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Academic Writing: Critical Thinking & Writing

Critical Thinking

One of the most important features of studying at university is the expectation that you will engage in thinking critically about your subject area. 

Critical thinking involves asking meaningful questions concerning the information, ideas, beliefs, and arguments that you will encounter. It requires you to approach your studies with a curious, open mind, discard preconceptions, and interrogate received knowledge and established practices.

Critical thinking is key to successfully expressing your individuality as an independent learner and thinker in an academic context. It is also a valuable life skill. 

Critical thinking enables you to:

  • Evaluate information, its validity and significance in a particular context.
  • Analyse and interpret evidence and data in response to a line of enquiry.
  • Weigh-up alternative explanations and arguments.
  • Develop your own evidence-based and well-reasoned arguments.
  • Develop well-informed viewpoints.
  • Formulate your own independent, justifiable ideas.
  • Actively engage with the wider scholarship of your academic community.

Writing Critically

Being able to demonstrate and communicate critical thinking in your written assignments through critical writing is key to achieving academic success. 

Critical writing can be distinguished from descriptive writing which is concerned with conveying information rather than interrogating information. Understanding the difference between these two styles of academic writing and when to use them is important.

The balance between descriptive writing and critical writing will vary depending on the nature of the assignment and the level of your studies. Some level of descriptive writing is generally necessary to support critical writing. More sophisticated criticality is generally required at higher levels of study with less descriptive content. You will continue to develop your critical writing skills as you progress through your course.

Descriptive Writing and Critical Writing

Descriptive writing demonstrates the knowledge you have of a subject, and your knowledge of what other people say about that subject.  Descriptive writing often responds to questions framed as ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘when’.

Descriptive writing might include the following:

  • Description of what something is or what it is about (an account, facts, observable features, details): a topic, problem, situation, or context of the subject under discussion.
  • Description of where it takes place (setting and context), who is involved and when it occurs. 
  • Re-statement or summary of what others say about the topic.
  • Background facts and information for a discussion.

Description usually comes before critical content so that the reader can understand the topic you are critically engaging with.

Critical writing requires you to apply interpretation, analysis, and evaluation to the descriptions you have provided. Critical writing often responds to questions framed as ‘how’ or ‘why’. Often, critical writing will require you to build an argument which is supported by evidence. 

Some indicators of critical writing are:

  • Investigation of positive and negative perspectives on ideas
  • Supporting ideas and arguments with evidence, which might include authoritative sources, data, statistics, research, theories, and quotations
  • Balanced, unbiased appraisal of arguments and counterarguments/alternative viewpoints
  • Honest recognition of the limitations of an argument and supporting evidence
  • Plausible, rational, convincing, and well-reasoned conclusions 

Critical writing might include the following:

  • Applying an idea or theory to different situations or relate theory to practice. Does the idea work/not work in practice? Is there a factor that makes it work/not work? For example: 'Smith's (2008) theory on teamwork is effective in the workplace because it allows a diverse group of people with different skills to work effectively'.
  • Justifying why a process or policy exists. For example: 'It was necessary for the nurse to check the patient's handover notes because...'
  • Proposing an alternative approach to view and act on situations. For example: 'By adopting a Freirian approach, we could view the student as a collaborator in our teaching and learning'. Or: 'If we had followed the NMC guidelines we could have made the patient feel calm and relaxed during the consultation'.
  • Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of an idea/theory/policy. Why does this idea/theory/policy work? Or why does this idea not work? For example: 'Although Smith's (2008) theory on teamwork is useful for large teams, there are challenges in applying this theory to teams who work remotely'. 
  • Discussion of how the idea links to other ideas in the field (synthesis). For example: 'the user experience of parks can be greatly enhanced by examining Donnelly's (2009) customer service model used in retail’.
  • Discussion of how the idea compares and contrasts with other ideas/theories. For example: ‘The approach advocated by the NMC differs in comparison because of factor A and factor C’.
  • Discussion of the ‘’up-to-datedness” and relevance of an idea/theory/policy (its currency). For example: 'although this approach was successful in supporting the local community, Smith's model does not accommodate the needs of a modern global economy'. 
  • Evaluating an idea/theory/policy by providing evidence-informed judgment. For example: 'Therefore, May's delivery model should be discontinued as it has created significant issues for both customers and staff (Ransom, 2018)'.
  • Creating new perspectives or arguments based on knowledge. For example: 'to create strong and efficient buildings, we will look to the designs provided by nature. The designs of the Sydney Opera House are based on the segments of an orange (Cook, 2019)'. 

Further Reading