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Showing posts with label critical thinking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label critical thinking. Show all posts

13 September 2017

Think critically!

Do you ever receive assignments back with the comment: “your essay is too descriptive” or “more critical analysis needed”? Learning Skills Adviser Bei-En Zou writes about what it means to be critical and how to go about developing your critical thinking skills. 


One of the key skills you want to develop during your time as a university student is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking is not only a skill for life but a quality that is becoming increasingly sought after in the workforce. 


What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not about being a critical person! Rather, in the academic context, it is about thinking in a way that does not take what you read or hear at its face value. Critical thinkers look at the evidence behind expert opinions, weigh up ideas against each other and make their own reasoned judgments about how compelling an author's explanations are for certain phenomena.


Practising critical thinking

Good critical thinking begins with asking questions. When faced with a new idea or piece of information, in a journal article or a book, begin by asking the big ‘W’ questions to orientate yourself:
  • What is the main idea?
  • Who wrote this?
  • When was this written? And what was happening at that time?
  • Where was it written?
  • What evidence does the writer provide to support his/her main point? 

Once you’ve done that, critical thinkers go a step further, by taking that information, and asking if any of it affects the credibility of the material presented. Here are some examples of things to look out for:
  • Scientific articles published more than five years ago might be relying on outdated methods and data. 
  • Research that is funded by corporations like this one might publish biased results designed to support a corporation's product instead of presenting their results impartially.
  • Legitimate sounding publications such as the Journal of Historical Review which are actually avenues to push forward a particular political ideology.  

Analysing Arguments

Next, focus on what the author is saying: their key point (this is also called an argument). Ask yourself:
  • Does the writer use evidence to back up their claims?
  • What is the quality of the evidence used? (How recent is it? Does it come from reputable, scholarly sources?)
  • Does the writer make any assumptions?
  • Does the writer go from point A to point B in a logical way? Is the overall flow of the argument clear and logical?
  • How convincing is the overall argument? What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? And why?

These questions will help you evaluate and critically analyse the strength of a particular argument.

Critical thinking is a journey

Thinking critically is difficult and will take time. It’s a skill to develop over the course of your degree. However, if you take anything away from your university studies, the ability to think and act critically is invaluable. Becoming a critical thinker will make your life much more rich and exciting!


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5 September 2016

How being a student is like being a detective


If you’ve ever been told by your lecturer or tutor that your paper is “too descriptive”, you need to show more analysis, or you need to take a more critical approach, then Librarian Clinton Bell has an unusual solution: imagine you’re a detective…



magnifying-glass.jpg
smwright/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0.)
Let’s say you’re working on a case. When you start out, nobody knows what the correct solution is - you certainly can’t look it up in a textbook! Instead, you need to collect evidence, and then try to establish what might have happened based on the evidence you find and your own reasoning. As the case proceeds, you need to investigate thoroughly and avoid jumping to conclusions. Sometimes evidence can be false or misleading - witnesses might lie, or something that seems suspicious at first might have an innocent explanation. This makes it important to collect evidence from multiple sources and carefully assess how reliable your information is. As well as collecting evidence, you need to put it together to work out what happened. You might start by coming up with several possible explanations and then comparing each against the evidence; or you might look at the evidence and try to link all the pieces together to come up with a coherent explanation. Once you think you have a solution, you need to convince the police or the courts. To do this you will need to explain your reasoning and show that the evidence supports your conclusion. You may need to contrast your conclusion with other possibilities, and demonstrate that your explanation is more likely to be true. So what does all this have to do with being a student? Like the detective’s case, the questions you work on at university don’t always have one correct solution that you can look up in a book. Instead, you’re expected to gather information from various sources and then form your own view based on that information. The emphasis is on trying to establish which answer is best, rather than just accepting what someone else has said or compiling a list of information. You can’t accept all the evidence at face value either. Some sources just aren’t very reliable, but even experts can disagree with one another. Like the detective, you need to carefully evaluate the information you’ve gathered and avoid relying on a single source. As well as gathering information, you need to analyse and interpret it. Exactly what this means depends on the assignment and what field you’re studying, but in general you need to link the information you’ve found together and make judgements. Asking yourself questions is a good way to do this. Some questions you might ask are:    • What are the different views on this matter? How do they differ?    • How strong is the evidence for each view? Are some better supported than others?    • If there are conflicting opinions or evidence, why is that?    • Based on the information you’ve gathered, what actions should we take? What result do you expect from these actions? Finally, you need to communicate your findings and explain how you reached them. You need to show the person reading your assignment that you’ve come to a conclusion based on sound reasoning and evidence. This is what your lecturer is asking for when they tell you to be critical or show analysis - they want you to demonstrate that you’ve gone through the process of careful investigation and reasoning I’ve just described.

Good luck with your assignments - hopefully with these tips you’ll find them elementary.




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18 April 2016

How to write critically

Have you ever been told that your writing is “too descriptive”, or that you need to “show more analysis” or “adopt a more critical approach”? You may need to work on your critical thinking skills or be more direct in your academic expression when writing about your arguments, writes Clinton Bell.



In an academic context, being critical means going beyond explaining information, theories and ideas that you have learned in your studies. There is more emphasis on you clearly demonstrating your considered point of view.

