies), each with their own specific limitations, anyone can qualify themselves to form an opinion about their relative merits.

So what does good critical writing look like in practice? There are many ways to structure critical writing, but it will probably include the following elements:

  1. Describe the evidence using appropriate critical language (e.g. evidence suggests; Jones (2019) argues, research indicates)
  2. Identify limitations to be aware of in the source(s)? What are they? Why are they significant?
  3. Highlight alternatives: Do other sources support the evidence? Do other sources challenge the evidence? If so, how? Can you show a development or progression of thinking over time?
  4. Summarise your stance: How does all of the above inform your own overall argument or thinking?

This approach may work on a micro-level (i.e. within a single paragraph of writing), on a macro-level (i.e. within a whole assignment), or both.

Suggested Learning Activity: Critical Analysis Framework

Time Requirement: 30 minutes of independent study

Ask students to use the Critical Analysis Framework to help structure their synthesis of multiple pieces of evidence. This might be a helpful way to introduce a structured approach to critical writing as part of an assignment. Once they have mapped it out using the template, can they have a go at transforming this into a paragraph of critical writing?

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Further information

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