Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Succeeding in postgraduate study

2 Getting to grips with critical thinking

In this section, you will be considering a written extract taken from a published article, and listening to a conversation that evaluates the extract and some related information. You will then be presented with three separate statements using different examples of writing and will have to decide which of the examples presents a more convincing argument, and explain your reasons why.

Activity 1 Getting to grips with critical thinking

Allow approximately 60 minutes

The extract below is taken from the article by Chase, Sui and Blair (2008a), published in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education. First read this extract and then listen to the audio recording that follows.

Swimming, water jogging, and aqua aerobics are excellent aerobic activities that might provide health benefits to the general population, as well as patients with chronic disease such as heart failure (Schmid et al., 2007). Aquatic exercises might be preferred over other forms of aerobic activity for people who have arthritis, diabetes, disabilities, or excess weight (Lin, Davey, and Cochrane, 2004). Most studies on physical activity and health have included aerobic activities such as walking, jogging, and aerobics classes, but few such studies have included swimming as an exposure. It is important to understand how or if swimming and other types of physical activity are related and how they relate to health outcomes. Therefore, the goal of this study was to evaluate the characteristics of participants in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study (ACLS) and to compare the health habits and physiological characteristics of swimmers, runners, walkers, and sedentary women and men. Our principal purpose was to evaluate whether regular swimming is comparable to other aerobic activities in terms of beneficial health outcomes.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Session 8 Activity 1 audio
Skip transcript: Session 8 Activity 1 audio

