Ian Wells explains critical thinking and critical reading skills in terms of what is expected from you at university.
Critical thinking skills
I think one of the hardest things that you’ll find when you first get to university and the big change from doing A-levels or any study before university is, actually university tutors aren’t really looking for you just to repeat bits of information in your essays. You often see tutors say to you, ‘If I just wanted to read my lecture notes again, I’d go and read my lecture notes’. But what they really want you to do is to take the material that they’ve presented to you but then for you to think about it and say, ‘How does this fit together with the stuff I already know? Does this particular idea make sense? Are there problems with this idea?’ ‘Does it maybe work in some areas but not in others?’ It’s that additional bit of critical thinking about the stuff that’s been presented to you that really separates what you might have already done at school and college and then what you’re going to do at university. That’s the stuff, if you can start to get used to doing that, that really will boost your marks as you get into the second and third year because, by the time you get there, that’s what the tutors are looking for – those critical thinking skills.
The big thing that you need to remember to do when you start reading anything when you’re at university is always try and be reading with a purpose. The easiest way to do that is to have a question in mind that you want to answer while you’re doing that reading and while you’re reading, think about that question. Once you’ve answered it, move on to the next thing, because it’s so easy, especially when you start in the first year at university, to get distracted by all this new material. Just read and read and read and read. Unless you’ve got a purpose, and unless you’re trying to fit that into what you already know and want to learn, you can end up getting overrun by the volume of reading being thrown at you. Sometimes what you can find is that you’ll speak to other students who might have read half as much as you have but have done twice as well because what they’ve done is they’ve targeted their reading and they’ve thought about ‘What do I want to get out of this reading?’ before they start. I think that makes a really, really big difference.
Critical thinking and critical reading
Ian Wells gives useful advice on demonstrating and developing critical skills in your writing.
Demonstrating critical thinking skills
The way to try and demonstrate in your writing that you actually have thought critically about the work is, to be able to show that here’s a particular piece of work I’ve looked at, and here’s a reference to that, but then to be able to say but actually other people have suggested other possible approaches to this and, again, being able to cite those other approaches as well. So you’re demonstrating not only that you’ve thought about it but you’ve actually taken the views of different parts of your discipline’s literature into account. It is that process of being able to cite information from across the literature that’s really important to you being able to demonstrate to your tutors that you’ve actually thought about the material that’s being presented to you.
Developing your critical thinking skills
I think one of the best things you can do to start developing these skills for yourself is actually outside of your lectures - while you’re sitting and watching the news or reading the newspaper on the tube into the university every day - is to not just read a story and go, ‘Oh right, okay’, and move onto the next story but actually think about, ‘Does that story make sense?’. When you see something which says, ‘A survey says people believe X, Y and Z’, hopefully the first question you’ll be asking is, ‘What were the questions they actually asked in that survey?’ It’s that sort of understanding, if you can start to question information that’s presented to you, actually that will translate into your studies. The ironic thing is that actually, most of the time, students do that out in the real world anyway. One of my colleagues was saying to me the other day, ‘Actually if I said to a student, oh there’s this website where you can get flights to America for £25, you just have to type your credit card number in, students would immediately go, I’m not doing that, that’s obviously a con’. And yet, if you can take that sort of understanding and translate that into your study at university when you’re reading lecture material, when you’re reading journal articles, that will come out in demonstrating your critical thinking skills.
One of the things that’ll really help when you’re actually working on your first assignments is to think about, ‘Where is this information coming from?’ One of the sorts of clichés that lecturers will always come out to you with is, ‘Don’t use Wikipedia when you’re looking for information’. Now, the reasoning behind that is actually anybody can type anything on Wikipedia. You’ve got no way of knowing where that information has come from, and that’s - when you begin to think about that - a perfectly straightforward idea. You know, you wouldn’t take advice on lung cancer research from a tobacco company. And if you can start to translate that into your studies and think about, ‘Okay, where is this information coming from?’ it will translate into you being able to do the critical thinking and it making a real difference to your marks.
Developing your critical skills
Christian Richter highlights the types of writing expected in the Royal Docks Business School and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
What is subject specific to the Business School, is that we are dealing with social data and social theories. So the first one amounts into quantitative analysis again, the second one about theories on social – human – behaviour, and that has certain implications for the writing style. Concerning your writing, that implies you have to summarise, review, discuss theories in various forms on how humans behave, and that is what we are doing in the Business School or, in a wider sense, in Social Sciences in general. So we do not have, like in Sciences, experiments or experimental data. We are dealing with the social side of human behaviour. The most important way to analyse human behaviour is to write essays, reports and exams, and this is what we ask you to do and this is what we practise right from the beginning.
