My experience indicates that students struggle with critical thinking, and therefore producing critical analysis in their writing. To help them develop their critical practice I’m putting together a series of related posts that will act as a mini-critical writing course for students. In particular, I’m going to explore each of the points below in more detail over the next few weeks. Simon is going to act as a guide to explore what critical thinking is and why its important in the hope that it explains the concepts more clearly.
Simon is a Scottish student and has been tasked to produce a presentation to be delivered to his class. Simon’s task is to indicate whether he thinks Scottish independence is good or bad for Scotland. So let’s look at the various stages of research and thinking that Simon will work through to prepare his presentation.
What is critical practice?
Simon was excited that he’d been set a topic he had strong views on and therefore believed that this task was going to be easy – after all he just has to explain what his opinions are? Simon does recognise that this is a hot topic and it is likely that not all of his classmates will agree with him. Some feel that the Scots had their referendum in 2014 and we should accept the decision made at that point and move forward. It is still a hotly contested issue in Scotland and the nation is divided, which makes it a good topic to use as a light to explore critical practice.
Academically, its not really going to be acceptable to simply write up your own opinions. Any opinions put forward need to be backed up with evidence – so Simon will need to do some research into the independence question; looking at the views of others in various reliable and trusted media. He should try to gather information from a range of sources and should have articles etc that argue for and against independence.
To show that he is thinking critically, Simon will need to consider the arguments on both sides and present a case that is objective and when he does put forward his own opinion, it should be based on the evidence from all his research and he should be able to justify his thinking based on the evidence he has gathered and used. His lecturer will not want to hear (or read) unsubstantiated opinions. Think about the news for one moment, when we read something from reliable press/or watch news broadcasts we should be questioning where the information is coming from; how do they know what they’re telling us – is there proof or are the ideas being expressed guesses? Critical thinking is about providing proof rather than making assumptions or guessing when we don’t have all the facts.
In a future post I’ll explore critical practice (critical thinking and critical writing) in more detail.
Its hopefully clear from the above that evidence is going to be important for Simon as he carries out his research for his presentation. He will need to find evidence to support his opinions or any claims that he makes. While critical thinking focuses on using the information from the evidence gathered, evidence-based practice looks at ensuring we are using appropriate material.
Simon will need to consider what sources will give him good, well researched and presented information to add credibility to his arguments. There may be academic journal articles on the topic, but there will be a lot of coverage in the Scottish and National (UK) press too. Simon should probably also look at The Scottish Government website, the UK Government’s website and maybe the individual political parties. There will also be blogs and other sources on the internet he will be able to make use of. Its important for Simon to use a wide range of resources to gather his information.
There are some sites that are less credible and should be avoided – Wikipedia (or any form of wiki) can be edited by anyone and added to, so I’d encourage Simon not to use this website, there are a lot of better, more reliable sites available.
There may also be some sources which are biased (The SNP – the party in power in Scotland – are driving the call for a referendum, so they will be biased). It may still be necessary for Simon to use biased information, but he should also try to find independent resources on the same side of the argument so the evidence is also coming from different groups or people.
We want Simon to use a wide range of evidence to support his work so that he is being more critical, but its important that he chooses the right sort of evidence to start with (credible, reliable and trustworthy). I will be exploring this in a later blog post as part of this series.
You can access the post on evidence based practice here
I think this has really been covered above, but in the series, I will be looking in a bit more detail at developing your reading skills, where and how to source your information. I’ll also look at fake news and how to recognise it.
Using good quality reliable sources will allow you to make good evidence-based practice and good critical analysis in your writing.
You can access the post on Reading Skills here
Critical thinking skills
Once Simon has gathered all his evidence he should take time to think through what his case for or against independence might look like; what arguments he might want to make (using the evidence to support his thinking).
The key mistake I’d want to see Simon avoid here would be being overly descriptive – telling me all about the background to the independence debate in Scotland; all the history. He should be reviewing the evidence and examining each of the arguments for and against independence; looking at what’s good about them, and their weaknesses. Simon should be developing persuasive arguments (using facts and figures always helps here) not simply telling his lecturer and class everything there is to know about independence. Once he’s done that, he can then formulate his own opinion, based on all of his1 analysis.
As well as exploring this topic further, in future posts, I will also discuss the benefits of using different types of information to form evidence.
Critical writing skills
This is the point where Simon actually starts to develop his presentation. Once he has all his ideas pulled together, he needs to think about how to present the information. He needs to get his view across clearly, make his points and convince his audience of his point of view; he doesn’t want to commit death by PowerPoint.
More generally, students are also likely to be asked to produce reports, essays etc demonstrating their critical thinking skills so I’ll explore this more in the future too.
Hopefully Simon’s presentation was a hit and he persuaded his classmates of his point of view.
Critical practice is fundamental in academia if you want to achieve good marks, and certainly at higher levels this is a minimum required standard. However, critical thinking and evidence based practice are good skills to develop as they will serve you well in the workplace. If you wish to propose a project or to take a particular course of action, you will need to have the evidence to back yourself up, and to know the evidence inside out to make that case convincing.
By the end of this mini-course, you should be able to investigate an issue, form your opinions based on credible and reliable evidence that allows you to carry out a critical analysis and produce a well supported and justified case to your target audience.
You can access the next post in the series here.
I hope you have found the above of interest, and I would encourage you to leave your thoughts and comments in the relevant section below. A question for the students reading this – would worksheets with tasks/activities to accompany each of the upcoming posts/chapters be helpful? Please let me know what you think.
To make sure you don’t miss any of the posts in the series, I’d encourage you to sign up for notifications.