Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

3.2 Evidence of critical thinking in academic writing

You will now undertake a series of activities in which you will think about critical thinking in academic writing.

Activity 2 Anatomy of critical thinking: evidence of critical thinking in academic writing

Allow approximately 60 minutes

Consider the following three examples of academic writing. Each is a written response to the same question. Taking each in turn, consider the degree to which the example:

  1. shows evidence of critical thinking and depth of engagement with the subject matter
  2. presents a coherent and persuasive discourse
  3. follows appropriate academic convention expected at postgraduate level.

Explain your reasoning (you may wish to refer back to Section 3.1).

Example 1

Learning through face-to-face versus online (threaded) discussions: which is better?

My personal view is that face-to-face discussions are better, but this may be because I prefer to discuss issues and learn through speaking rather than writing, so this depends on students’ personal preferences. Face-to-face discussions are useful for immediate exchanges and are dynamic. Online discussions can afford greater time to reflect on topics (Meyer, 2003). Evidence does suggest that communicating online can improve learning to the same extent as face-to-face interaction. There are ways in which this can be improved further however, for example by directing learning to include problem-solving and integration of ideas, to develop higher-order thinking skills (Meyer, 2003).

References

Meyer, K.A. (2003) ‘Face-to-face versus threaded discussions: the role of time and higher-order thinking’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 55–65.

Example 2

Learning through face-to-face versus online (threaded) discussions: which is better?

Both are useful under different circumstances. Face-to-face interactions provide for ‘immediate and energetic exchanges’, whereas online discussions allow additional time to reflect on topics (Meyer, 2003). Their use depends on students’ personal preferences (Dutton, Dutton and Perry, 2002). For example, those who are working full-time may prefer online (threaded) discussions, as these fit better with the time they have available to engage with learning (i.e. outside of normal working hours) (Dutton, Dutton and Perry, 2002). There is evidence to suggest that communicating online can improve learning beyond face-to-face settings (Meyer, 2003; Edelstein and Edwards, 2002), but there is also further scope for developing directed learning through online discussions to include problem-solving, integration of ideas and develop higher-order thinking skills (Meyer, 2003).

References

Dutton, J., Dutton, M. and Perry, J. (2002) ‘How do online students differ from lecture students?’ Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1–20.
Edelstein, S. and Edwards, J. (2002) ‘If you build it, they will come: building learning communities through threaded discussions’, The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 5, no. 1 [Online]. Available at http://elearnmag.acm.org/ archive.cfm?aid=566829 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Accessed 11 April 2017).
Meyer, K. A. (2003) ‘Face-to-face versus threaded discussions: the role of time and higher-order thinking’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 55–65.

Example 3

Learning through face-to-face versus online (threaded) discussions: which is better?

There are advantages to holding discussions in either setting. Critics of online learning point to a perceived loss of ‘immediacy’ and dynamics (‘energy’) of learning typical of face-to-face interactions (Weinberger, 2002), but a study has found that using threaded discussions allowed students extra time to reflect on topics raised on their course, which they appreciated (Meyer, 2003). Another study found that the majority of online students (>80%) were employed and working on average 38 hours a week, whereas just over one half of those attending face-to-face sessions were in employment (working on average 20 hours per week) (Dutton, Dutton and Perry, 2002). Students generally find that one or the other format fits better with their lifestyle and with their preferred learning mode. Those who criticise learning through threaded discussions (e.g. Klemm, 2002) direct their criticism at pedagogic practices, rather than the online format itself. This highlights the need to develop frameworks for online discussions that will maximise interaction between students, course content and academic staff, to better facilitate learning within an online environment.

Spiceland and Hawkins (2002) consider interacting and communicating online to represent a form of ‘active’ learning. Edelstein and Edwards (2002) have proposed five categories for assessing student communication in online learning. These are:

  1. promptness and initiative (timely and consistent engagement)
  2. delivery (grammatical correctness of the post)
  3. relevance (of the post to the current discussion)
  4. expression (how well ideas are presented within the post)
  5. contributions to the learning community (contributions to the group discussion).

Newman, Webb and Cochrane (1995) found that students were more likely to make important statements and connections between ideas through online discussions, providing some evidence that threaded discussion can also help to improve critical thinking. Meyer (2003) showed that students can develop higher-order thinking skills and stay focused on tasks. Students also took care in preparing and posting their written responses (with very few grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors), which the author put down to ‘the greater public nature of the medium… lest their peers see and judge them on their writing skills’ (Meyer, 2003). While this latter assertion may well be speculative, the aforementioned studies do support the use of more directed learning through online discussions (e.g. problem-solving, integration of ideas and developing higher-order thinking skills).