Transcript: Session 8 Activity 1 audio

Payam Rezaie
So we’re going to be looking at this paper by a group of researchers from the University of South Carolina. They published this article in 2008, and the title of the article is ‘Comparison of the health aspects of swimming with other types of physical activity and sedentary lifestyle habits’. What they set out to achieve was to evaluate whether regular swimming is comparable to other aerobic activities in terms of beneficial health outcomes. It’s quite an important paper in the sense that it’s looking at exercise and the effect on health outcome, and in particular looking at swimming, and whether it has any advantages over other forms of aerobic exercise on health.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
So what we’ve picked up is an extract from the Introduction of this paper, and what we were trying to do is to be as discursive as possible. Our aim is to unpack the article, which is available for you to read – the full piece, if you’re interested in – we’ve given you links to that. But we’ll start off by looking at the introductory piece, which is the extract that we’ve included in this short exercise. And, I found it quite interesting in terms of the introduction, where and I quote, it says ‘Swimming, water jogging and aqua aerobics are excellent aerobic activities that might provide health benefits to the general population, as well as patients with chronic disease such as heart failure.’ So, as soon as I saw this statement, I thought ‘Wow! That is a really, really, really broad statement to make, so I need to unpack this’. The first thing that came to me was to do a follow-up, in terms of find out what this Schmid et al. 2007 paper talks about. Because they’re using it as a way of substantiating this huge claim that they’re making with regards to swimming, water jogging and aqua aerobics being excellent activities. So, I did a bit of digging out to find out what this paper actually looked at. And quite fascinating for me was that Schmid’s paper doesn’t actually make any form of association of swimming with any of these diseases. Schmid et al.’s paper was actually looking at issues around heart failure. So for me, that judgement – the judgement call here is that I would have expected a range of papers, or a range of studies to have been cited in order to actually substantiate this huge claim that is being made. And that’s one of the things that I’ll be looking out for in any critical evaluation of any academic paper that I’m sort of looking at.
Payam Rezaie
The paper that you’re referring to is included in the reference list. The paper itself is open access, so you should be able to access it via the link that we’ve given you, and you can look at the actual contents of the paper yourself. The Schmid paper, when I was looking at this, I thought it would be a review, you know – it covers all the chronic diseases and heart failure and everything else, and it shows some indication that swimming, water jogging, aqua aerobics are excellent aerobic activities, but Schmid et al. only looked at heart failure, and I suppose that’s what qualifies it. So for me, that was a bit of a generalisation from the authors, you know, exactly as you said. The second point, if you carry on reading the second sentence, is talking about aquatic exercises might be preferred over other forms of aerobic activity for people who have arthritis, diabetes, disabilities – it doesn’t really generalise what disabilities those are - or excess weight. So, in a similar way, we looked at the Lin, Davey and Cochrane, and what do they show?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Well I mean again, it’s one that, even before I go into that, as soon as I saw ‘disabilities’ I’m thinking what type of disabilities? I mean this is a huge spectrum, and citing just one paper? I mean before I even went to look out for what that paper said, I just wondered what type of study would have actually covered this spectrum to make this sort of association?
Payam Rezaie
Lin, Davey and Cochrane were looking at osteoarthritis. Older adults with osteoarthritis of the lower limb, and it’s a clinical trial. So it wasn’t certainly, you know, as broad as made out here. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many studies. There are good aspects to this as well, because we find out that this study’s a longitudinal study, and it compares the health habits and characteristics of swimmers, runners, walkers and sedentary women and men. Overall, that’s a pretty good thing. So, going to the discussion, we know their outcome, what they set out to do. Their discussion starts off with the sentence ‘The principal findings of this report are that all types of physical activity have similar health benefits compared with a sedentary lifestyle.’ Is that surprising?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
No, not surprising at all. So, then I go back to myself again, say OK, so let’s look at the research questions, and probably what may have been the motivation for this research in the first place. That drove me to say ‘Ok. Let me look at what the conclusions are, because very often that gives you an idea of where these authors probably maybe are leading to. Interestingly it says “Our results show that swimming appears to have health benefits similar to those of running and generally was more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle.” But we’ve just said that, they said – can you read that again for us?
Payam Rezaie
“The principal findings of this report are that all types of physical activity have similar health benefits compared with a sedentary lifestyle.”
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
But they’ve changed this slightly now. So, I begin to ask myself, is their motivation for this paper, because now they’re saying that it may have more benefits than walking.
Payam Rezaie
Alright. So “Our results show” – this is under Conclusions – “that swimming appears to have health benefits similar to those of running, and generally was more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle.” OK. And then they also say in the conclusion, I’ve just read the first sentence, that “Swimming might provide a healthful alternative to traditional modes of exercise”. What do you consider to be a ‘traditional mode of exercise’? Is swimming not a ‘traditional’ mode of exercise?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Well, probably, maybe it depends on your socio-economic status, because I agree, I mean I don’t know what would be classified as a ‘traditional’ mode of exercise, and what wouldn’t. Probably maybe golf, isn’t a ‘traditional’ mode of exercise?
Payam Rezaie
But I don’t think they looked at golf in this study. I’m pretty sure they didn’t look at golf! They’re looking at running, walking, and swimming, so I’m getting a little bit confused here, and I mean preceding the conclusion, they talk about the “principal strength of this study” – with which I agree - “is the large population that we observed”, and the extensive dataset running over more than 30 years. That’s a considerable amount of time! Looking at the funding for this study, I saw that it’s the National Swimming Pool Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health – and they’ve got health grants to do it. OK. Maybe the reasons why there aren’t so many studies in this area are because it’s difficult to get funding. Or, on the other hand, maybe the fact that they are getting funded has had some sort of impact or influence on the way they are presenting their paper. So, could that have been something that…..
