Critical Thinking Skills

Critical Thinking is all about learning how to ask yourself the right questions.

Essay writing at A Level and degree level requires ability to analyse ideas and information and organise these mentally according to the specific type of academic argument required for any given assignment. This can be very difficult for dyslexic students. While some students work out how to harness complex thoughts for this process without being taught how to do so explicitly, many dyslexic students benefit from being shown that there is a clear process that can be followed to develop their analytical thinking.

Being aware that there are different ways to develop essays depending on what type of argument is required by each assignment can be very helpful for dyslexic students or students with other SpLDs. As can using checklists of useful steps to follow when researching, planning, organising and checking extended written work. This way of working can be described as using Critical Thinking skills. The tips below summarise some of the ways to use Critical Thinking to make essay writing more manageable.

Using Critical Thinking for Written Assignments

1 In order to “Understand the Question”, refer to all of the following before diving in:

– Lecture notes

– Clarification from tutor

– Advice from classmates

– Uni of Kent guidance:

https://www.kent.ac.uk/ai/ask/documents/step_1_Instruction_verbs.pdf

– Uni of Leicester guidance on question terminology:

https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/essay-terms

(Other universities also give guidance. These are just examples.)

As part of this stage of preparation:

Identify the PURPOSE of the writing (i.e. it will not be “to get a good essay mark”, but something like, “to demonstrate understanding of …..”

Identify the intended READER for your essay – this helps to determine the level of detail and technical language you need to go into. ( e.g. Are you writing for the tutor/ an expert in your subject, or does the question ask you to explain something to a layman?)

2 Next, you need to “Identify the Type of Argument”

(Your “argument” is your written assertion/ claim/ statement of opinion together with the evidence you have found in support of your point of view).

Choose from frequent types of argument the question might ask for:

– Schematic Argument: have you been asked to break down a concept or idea, in order to simplify/explain it?

– Experimental Argument: have you been asked to argue “What would Happen If …”?

– Problem Solving Argument: have you been asked to identify a problem & a solution to that problem, then to explain how you would implement & evaluate the solution?

– Comparison Argument: have you been asked to describe advantages/disadvantages or similarities/differences between two concepts?

– Prioritisation Argument: have you been asked to choose which element of a solution is most important/ most effective?

– Cause & Effect Argument: have you been asked to state the cause and effect of an event/ action/ process?

– Developmental Argument: is your task to outline the development stages of a process/ state of being?

– Synthesis Argument: have you been tasked with combining two or more arguments or concepts to make something new?

– Combative Argument: is the assignment to deconstruct an argument logically, according to evidence available to you?

– Moral/ Ethical Argument: is this a case of identifying what is right or wrong?

– Philosophical Argument: Is the task to explore the fundamentals of a belief/ approach

– Applying Standards Argument: have you been asked to use guidelines / standards to critique a process/ topic

3 Choose the appropriate Essay Structure for your type of argument – there are recognised essay plan structures for each different type of argument.

By familiarising yourself with the nature of your type of argument, you have made planning your essay easier. It is not always a case of need for creating a structure from scratch each time. Following a recognised template structure can be very effective.

Map your argument visually (e.g. using Mind Map), using the Typical Structure for that type of argument.

Stella Cottrell’s Critical Thinking Skills book (MacMillan Education) outlines how you can map different types of argument to different types of essay structure.

4 Once you have an idea of what structure you will follow, start collecting evidence for your research phase.

Collect, Read, Analyse & Record Evidence from Source Materials

Use a template Source Material Analysis Sheet to take notes of information you learn when researching, to make it easier to include references and specific quotes when writing finished pieces.

A source material template could be a copied A 4 sheet on which you include reference to and space to record: title of publication; author; date of publication; publisher; summary of author’s argument; relevance of source to essay; page numbers of useful quotes)

Use self questioning to get the most out of source texts. For example, actively ask yourself:

I) Where you have heard similar ideas before? How might this be linked to what you know already?

II) How might a specific fact, reference or opinion be important for your essay?

III) How credible is an assertion/claim being made by the author?

IV) How exactly can what you are reading be applied to the subject you are exploring?

Critical Thinking is primarily learning to constantly ask open questions to understand concepts, to develop new ideas and to produce rigorous, logical arguments.)

Always take considerable time looking at how points of view and evidence in source material might support your argument, rather than just reading without specific focus.

5 Overcome Belief Preservation when Reading Sources

This means, make sure you are not interpreting what you read in a way which is coloured by what you already think. Keep an open mind.

For a thorough academic argument, you need to make sure you:

– Don’t just look for evidence for your existing belief

– Don’t avoid/ dismiss evidence which contradicts your belief. Look closely at it

– Rate evidence equally, whether it supports or contradicts your belief

– Change your belief if necessary!

Overcoming a natural instinct to look for evidence for what you already believe is an essential part of Critical Thinking theory.

6 When you have done your research, you can start a detailed plan

Plan out your points, within your chosen Argument Structure, using your source evidence. Here are some ideas you could use:

– A2 paper & stick post its on it with points from different sources. You can then move them around.

– Or use a whiteboard, use arrows to change organisation as you develop thinking. Take a photo of the plan, especially if you make several attempts and rub them off each time.

– Or use an online planning tool.

Put source references on the plan now! It is much easier than trying to do it later!

Make sure you are following an appropriate structure for the type of argument being developed when working on paper or whiteboard (or with an online planning tool.)

Keep referring to the question as you plan, using self questioning:

– Am I focused on the main issue?

– How is this evidence relevant? Have I recorded it in the right place on the plan?

– Am I forgetting a viewpoint I should consider? What else is there to think about?

– Is this the right level of detail? Do I need more? Less? Whom am I writing for?

– What facts from sources/ my knowledge, help me answer the question? Have I included all the useful bits I found? Have I included bits that weren’t as useful as I thought?

– Have I got diverted from the main task? If so, what needs to come out?

7 Finally, when you have collected all your data, arranged in an appropriate structure, you can plan out each individual paragraph:

– Make your Point

– Give your Explanation of the point

– Provide the Evidence for what you are saying

– Make an Evaluation of how secure your evidence and assertion is

– Reaffirm your Point & lead into your next paragraph, using signposting words (n.b. * Very useful signposting words to move from one point to another can be found at : http://www2.eit.ac.nz/library/ls_guides_sentencestarters.html

Always include references to source material and quotes as you go along (at least page number and name so you can easily go back for all information for references). This is much easier and less time consuming (really!) than going through it all again.

8 Then you are ready to Check and proofread. This is the Evaluate stage of your essay:

– Check each part of the argument against the original question

– Check themes/ evidence are grouped effectively

– Ask someone else to read/ check it – Take their feedback into account, but don’t make changes without checking their comments are valid. Different people will have different types of feedback which is useful.

– Take time when checking, to consider how points of view and evidence in source material support your argument: Have you got the right balance? Should you add something? Should you reduce the emphasis of a particular source which may not be in line with the key messages required in the question?

Summary

The information above is a very useful checklist of steps to go through when approaching a daunting extended academic essay. Don’t forget to ask for help from as many valid sources as possible. Don’t make any assumptions early on, which could damage the effectiveness of all your work. Leave yourself enough time. Be prepared to do multiple versions, and to take time, with breaks in between. This is a lengthy process that cannot be done in a couple of days.

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