Advice and common mistakes
As you are in university now, you have to get used to the academic writing style. So there’s a difference between the academic writing style and, maybe, the style you used in school. The point is it has to be evidence-based. So it’s not about what I believe, what I think. It is about what other people discuss, what other people have thought, and how you discuss and evaluate what other people have done. This is usually undervalued when it comes to essay writing, especially at the beginning. So every essay contains a critical literature review and the critical literature review again is not just summarising the literature, it is about discussing and reviewing the existing literature to the specific topic you are covering in your essay.
You will get most of the support in the skills module, in particular in the tutorials. So do not underestimate the importance of attending the tutorial regularly. In the tutorial you will discuss with your tutor how to write essays. Remember that on the university’s Virtual Learning Environment there are lots of learning materials on the (skills) module’s page that help you develop your writing skills.
Writing in Royal Docks Business School
Augustina Akoto highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Law and Social Sciences and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
In law, your primary form of assessment will be either coursework or written exams. And in both your coursework and your written exams you’ll tend to be writing in two types of distinct categories. So you’ll be asked to answer essay questions and problem questions.
Your essay questions tend to be less structured than, say, your problem questions will be. So with your essay questions it’s very important for you to understand what the question is asking you and to make sure you reflect that in your answer. So again, what you will need to have is familiarity with the legal terminology, the legal words and phrases and how to use those properly, and formal language is the key here. You have to be very formal in your written expression in these kinds of situations because that is what is going to be expected of you. And that is how you are going to get your marks.
For answering problem questions, what you will find is that it’s a more structured answer. So what you will have are fact scenarios and what you will do is, through those fact scenarios, identify the relevant area of the law and you will apply the law to those fact scenarios. So then again, what you’ll have within that problem question is a number of scenarios which you’ll be asked to address and again, through your knowledge of the law, through the cases and the statutes that you’ll be learning, you’ll have to answer those questions. But that’s a more focussed piece of writing, because it’s not asking for so much analysis as you would get in an essay question. So it’s more focussed and in a way it’s more structured.
Advice and common mistakes
I think the key thing to remember especially when you’re starting your degree and I think something that sometimes when you’re starting your degree you can be a bit intimidating and overwhelmed and you think gosh, ‘I’m doing law so I need to know all these huge legal words which I don’t have no … or limited understanding of’. That’s not the case. What you will find is the more you read, the more you become familiar with the legal terminology and the more it becomes part of your daily use of the language.
I think the key is again, when you are, for instance, looking at your coursework, very carefully read what is being asked for you to do. I mean, I think the things is people can sometimes skip very important parts of what the assessment is asking them to do and thereby, unfortunately, can lead to answering the question incorrectly and thereby losing them marks on occasion. It’s very important that you read carefully your coursework questions and also the supplementary instructions. So, things like, referencing properly, and proofreading your work is very important as well because often your first draft isn’t going to be your best draft.
You will obviously, clearly, once you come to start your classes, you will have your seminar tutor there. And your seminar tutor is there to help you, especially in your first year, introducing you to legal skills and particularly into looking at legal writing and how you can improve that. So your first port of call should be your seminar tutor. You could equally also go to the Module Leader for that particular course and your Module Leader again is there to help you. So if you’ve got any questions or queries, do again go and speak to the Module Leader.
For law, we have this textbook which we use. It’s called ‘Legal Skills’ by Finch and Fafinski. And it’s a very detailed and comprehensive textbook and one of the advantages I think of this textbook is it has an online resource centre which has a link there on the back for you. And it has a variety of things there that can help you. So it has self-assessment tests, it has video clips of various skills that you will need to acquire throughout your course. It has exercises and further examples to help you develop on the work that you’ve done. Also it has explanation of a lot of the terms that you’re going to come across, and how you can access further
Writing in LSS - Law
Syd Jeffers highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Law and Social Sciences and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
The reason why writing would be important to you as a student coming to UEL and doing our degree is, I suppose, the same reason it would be important to any student studying because you’ll be assessed on the quality of your writing largely. The types of writing you have to do in our field, doing Sociology, Social Enterprise, Innovation, will be normally essays. The default would be a kind of 2,000 word academic essay. You know, beginning, middle and end and references and that’s the norm. You may get to do something a bit more exotic but that would be few and far between. So you might have to do a write-up or an evaluation or a book review but 90% of the time it would be the 2,000 word essay.
