Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

5.1 Examples

Now let’s consider the following argument:

Statistics from a number of higher education institutions suggest that students who attend tutorials often pass their examinations. In 2014, 58% of students surveyed indicated that they believe their attendance at tutorials was the main reason for their success in their examination. I am a very motivated student who is very keen to pass my examinations so I will attend all my tutorials and feel confident it will guarantee my success.

The claim here is that attending tutorials will somehow guarantee success in examination. Remember we are not saying this is true or false. What we are doing is evaluating the claim being made. Firstly, according to the author, there is some evidence (58% of students from a survey) to suggest that students who attend tutorials often pass their examinations. However, the survey data does not indicate the sample size or population, and the source of the data has not been referenced, so there is no opportunity to refer back to the original source. This is important because the sample size may not be compelling. Also the population chosen for the study may reveal certain characteristics that could influence our judgement about the claim being made. The survey response, as reported in this extract, also indicates that attendance at tutorials was the main reason (for student’s success in exams), which implies that there were other factors, too. This makes the argument imbalanced because it hasn’t adequately explored other reasons for the association between success and attending tutorials. The writer qualifies their argument by including motivation as another factor and, by doing so (indirectly), acknowledges the limitations of over-reliance on attendance at tutorials as a reason for success.

In summary, the claim is attempting to establish a ‘cause and effect’ without providing compelling evidence. Perhaps, attending tutorials could be a contributory factor if we considered this within a spectrum of factors that could help students to succeed at examinations. The example provided here therefore represents a ‘flawed’ argument.

In order to think about this argument critically, you would ask the following questions:

  • Who was surveyed and what was the sample size?
  • What are the characteristics of students who attend tutorials? For example, do they have more time to study and is this the factor that gives them the edge?
  • What is it about tutorials that may make a difference?
  • What else contributes to success?

Let’s take a look at another example. This short presentation shows how critical reading and analysis are concepts that can be applied in everyday life.

Download this video clip.Video player: A breakfast cereal packet
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Transcript: A breakfast cereal packet

INSTRUCTOR
Many assignment questions require arguments and demonstration of skills in manipulating content to make a good argument. It can make the difference between higher and lower assignment grades.
The first stage in all of this is learning to read critically and learning to spot a good or a weak argument through analysing content. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, analytical thinking is concerned with examining methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of something. This includes looking at variables, factors, and relationships between things, as well as examining ideas and problems and detecting and analysing arguments.
We are going to start by looking at an everyday article-- a breakfast cereal packet. Spend a few minutes looking at the text on the packet. And then answer these questions. What do you think the text is aiming to do? Do you feel the writer is successful in achieving what she or he set out to do?
What works? And what does not work?
Did you accept what was written? Or did the text prompt you to ask questions, such as, what is the purpose of this text? The initial question, 'what makes breakfast the most important meal of the day?', seems to suggest that the aim of the text might be to provide answers-- perhaps to convince us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
You might reasonably have expected the text to provide some good reasons for us to be convinced of this. They seem to be missing. Was the writer's aim simply to convince the reader that eating cereals for breakfast is a good thing?
The writer certainly tells us that breakfast gets the day off to a good start by refuelling the body, which could be a reason to support the view that breakfast is important. But it's not really one to convince us that breakfast is the most important meal. The writer has not told us why breakfast is more important than lunch, tea, dinner, or supper. They seem to unquestioningly accept or assume that breakfast is the most important meal.
Telling us about busy lifestyles or the nutritional benefits of breakfast cereals does not tell us why breakfast is the most important meal. The relevance of these points is not clear at all.
It is hard to know if the information given as facts is correct, as there are no references to research. The relevance to a healthy diet is limited in persuasion unless you have some knowledge of nutritional science.
It is assumed that a low-fat diet is good. But there is recent research evidence showing that this might not be the case. All in all, this is not a very convincing case for breakfast being the most important meal of the day. If the aim were really to persuade us to eat cereals, would we be convinced?
So even this simple everyday text provides an opportunity to exercise analytical thinking skills. The process of looking at the structure and parts of something in the way we have done here is what we mean by analysis.
The text also illustrates the ideas of having a point or a case you wish to prove and providing evidence and reasons to support it. Together these form what the academic world calls an argument. This is very different from the everyday sense of the word, having a disagreement.
It should have become obvious even in the simple task just completed that there are a series of questions that it is sensible to ask of something we're reading. A checklist of the questions to use when making judgments about the things that you hear, see, and experience is available to you in the course resources. You might like to keep this list with you as you read and begin to analyse texts. You can add extra questions to the list as you progress in your understanding as this list is not exhaustive.
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