To do this, you need to go beyond just describing what other people have said and thought, and start asking questions. There are a lot of questions you can ask, but let’s start with two big ones: “What do I think?” and “What does that mean?”


What do I think?


Critical analysis involves considering all viewpoints and then deciding what you think. This means two things for your writing:
  • You need to explain why your reader should agree with your point of view
  • You need to consider how credible your sources are that you use to support your point of view.
As a student, the most common way to support what you say is by referring to evidence from other sources and making a logical argument based on that evidence. This leads directly into the second point – you need to choose your sources carefully, because the strength of your own argument depends on them.

If you’re not sure how to do this, check out the "Evaluating sources" section of the Library’s Academic research on the internet tutorial. Although it’s aimed at internet sources, it’s a useful guide in general.

What does that mean?

So you’ve got some high-quality sources. Great! But remember, we’re trying to make an argument based on evidence, not just provide a big list of information. That means you need to link your sources back to your topic and to each other. Again, asking questions is a great way to do this:

How does this information relate to the topic at hand? What conclusions can we draw from it? Are there any alternative explanations? These two sources disagree. Why is that? Should we believe one over the other – or perhaps they both have some merit? What are the implications of accepting one or the other?

Don’t be afraid to show original thought! If you just repeat what someone else has said, what do you accomplish? Why wouldn’t I just read the original source? Instead, you need to build on your sources and add value through analysis critique, or interpretation.

Further reading

If you’re still not sure where to start, there are several resources on the web that can help!

Dr Joe Lau at the University of Hong Kong has produced an excellent series of online tutorials which cover critical thinking and logic in detail.

If you prefer something more audio-visual, try this video introduction to critical thinking from QualiaSoup.

You can also chat to a Learning Skills Adviser at one of our Research & Learning Points. Bring along your assignment (either one you have completed, or one you’re writing), and they can give you some tips about how to improve your critical voice.

Do you know of any other useful resources? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @monashunilib

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22 September 2015

Critical thinking at university

At school you might have focused on learning the “right” answer, but in the real world things aren’t always so clear-cut. That’s why it’s essential to develop your ability to think and write critically. By Clinton Bell


The world is complex, and filled with conflicting information. It’s not always clear what’s true, and even ideas which seem plausible and are widely accepted can turn out to be wrong (the geocentric model of the solar system is a famous example). Often there is no answer which is objectively correct - only different approaches with different benefits and tradeoffs.


Because of this uncertainty, it’s important that we don’t just accept information or ideas at face value. Instead, we need to establish how strongly they are supported by evidence, what the alternatives are, and what the broader implications of accepting an idea might be.

This kind of evidence-seeking and analysis is what we call “critical thinking”. It’s also what your lecturers want when they say your work is “too descriptive” or that you need to “show more analysis”!
Evaluating sources of evidence

When you’re looking at the evidence for a position, you’ll often rely on information from sources such as research articles, media reports, and others. However, not all sources provide the same level of evidence, and no single source ever provides all the evidence you need. This means you need to look at a variety of sources and carefully consider what evidence they provide.
One way to evaluate your sources is to ask “What, Who, Why, How, and When?”
  • What is this source?
    • What type of source is it - opinion piece, research article, statistical information, case study, something else?
    • What does it say?
    • What doesn’t it say?
  • Who created this source?
    • Do they have any expertise in this field?
    • Do they have biases or interests which might influence their work?
  • Why was this source created?
    • What is its purpose?
    • Who is it aimed at?
  • How did the creators of this source formulate their position?
    • What evidence do they use to support it?
    • Are there any weaknesses or limitations in that evidence?
    • If they conducted research, was it done in a rigorous manner?
      • If they refer to other sources, are those sources reliable? Are they represented accurately and fairly?
      • Are their conclusions logical, based on the evidence they’ve used?
  • When was this created?
    • Is it still relevant?
    • Are there more recent sources or events which cast doubt on its findings?
(Adapted from Woolliams, M, Williams, K, Butcher, R & Pye, J, 2009, ‘Be more critical!’: a practical guide for health and social care students, School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brooks University, Oxford.)

Putting things together

As well as being able to compile and evaluate evidence, you also need to be able to interpret what you’ve found. This means considering how each piece of information relates to the others, as well as developing an overall assessment of what you’ve discovered and how it relates to the topic at hand.
Some key questions might be:
  • What are the alternatives you’ve identified?
    • Are there any similarities between them?
    • What are the major differences?
  • On the whole, how strong is the evidence for each alternative?
    • Are some better supported than others?
    • Is there strong evidence for any of them?
  • If there are conflicting opinions or evidence, why might that be?
  • Based on your analysis, what actions should we take, or what viewpoint should we adopt?
    • What result do you expect from those actions, or what are the implications of that viewpoint?

If you’re writing an essay or a report, don’t be afraid to show original thought when performing this analysis. While you need to ground your work with the evidence you’ve found, in most units you’re expected to build on what you’ve learned rather than simply describing it.

Want to know more?

If you want to know how critical thinking is like choosing an apartment, check out this video on being a critical student from the University of Leicester.
If you prefer the written word, try this helpful introduction to critical thinking from Edinburgh Napier University.

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