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Yeah, that could have been an issue. And that is one of the reasons why it’s very, very important that we look at issues of generalisability. So, I’d often go back and look at some of their findings, and whether the methodology or the sample that has been selected – that’s kind of passed the ‘test’ of generalisability. And interestingly, the authors in the last paragraph of their discussion have made it clear, and they do recognise that. And that is another very important facet of academic studies or primary studies. That we have to make sure that we clearly identify any constraints that there may be with regards to a study. And in the last but one sentence it makes it clear that “Results must be generalised with caution because the population includes few members of minority groups and comes from relatively high socio-economic strata”, but a concern of mine is the sentence doesn’t read well to me, because I’d rather want to see that the results are ‘not’ generalisable. Mainly because of where it’s been drawn from. So again, it’s the writing style that has probably got me here, because it’s got limited generalisability, because of the sample and for some of the reasons that they’ve identified. Even the reasons they’ve identified, I’m sure that a lot of people will have something to say about that, because it’s not just about people with socio-economic status.
Payam Rezaie
Well it’s certainly not the only aspect to look at. I’m still concerned – I’m still held up with what is deemed a ‘traditional’ form of exercise and what isn’t………
This was a study done about eight years ago now, and time has passed. What have the authors done subsequently, in terms of research, and where has this particular research been followed up? Has anyone else done anything in this area?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
It’s quite interesting you’re raising that point, because again, as I grappled with trying to get my head around the way the evidence has been interpreted, I said to myself, ‘OK. Probably, maybe we should find out whether further studies have been done’, because in typical academic fashion, if you look at the last sentence of the conclusion, it says “Future prospective research is needed to further compare the health benefits of swimming with those of other forms of activity”. So I said, ‘OK. I know that’s what you set out to find out in the first place, but maybe you weren’t able to do it this first time around’. So probably, maybe there’ll be future studies or further studies by this same group, looking at the amount of data they’ve got, if work has been done in this area. Interestingly, another paper popped up from these same authors, in the same journal, in the next issue to the one that this paper was published in, and that paper is titled “Swimming and all-cause mortality risk compared with running, walking and sedentary habits in men”. But what struck me in that paper was part of the introduction, where they cite the first paper. And the difficulty I have is that in this second paper, they’re making claims that they were not able to substantiate in the first paper. It reads, and I quote “Swimming, water jogging and aqua aerobics are lifetime physical activities for many people. We have previously shown that swimming provides health benefits comparable to those from walking and running.” In the first paper, they were not able to establish this, so I found it surprising that they’re now making this sort of claim. And the only source of evidence is the paper that was published in the previous issue. So, I’m still not sure what their initial research question is, and whether they’ve attempted to answer the research question, and where that takes us really.
Payam Rezaie
What stands out for me is their conclusion from their previous paper, which says that “Our results show that swimming appears to have health benefits similar to those of running and generally was more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle”. So, without a really closer examination of what they’ve actually shown in terms of data that they have provided, it’s at the moment quite a moot point whether swimming has any advantages, but all exercise is beneficial over a sedentary lifestyle. So, there’s some inconsistency or difficulties in the way that the results are being presented. It requires a deeper analysis. One way of looking at this, in terms of who has published since, or what work has been done, because it’s clearly an under-researched area, is to look at the citations. How many times other authors have cited these papers. And you can do this on Google Scholar. So, if you type in the keywords, or the title of the papers, or the authors, it comes up with these two articles. You can see that their papers have been cited 12 times and 17 times, which is not a lot, but more importantly you need to investigate where, and who has cited these papers. And interestingly, one of these turns out to be a systematic review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that looked at quite a lot of studies. They looked at 26 different sport disciplines, and all published work, and this is a recent review published in 2015, which included the one paper that we’re talking about, and what they concluded was that evidence for health benefits of sport disciplines other than football and running was either ‘inconclusive’ or ‘tenuous’. They go on to say that the evidence for health benefits of specific sports disciplines, other than football and running “is generally compromised by weak study design and quality”. They don’t say limited information. They’re talking very specifically here about weak study design and quality, and that for me, would trigger me to go back and look at the study design, and investigate in more depth the data and analysis that was presented by Nancy and colleagues.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
That’s true for this paper. The second paper interestingly was cited in a White Paper. These are usually commissioned by government authorities in terms of trying to establish policy really, and this paper was selected as one of the papers that was sort of considered. And the White Paper was mainly around physical inactivity and obesity. So very often you find out that yes, these policy makers would draw on some of these papers. I mean, we were not part of the team that selected the papers for the White Paper, but it’s obvious from my own little bit of research that I’ve done since we started to look at this paper, there’s limited work in this area. So it’s quite scanty and we will always commend colleagues who’ve done this work. For bringing it to the forefront of research. So that’s one of the good things that you get from primary studies. Because very often policy makers have to rely on empirical work conducted in Universities and Research Institutes to formulate their own ideas.
Payam Rezaie
So, it’s understandable if there’s not enough information out there. But given that eight years have passed, and more extensive studies are saying it’s inconclusive, where do we go from here? Two other papers that cited this follow-up had interesting headlines.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
OK?
Payam Rezaie
One of them was “Swimming in the USA. Beach-goer characteristics and health outcomes at US marine and freshwater beaches”.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
OK.
Payam Rezaie
And I couldn’t really immediately find the association between beach-goers and aerobic exercise in a swimming pool…. but the second one, the title really struck me, was “Can Polish University female students swim?” And I’m not sure how relevant that is, to the actual article that I’ve just read.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Yeah. It’s very important that you’ve raised this issue of relevance. Because that’s what we often advise students to think about, and it goes back to even the Schmid et al. paper we talked about earlier on. How relevant is that study to the argument or the case that they were trying to build, and it’s very, very important that you get a grasp of that. Don’t just go by straplines or headlines or titles of papers. It’s very, very important that you actually pick the paper, first of all at least look at the methodology. Make sure that it’s in line with what you’re studying or it sheds a new form, new light in terms of what you are actually investigating. You also want to look at the findings. And probably, maybe in this particular case we’ve not fully interrogated the research design, but at least you want to look at the findings and the discussion. Because that is where you’re able to form an opinion, and that’s where your independent thoughts come in. You have to start applying your own independent understanding to what the authors or what the researchers have found out. And then, finally look at the conclusions they’re drawing from the findings. And that is where you’ll be able to pick up what is relevant to your study or your assignment, and what’s not relevant. You can’t just go for straplines and I think this is a classic example that anybody would struggle to find, the sort of relevance to this piece of work.
