Brain training

May 13, 2005

When helping students develop the ability to construct an argument, it may be necessary to go right back to basics, says Stella Cottrell

Another pile of scripts on the table, the lecturer’s pen at the ready or the pencil poised over the optical marker for feedback on the latest batch of essays. In the hours that follow, it is likely that the lecturer will opt for comments such as “needs more analysis” or “argument not clear” more than for any other piece of feedback. But why do students find critical analysis so difficult?

For many, the problem starts before they even begin a piece of work. They mistake a method for a personality trait, hearing terms such as “critical analysis” and “argument” as descriptions of a type of person they do not want to be. “But I’m just not a critical person,” says Jessica. “I’m quite caring. Perhaps university isn’t for me, after all.” Elaine explains her reservations: “My family are worried university will change me; they won’t want me coming home all argumentative
and opinionated.”

The anxieties expressed by Jessica and Elaine are indicative of a gap in some students’ understanding of university conventions and terminology, especially those associated with criticism and analysis. The more obvious and accepted these seem, the more confusing they can be for students trying to grasp what is really expected. One such term that leads to confused and ineffective efforts at critical writing is “the intelligent general reader”. Students are often directed to provide just enough background information for this imaginary reader. This may sound simple enough, but for many this generates a giant leap into the dark. Does this reader need only a few words of background information or several long paragraphs? Have they understood the fine nuances of the texts on the reading list? Imagine the wrong kind of reader and you’ll provide the wrong type and amount of information, you’ll use the word limit ineffectively and you’ll lose marks.

Such dilemmas contribute to the difficulty in achieving the right balance between description and analysis. Experienced writers who know their audience may be able to make an informed judgement about what to include, but inexperienced students may be able to judge only by what they need themselves. This is often more than the word limit permits, so the essay tends to have excessive background detail, leaving too few words to dedicate to analysis.

However, if the lecturer helpfully tries to explain critical thinking, the students might not have the vocabulary to make sense of what is being said. Terms such as “false premises” and even “reasoning” or “logical order” may need to be explained and concrete examples provided. Many students need practice in recognising aspects of an argument, building from the basics, before they can start to construct their own line of reasoning and provide balanced answers. Some benefit from guidance on the language used to structure and signpost a line of reasoning.

More worrying is that many students have not yet acquired the underlying thinking skills on which more advanced critical thinking is based. Some have little idea of how to sequence their ideas or how to categorise information. They may not be aware of how to move between the main argument and supporting reasons, how to direct their attention to detail or how to use criteria to evaluate conflicting evidence and form judgements. They may have difficulties in reading critically, writing critically, or both. Not only may students demonstrate poor critical reasoning skills, they may also not even regard these as important. Current trends towards generative and “creative” thinking strategies, using techniques such as Mind Maps, have their value and place. However, such strategies tend to structure information very loosely and in ways that can suggest that all ideas, facts, theories and details are simply data of roughly equal weight.

Furthermore, creative-thinking strategies are often regarded as superior and more “happening” than “geeky” thinking skills such as critical analysis. “I’m right-brained,” explains Martin, as if that were reason enough for not developing thinking skills. “I’m a global thinker” may be stated with pride, without there being a felt need for
an addendum such as “so, therefore, I need to spend more time developing skills for tasks that require ordering, sequencing, selecting, prioritising, evaluating, drawing conclusions and applying rules”.

“Do we really need theory?” students sometimes whisper confidentially when asking for help with essays, unsure of how to draw on theory within a critical debate and wondering whether the effort at coming to grips with it is worth it. Others are sceptical that they are really expected to make critical comment on the work of researchers and theorists in the field. “Surely, they don’t think I’d know better than the experts?” Others complain about apparent contradictions in the guidance they are given: “They want my opinion but they say not to write opinion. Which is it?”

However, all is not lost. Universities can help students to develop their critical thinking and their reasoning abilities, and it is worth the effort.


The Critical List

  • Check that students really understand the terminology and conventions for critical thinking and have due appreciation of why these are important: do not assume that they know, even if they nod vigorously
  • Assume that they will succeed with enough guidance and practice: it will make you feel better when you are looking for yet another way of explaining what is required. Weak critical thinking tends to be the result of bad habits, misunderstandings and lack of practice rather than a lack of ability
  • Provide explanations of the academic context to reassure students about making criticism of “experts”, especially to international and mature students. For example, help them to make stunning critical analyses of your own research
  • Direct students to concrete examples of good analytical writing. This can go a long way towards helping them identify where they are going wrong, especially if a commentary on the examples is provided
  • Provide opportunities to develop underlying thinking skills, such as sequencing and categorisation for those who need them
  • Use terms such as “line of reasoning” to help those who have intransigent problems with the word “argument”
  • Have patience - they will get there. Really!

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