Advice and common mistakes
The thing that would get you a 2:1 or better is argument. That’s really what we’re looking for. Well-referenced, well-written, comprehensive surveys will get you a 2:2 at best if they’re done really well. What we’re really looking for and what’s really important is an argument. The things that students sometimes do which cause great frustration and will get them 57, 58, 59%, are they’ll say at the beginning they’re going to do A, B, C and D before they can answer the question, and it’s a bit like a magical mystery tour. They say, ‘We’re gonna go here, we’re gonna go somewhere else, we’re gonna go somewhere else’ but they don’t tell you why.
Academic writing is unlike normal writing in that, just because you say it’s the case doesn’t make it so. So you need to back up what you’re saying with evidence and the golden rule is, and this is really important general advice, is anytime you make an assertion of fact or opinion, that’s what you need to do – you need to reference it. But, and this is the bit that students miss out on and makes it very hard for them, they get told, and it’s true in different disciplines, some disciplines hate it and say ‘Thou shalt not use ‘I’’ but in Humanities and the Social Sciences, if you look at journals, if you look at books, there’s a lot of direct, straightforward writing which says, ‘I’m going to try and convince you’. So my general advice to students wanting to get a 2:1 or better is: start your essay with ‘In this essay, I’m going to argue that …’ and immediately the marker, the reader, will think that that’s a kind of 2:1 approach.
The other top tip I’d point you to is, if I said ‘Would you find it attractive to have your references perfectly set out at the press of a button?’ Most of you would say yes. Well, the good news is you can do that if you invest half an hour, maybe an hour, in getting your head around how to use End Note Web which is freely available for you as a student at UEL. The good thing about End Note Web is that you can use it from home so you don’t have to be in the Library.
There are resources at university to help you improve your writing. The obvious first port of call is the Module Leader. I think all Module Leaders are more than happy to give comments and feedback on drafts. We’d be bowled over, we’d be really happy if we could do that rather than just get the red pen out after it’s too late. So definitely send your Module Leader drafts, get feedback, don’t suffer in silence. The university has ploughed a lot of resource into … there’s the Virtual Learning Environment, the Subject Librarians are very helpful, and all the students will do a Study Skills module in the first year and hopefully that will get them over the kind of basics of … the mechanics.
Writing in LSS - Social Sciences
Sharon Brown highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
As you are a student in the School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering it is going to be important for you to do some writing and you will do lots of different types of writing as part of your degree. Though most of your degree subjects will be in a technical basis, you will still have to do some critical analysis and critical thinking within your subjects and therefore it is going to be important for you to get to grips with the writing skills needed.
You will notice when you get your assignment briefs that there are different types of writing that you will be expected to do. These could take the form of essays, or reports, or lab reports or portfolios where we are bringing together lots of different bits of writing and therefore it is important that you know what type of writing is needed for that particular assignment.
One of the main differences you are going to find in your degree is the difference between a report and an essay. Within an essay you are going to be looking at telling the story, giving an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Whereas in a report you are going to be showing me how you found something, so they will have an introduction and a conclusion, but you will also be looking at the steps you took to actually do your experiment or to do your practical.
Advice and common mistakes
Some of the mistakes that you will make as a level 1 student are actually quite simple mistakes. I know one of the things I always say to my students is, think about what it is you are writing and read it aloud once you have written it, because often you know what you want to say but you haven’t quite told me that on the piece of paper. So it may be in your head, but if it is not on the piece of paper I can’t mark it.
One of the other mistakes that you will possibly make as a first year student writing, is you won’t actually understand the question and you’ll be very descriptive but not analytical. So remember always ask yourself ‘Why am I writing this, what is the purpose of me writing this, what information can I give?’ and then you will get the answer.
Please do remember that is not just good enough for you to quote from a book or to give information that you have well referenced, but you do actually have to give your own opinion. So you need to be able to back up what you are saying by other people’s opinions, that’s your analytical writing.
As a student you are going to have lots of resources that are available to you. One of the most used resources will be your Virtual Learning Environment, so make sure you go to the modules there, particularly those to do with skills and also the module that you are studying. You will find lots of information there to help you with your writing. There are other people that you can go and speak to, one of which is your personal tutor. They will be able to help you with some of these issues, as well as whoever is teaching you skills in your first year.
Writing in ACE
Mark Hunter highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Arts and Digital Industries and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
Writing is really important to all students in the Arts and Creative Industries because as well as being an artist through a visual medium or a performative medium or any other artistic way, you need to be able to communicate with your audience and with your peers, and professionally, in as many different ways as possible.
Studying in ADI means that you are going to come across a range of different writing forms and styles and you are going to be asked to use a different range of writing forms and styles in terms of your assessment in your degree programme. You will be asked to do the traditional forms, such as essays, which you may have already done at college and school. This time we are using Harvard referencing and a range of sources or text to help support your argument and your ideas. You will be asked to do blogs, to do portfolios, to do journals, to write in a journalistic style sometimes, a whole range of forms and genres which expand your skills and ability to communicate with a different audience, in a different way.