Payam Rezaie
Yes, well I’m not even going to answer that question. “Can Polish University female students swim?” Anyone who wants to have a look at that paper are welcome to go and look at that, but I wouldn’t recommend it at this time……
So, we’ve covered how to go about the process. How to evaluate a particular piece of information. How to dig deeper, go behind that to the primary sources, because that’s essential. There’s nothing wrong with reading reviews, but it’s really important to go to the primary sources so you can come to your own decision about a particular point of view. As you’ve said, not just pick up the headline and use this and refer, cross-refer to a source. So, what are assessors going to look for in you demonstrating your evidence of critical thinking, in the way you communicate? Well, communicating in writing, because a lot of assignments that you do at Master’s level are written assignments. This can be an essay, a critical review, or it can be your extended project or dissertation as part of your Masters. Evidence that assessors are going to be looking for is the depth of evaluation. How widely you have read around a particular subject. How much, exactly as we’ve been doing, you’ve probed into the topic area and looked at different perspectives, not just gone with one popular or a particular opinion article, but looked at different perspectives. What about other points?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Most programmes will also look out for your ability to communicate your ideas effectively, so structure, cogency, all these things come into play. Language is one of the key things that will come up every now and then, and we do know that students do fall short of that in terms of academic English or academic writing, and that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to look at, and help you in earlier sessions of this course. Another thing that most assessors will be trying to look at, especially with degrees where they’ve probably maybe described it as an applied degree, is your ability to transfer the ideas that have been introduced, or you’ve been introduced to in a course, to your own professional setting or personal experience. And that is where your critical reflection comes in, and your reflective practice ideas come in, and I think we’ve taken you through these in earlier sessions. But what is very, very important is for you to be able to translate the theoretical ideas that you’re coming across, and one of the ways to do that, or one of the approaches that can help you is mind maps, which we’ve introduced you to. So as you read through these papers, you have to start picking out the key ideas that are influencing your understanding, and the key ideas that are influencing your practice. Start mapping them together, and then begin to see how they actually play out in the real world of work, which is your experience professionally, or beyond your professional context. And in your writing you should be able to demonstrate how these ideas have influenced or changed your thinking, or changed your practice, and that is one of the things that most assessors will be looking out for.
Payam Rezaie
Just coming back to the depth of knowledge, I think it’s important to highlight not only the fact that you have a good understanding of the subject - you’ve gone through the research, and picked out all the papers, and sorted through them, made sure that the relevant information is included in your work; but also that you identify gaps in, where there are gaps in the knowledge. Because that shows your independent enquiry, which was what I was going to discuss next really. What does ‘originality’ and ‘insight’ mean? Because in a lot of assignments, you know, that’s one of the assessment criteria. How do you evaluate ‘insight’ or ‘originality’ in a piece of work?
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
Well I mean most assessors will look for originality in the sense that they want students to be able to apply their own thinking to some of the issues that are raised in general publications or pieces of work that they probably engage with or read. One of the things you’d want to do is to be able to go beyond what you read, so how you demonstrate insight is your ability to select pieces of work that’re directly related to your piece of work and taking it the next step. Demonstrating that you’re actually going beyond what most will do.
Payam Rezaie
So we’re not born with insight then. You’ll have to go and look for it. You have to gain insight……..
You’ve done all the work, you’ve been critical, you’ve got the relevant sources, but you need to communicate it in a way that demonstrates your critical thinking. ‘Originality’ or a better way of saying it ‘independent thought’ - your thoughts - and your ability to make an informed judgement based on the sources that you’ve got hold of, and you’re presenting. And of course, then comes the presentation. How you put it across. The critical analysis comes out through how you communicate, so the person who doesn’t know you, and has never met you, can find out from the way you have presented or communicated, how exactly you’ve gone about engaging with the literature and putting this into a framework that you present to show evidence of critical thinking, evaluating, supporting your claims or your argument very clearly. And you show insight in the way that you can identify gaps. Gaps that you think haven’t been addressed, as we talked about here – there were very few studies on swimming, but there have been some other studies. Well, maybe we could follow those up.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
And that’s in a nutshell, is what will be required. And most assessment criteria for your assignments will cover all the issues that we’ve raised.
Payam Rezaie
We hope that’s given you a picture on how to go about not only developing critical and analytical thinking, but applying it when you come to look at various sources of information.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
One of the key things that you have to be able to pick up from our discussion is that it’s a process. It takes time. We don’t expect you to understand all this overnight. It’s very, very important to tap into communities - tap into academic communities, tap into professional communities - where you get the opportunity to discuss some of these publications. Where you get the opportunity to rehearse your arguments, and in online programmes like ours, forums that are always open for you to be able to engage with academics and not be afraid to debate. Again, as we’ve said, critical thinking or critical evaluation is not about just disagreeing. It’s mainly about using evidence, things that you’ve read, to formulate arguments that you actually put forward for others to also critique.
Payam Rezaie
Absolutely. I mean, other students can have different perspectives - just like we’re talking about this - we actually agreed on a lot of this stuff.
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
But we don’t always agree!
Payam Rezaie
I don’t know about that!
But I think something we can agree on is exercise. Exercise is good, and you should do it! And it’s good for health, so get out there, and do whatever you prefer to do best. They’re all equally important!
Eric Addae-Kyeremeh
They’re all equally important - that’s the key message - the benefits are mutual.
End transcript: Session 8 Activity 1 audio
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Session 8 Activity 1 audio
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