References

Dutton, J., Dutton, M. and Perry, J. (2002) ‘How do online students differ from lecture students?’ Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1–20.
Edelstein, S. and Edwards, J. (2002) ‘If you build it, they will come: building learning communities through threaded discussions’, The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 5, no. 1 [Online]. Available at http://elearnmag.acm.org/ archive.cfm?aid=566829 (Accessed 11 April 2017).
Meyer, K. A. (2003) ‘Face-to-face versus threaded discussions: the role of time and higher-order thinking’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 55–65.
Newman, D. R., Webb, B. and Cochrane, C. (1995) ‘Content analysis method to measure critical thinking in face-to-face and computer-supported group learning’, Interpersonal Computing and Technology, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 56–77.
Spiceland, J. D. and Hawkins, C. P. (2002) ‘The impact on learning of an asynchronous course format’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 68–75.
Weinberger, D. (2002) ‘Small pieces loosely joined’, Cambridge, MA, Perseus Publishing.

Discussion

The assignment brief required you to consider the degree to which each example:

  1. shows evidence of critical thinking and depth of engagement with the subject matter
  2. presents a coherent and persuasive discourse
  3. follows appropriate academic convention expected at postgraduate level.

Firstly, it could be said that all three attempts followed academic convention. They demonstrate appropriate use of in-text citation, and have provided references (these are in defined format and consistent). In the third example, there is also an appropriate use of a quote, which is in context. Different disciplines may specify particular requirements, for example some would expect the page numbers to be provided, particularly when referring to a direct quote, and there were instances in all three examples where ‘ibid’ may have been used to save space and avoid duplication.

Let’s examine the evidence of critical thinking, the depth of engagement with the subject matter, and the overall coherence and persuasiveness of the answer.

Example 1: poor attempt

In this example, the author has tried to be succinct and shows some evidence of independent thought on the question at hand. The author takes the position that both online and face-to-face discussions may have benefits, but the choice is mainly about personal preference. However, at postgraduate level, greater depth (beyond your opinion) is required. The statement that ‘Evidence does suggest that communicating online can improve learning to the same extent as face-to-face interaction’ is used as part of the argument, without stating where the evidence has come from (i.e. it is not supported). Being able to draw on empirical evidence to support an argument or standpoint is crucial at postgraduate level, so that is a missed opportunity. A strong argument has not been put forward for the author’s personal preference either, as the response clearly acknowledges that both face-to-face discussions and online discussions are beneficial. The limited use of evidence, i.e. a reference to a single article (Meyer, 2003), indicates an over-reliance on a single source and suggests that the author has not read widely enough on the topic to make an informed judgement, hence going with personal preference, rather than basing arguments on evidence.

Example 2: intermediate attempt (needs more thought)

In Example 2, the author removes their personal view from the topic, and attempts to argue based on evidence by drawing on a study by Dutton et al. (2002) to highlight the importance of personal preference in the debate. The use of studies by Meyer (2003), and Edelstein and Edwards (2002), to develop the point about online communication demonstrate further reading around the topic, but does not actually add much value to the argument about merits of online over face-to-face discussions. Specifically, the author states that ‘There is evidence to suggest that communicating online can improve learning beyond face-to-face settings’, citing Meyer (2003), but has not gone into the nature of the evidence or explored this critically to add value to the argument. Overall, this is a better response compared to the answer in Example 1. It is a good starting point, demonstrating a wider reading and engagement with the subject matter, but there is clear scope to improve on this, and develop a persuasive and critical argument.

Example 3: good in parts (on the right track)

In the third example, the author clearly demonstrates wider reading on the subject matter (comparable to the previous two examples), and draws on evidence from several sources to support their reasoning in the answer. There is good evidence of critical thought, and contrasting views have been considered and are cited (although these could also have been explored in greater depth). However, the focus (coherence) and persuasiveness of the argument needs some thought. The second paragraph reads a lot like a synthesis (or descriptive notes). The argument should be more focused. It is clear from the evidence cited that lifestyle does affect preference for the mode of discussion (face-to-face versus online), so it would have been prudent to analyse this further, identifying and evaluating what other factors might influence choice. The question requires an analysis of the two learning modes (online versus face-to-face), so the line of arguments could, for instance, have included: ‘work patterns influencing choice (e.g. part-time versus full-time employment, shift work etc.)’, ‘pedagogic influences (critical thinking etc.)’, and ‘technology’, considering advantages and limitations for each mode, and identifying any gaps in knowledge that could impact on the overall judgement. The response is on the right path and should be developed further.

SPS_1

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