Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

3 Being critical in your writing – some practical suggestions

Not only do you have to read with a critical eye but you must also be able to express your ideas in a critical way. This means that your writing must demonstrate your understanding of the significance of an argument or perspective, the relevance of evidence and the strength of conclusions made. Your writing will need to show evidence of your ability to defend an argument against charges such as bias, lack of supporting evidence or incompleteness. Developing critical writing skills will allow you to develop more reasoned arguments for your assignments, projects and examination questions. The short presentation below gives some practical tips on how to address criticality in writing for assignments.

Download this video clip.Video player: Session 4, slidecast 1: Being critical in your assignments
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Transcript: Session 4, slidecast 1: Being critical in your assignments

Hello and welcome.
This slidecast will give you some useful tips on being critical in your assignments.
One of the most important skills you will need to learn as a postgraduate student, whatever your discipline, is the ability to think critically and objectively about an issue, and to present a well-constructed argument. Critical and analytical thinking skills such as these, will be essential to most aspects of your study, whether you are reading about a specific area, constructing arguments for your assignments, or contributing to academic debate.
We’ve covered some ground already in Session 3, so here we will be focusing mainly on critical analysis for written work. This should help you develop skills in presenting carefully-constructed arguments for your assignments. Argument here doesn’t mean disagreement. It simply means presenting a strong case to support a point of view. Good critical writing means using reasoning and evidence to support your view. The reading you undertake in preparation for your assignments will be more complex than in your undergraduate studies, and you will be expected to do more reading of different authors’ work and more independent thinking.
At Master’s level you are required to demonstrate your ability to evaluate theory and research evidence, so the focus will be on critical analysis. For this reason, it’s important to spend some time thinking about and planning what you are going to say before starting to write, whilst also being aware that your ideas may develop to some extent as you write.
A Master’s degree requires you to work independently to identify and select appropriate literature. You are required to critically review the literature - that means making sure you fully understand the theoretical points being made, and you will need to explore the literature for validity, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments put forward, and decide whether or not you agree with them. You’re also expected to be able to present your work to appropriate academic standards, cite your sources and use appropriate referencing styles such as the Harvard or Vancouver referencing systems.
Good critical analysis starts by ensuring you clearly understand the requirement of the assignment. You need to be clear about the focus at the start, and this means thinking critically about the requirements of the essay or report. In many cases the requirements will be specified as part of the task or assessment criteria, but you can always seek further clarification from your tutor or lecturer.
One of the first things you should consider is to identify the ‘work’ of others in the subject area that will be relevant to the focus of your assignment or report. Here, you will be looking at different applications of theory to the context that you’re studying, and questioning how that relates to your experience and practice. Where some form of enquiry has been carried out, you will be looking at the methodological decisions that have been made, and how these have impacted on the results as well as similarities or differences in sampling size, type of sampling and how the findings compare or contrast your own findings.
The next thing to think about would be to identify your own point of view. What exactly is your position on the subject matter? Which means you should have read the material relevant to your course and possibly accessed other resources.
Now, this may change as you read more widely and work through the assignment, but you should keep asking yourself this question while preparing your assignment, to help clarify your thinking and direct your reading. If this isn’t clear in your mind, then your writing will lack clarity and direction.
The aim of an argument is to persuade your reader of your position. Your point of view needs to be presented as a well-reasoned argument that leads to a conclusion based on evidence. Critical writing is really a line of reasoning; a set of reasons presented in the most convincing and logical order to support a conclusion; reasons that would persuade your readers or listeners- whether these are your tutors, fellow students or others.
There has to be a clear distinction of what is your view and what is the view of others. Citing other people’s work without an explanation of their view, and how that supports or contradicts your view would not be regarded as critical analysis.
As you read through and prepare for your assignment or report, it’s worth listing reasons why key ideas you’ve identified support your views and conclusions. A good argument is based on solid evidence, so you need to make sure that you have evidence that supports your conclusion. You also need to be aware of any arguments against your point of view. So you should be asking yourself the following questions: What evidence are these based on? Why are these alternative arguments less convincing? Clearly, good critical writing also depends upon good critical reading skills. Even if an author presents an argument that seems compelling, it’s important not to accept what is said without making a few checks first.
It’s not just about finding the evidence, but creatively using theories and cases presented to develop your arguments. So you are constantly asking: Are there different schools of thought about this subject matter? If so, what makes any of these convincing? And how does it relate to my work?
Once you’ve engaged in critical debate with the issues, and identified good reasoning to support your conclusion, the next step is to translate your ideas in a structured, cogent and balanced manner. Remember accurate referencing is very important at postgraduate level, so do bear that in mind.
Thanks for listening to this slidecast. We hope you found it useful.
End transcript: Session 4, slidecast 1: Being critical in your assignments
Session 4, slidecast 1: Being critical in your assignments
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