Advice and common mistakes
I think common mistakes in writing I’d probably break into two areas. One is grammatical errors and that’s about practice and knowing which words to put in which order, and which punctuation to use at different points so that your writing makes sense to you and makes sense to your audience - your readers on the page.
There are more complex, I wouldn’t call them errors, but there are more complex areas for development around really getting the style of the writing right. It is not the same to write a blog as it is to write an essay. It’s not the same to write a journal as it is to write a critical piece of writing and the way to recognise this is to learn from style guides, learn from your teachers and learn from each other. But also learn, as I have said previously, through reading, and practising reading and reading closely so you begin to recognise the tools that are being used by different writers, in different forms, to get different sorts of information across.
In ADI there a range of different resources for you in terms of getting help with your writing. So the first place, or your first port of call is your tutor, all degrees in ADI have a study skills module at level one and that means in your first year studying here you will develop some of the core skills you need in terms of developing your writing up to academic standards. Speak to your tutor on your study skills module.
Also go onto the VLE, UEL Plus, which is where you will find a lot of electronic resources and links to other websites both within the university - the library and learning service for example, and outside the university in terms of how to reference correctly and how to develop your writing. Also within ADI we have the Writing Centre, so please contact Pauline Fearon or the Writing Centre in order to get specialist particular help with grammar, with style, with any other work you need doing on your writing.
Writing in ADI
Mark Wheeler highlights the types of writing expected in the Cass School of Education and Communities and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
There are four main types of writing that you will be doing - expected to do - in the CASS school of Education and Communities. One is essay writing, which most people will be familiar with. The next is portfolios which are slightly different from essays. You will also be expected to generate journals and lastly to do some research papers.
Portfolios are typically going to be a means for you to demonstrate your development as a professional with regards to your practice. They will also be a way to demonstrate your personal growth as well and those are typically done in conjunction with placements. Journals are a means to document your experiences over a period of time. For example, if you are on a placement you might be asked to keep a practice journal that chronicles your experiences, how you interpreted those experiences and how you make sense of those experiences.
Research papers that you will be expected to produce in the CASS School typically fall into two types. Either literature reviews where you are reviewing existing literature - be they books or journal articles, or newspapers or any sort of media – pulling that information together and explaining it to your reader. The next type would be something we call empirical research, where you are actually doing the research and producing results and explaining the results to your reader or your audience.
Advice and common mistakes
There are two reasons why writing skills are important for you studying in the Cass School, one is that we look to prepare students for employment and employers will often want to know that the people that they are interviewing - the applicants, are able to write effectively and communicate themselves through writing. This is because you might have to do reports for court or for conferences. The second reason is that there is a lot of writing that’s done in the school, so we do have various assignments that entail degrees of writing.
You might find that when you finish your work you feel relieved and you just want to submit it and get it over with. And this is often where the most crucial part of achieving a good grade comes in, and this what I am referring to as editing. It is very important when you are finished with your work, to maybe put it to the side for a little bit and then come back to read it to try to determine any mistakes that you might have made. These mistakes can be grammar or spelling or content. Also plagiarism is sometimes noted when you read something you might say, ‘Well that’s not what I meant to write’ or ‘I wrote exactly what I read in the book’ and that is quite important.
One of the first suggestions that I offer for getting feedback on your writing and how to improve your writing skills is looking at feedback that you are given on assignments that you submit. This is often a great way to determine patterns in your writing that may be helpful, may be unhelpful. Secondly, I would say you can go to your tutors or you module leader if you don’t understand the feedback. You can go and ask them to explain exactly why they have given you marks down in a specific area with regards to your writing. Another place, the third place is the VLE. Most modules, particularly the skills modules, will post links or tips to help you improve your writing.
Writing in Education & Communities (Cass)
Barbara Catwell highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
Within the school of Health, Sports and Bioscience there are many programmes but whichever programme you are on, you will be required to do some formal academic writing. Commonly this is in the form of essays, but it could be lab reports, more formal scientific writing and sometimes reflective writing - talking to us about your experiences, or your practice. There are many key features to academic writing but I think the main things for your success would be standard formal English. Think about writing simply. It doesn’t have to be complicated, your sentences don’t need to be convoluted. You are just telling us what you know.
Advice and common mistakes
I think the best advice I can give you when you are beginning your assignments at level 0 or 1, is to make sure that you understand what is being asked of you. Read the title, read the instructions that you have been given and if you don’t understand it or you can’t break it down, then speak to your Module Leader.
Make sure that you understand the question first and then you will have a better chance of writing a successful essay. Once you understand the title and you have started to collect the information, read the literature that you need, my advice would be start writing as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter how rough it is, get that first draft down and an expanded essay plan, because I do find that students leave the actual writing of the essay too late and what they hand in really is a first or first or a half draft, as opposed to the finished article which is what we what to read.
So in that first draft, don’t worry too about how smooth the writing is, yes have paragraphs, make a point in each paragraph but really just get your ideas down. Then you redraft and in that redraft then you can order your ideas and start looking more at the structure of your essay and ensure you use the ‘P.E.E.’ Has each paragraph made a ‘point’? Have you ‘explained’ your argument fully to the reader? And then what’s the ‘evidence’ that you are presenting from the literature, or from your theory base that is going to support that point? That should appear in every paragraph you write.
One of the most common pieces of advice that I give to people about their academic writing is about proofreading. This is not just using your spell check. You need to put your work to one side, at least for a couple of hours and then pick it up and read it out loud to the mirror, to the cat, then you can hear what you have written, not assume that what you read is actually what you thought you wrote.
Even when you have looked at all the information we have given you, or you have listened to the advice you might still need some more help. That will be forthcoming from your module leader in terms of understanding the assignment set. Or if it is purely for your academic writing if you don’t feel confident, in Health sports and Bioscience we are very lucky, we have Pasty Savage on staff that is there to give you advice on your academic writing. You can make individual appointments or you can go to the group sessions that she runs and her advice is invaluable.
Writing in HSB
Dr Paul Penn highlights the types of writing expected in the School of Psychology and provides some helpful advice.
Types of writing
In Psychology you will have to do a number of different types of writing. The first and most common is essay writing and this is a response to a particular question on a given topic. Now essays can occur under timed conditions in which you sit in an exam hall in silence and have to compose a response to a question within a given time, or they can occur in the coursework context, where you take a topic home with you and you compose an essay in your own time, usually over a period of about a month.Also in Psychology you will have to do lab reports as well which is essentially a bit like an essay but it is structured in a way that is a report of an experiment that you have been working on. Pretty rarely you have to do what is called a reflective essay as well, and that is an essay where you tend to, as the title implies, reflect on your learning or your skills development. So there are a number of different types of writing, but those are probably the three main types.
Advice and common mistakes
The first thing that you need to take into account when you are writing any type of essay or any type of lab report is just to realise that the process of writing is an iterative process. Now what I mean by that is, it is not the first draft of something that you write that is the one you will submit, it usually takes a number of revisions to a document to get it to a state that you are happy with it and where the document is actually fit for purpose, it’s doing what you intended it to do.
Now the most common mistake that students make is not answering the question that has been set or not writing something that is fit for purpose, and usually this is because students have not put enough effort into the planning stage. What I mean by that is, before you write anything, you need to spend quite a considerable amount of time actually just thinking about, ‘OK, what is this document trying to achieve, what kind of material do I need to include to satisfy the question title or the particular lab report I am doing?’. And then, ‘How can I use this material in such a way that it is logical, that is makes sense to the reader, that it reads well?’. The number one piece of advice that I would give to students in terms of structuring, is to think about the reader when you are writing the essay and make sure your essay has a transparent and logical sequence of events.One of the pieces of advice I would give you on writing is to make sure that you dedicate enough time to the proofreading section and what I mean by that is, once you finish your essay the temptation is to think, ‘I finished the essay I am now going to submit it’. And quite often that’s is the biggest mistake that a student can make. Simply because, if you submit an essay immediately after you have written it you will see what you want to see, as opposed to what is on the piece of paper. The best thing you can do after finishing an essay is to put it down for a couple of days and revisit when you have actually forgotten what it is that you were trying to say, because then you will be looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes i.e. the way that a reader, who isn’t familiar with your work, would be looking at it.
If you find yourself struggling on most assignments because of a generic problem with your writing, the thing to do is to actually go and see your skills champion, see if they can actually direct you to the school level resources that actually might help you develop your writing further. So in addition to the ‘Write it right’ material you are looking at now, we in the School of Psychology have the Psychology Students Skills Repository and this is part of our Virtual Learning Environment that contains, for example, guides on how to write an essay, how to structure a lab report and so on and so forth.
It is important when you go to external resources to always bear in mind that, first and foremost you need to be writing in such a way that satisfies your own school’s specific requirements for essay composition. So always be familiar with the marking criteria used for a piece of work, because that is essentially your checklist for whether you are doing what you should be doing, to get the marks that you want.