We have included the supporting information explored in the audio below, to review should you wish. (You can listen to the entire audio first and review the supporting information afterwards, or you can pause the audio at specific points, review the supporting information, and return to the recording again, if you prefer. Please choose whichever option suits you best.)

Supporting information

  • In the opening sentence of their discussion (Chase, Sui and Blair 2008a, p. 158), the authors state:

    ‘The principal findings of this report are that all types of physical activity have similar health benefits compared with a sedentary lifestyle. Swimming and running had the same health benefits even though there were a few differences between swimmers and runners.’

  • Towards the end of the discussion (p. 159), they state:

    ‘The principal strength of this study is the large population that we observed and the extensive database of the ACLS, which has been developed over more than 30 years.’

  • At the end of the discussion (p. 159), they state:

    ‘The study also has limitations. Results must be generalised with caution because the population includes few members of minority groups and comes from relatively high socio-economic strata. Because this was a cross-sectional study, we cannot make causal inference from the results.’

  • In their conclusion (p. 159), they state:

    ‘In conclusion, swimming might provide a healthful alternative to traditional modes of exercise… for the general population, as well as for patients suffering from chronic diseases… Our results show that swimming appears to have health benefits similar to those of running and generally was more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle.’

  • The authors published a second article in 2008, which appeared in the next issue of the same journal (Chase, Sui and Blair, 2008b). In the introduction to their second article (p. 214) the authors referred to their previous study, stating that:

    ‘Swimming, water jogging, and aqua aerobics are lifetime physical activities for many people. We have previously shown that swimming provides health benefits comparable to those from walking and running.’ (Chase, Sui and Blair, 2008b)

  • The acknowledgements section for both articles noted that the research ‘was supported by the National Swimming Pool Foundation and National Institutes of Health Grants’. No financial disclosures were declared.
  • A search for both articles on Google Scholar (October 2016) indicated that their first publication had been cited 12 times, and their second a total of 17 times.
  • Their first article had been cited by a systematic review and meta-analysis on the ‘Health benefits of different sport disciplines for adults…’, published by Oja et al. (2015) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The abstract makes it clear that the aim was ‘to assess the quality and strength of evidence for the health benefits of specific sports disciplines’. It goes on to state that moderately strong and conditional evidence supported the health benefits of running and football, but that ‘Evidence for health benefits of other sport disciplines was either inconclusive or tenuous. The evidence base for the health benefits of specific sports disciplines is generally compromised by weak study design and quality.’

If you wish to read further, you can access the full texts of the articles by Chase, Sui and Blair (open access), and the abstract of the article by Oja et al. (2015) via the links provided below:

Discussion

The following questions should prompt you to reflect further on this activity:

  • Is the declaration that ‘Swimming, water jogging, and aqua aerobics are excellent aerobic activities’ an unsupported assertion in your view?
  • In the Extract (introduction) they state that their participants were from the ‘Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study (ACLS)’ (spanning over three decades), but it emerges from reading their Discussion that the study they are actually reporting on is a cross-sectional study, and that the authors ‘cannot make causal inference from the results’ because of this. Have they been clear about communicating their study design and considering other limitations?
  • Could the fact that the research was partly sponsored by the National Swimming Pool Association have influenced the way the findings have been communicated? Would this affect your own judgement in any way?
SPS_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus