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Thinking, Reading and Writing Critically

In order to get the highest possible grades in a subject assessed in writing you need to
be able to demonstrate an ability to think critically about the sources of information
(text-books, academic papers, academic websites and the like) that you use in the
construction your answer. You must, in other words, do more than simply take
information from other sources and use it construct an answer. It is not enough to
select some apposite uotations and demonstrate in that way that you ha!e read
around a subject widely and found some pertinent sources of supporting information.
"o get the highest grades you must be able to replicate a professional academic#s
ability to critically assess the academic work of other, published authors.
$any professional academics are capable of doing this because o!er the
course of a career they ha!e read an enormous number of text-books and papers in a
subject area and, as a result, possess and ha!e mastered a large body of knowledge
that they can use to critically assess any new work they encounter. Indeed, for such
academics the process of reading critically may ha!e become almost entirely
subconscious. %s they read a new paper in their subject area they cannot stop their
brains from critically comparing the new information with the knowledge they
already possess. &learly, as students, you do not yet possess such an extensi!e body
of knowledge, nor can you hope to acuire one uickly enough to apply it to any
gi!en assessment task. 'e!ertheless, in order to get the highest possible grades you
need to be able to emulate this kind of critical reading beha!iour and then demonstrate
that you understand what is reuired in your written work.
%t first sight this appears an unreasonable and impossible task( howe!er you
need not despair. You may not be able to assimilate the reuisite body of knowledge
to exactly replicate the beha!iour of a professional academic expert, but you can
certainly be critical in the way you select material to read, and then demonstrate
critical thinking in the way you use and write about that material.
The comparison of multiple texts
If you can obtain more than one rele!ant, published source that deals with the subject
upon which you are being assessed, you can adopt a critical approach. Instead of
simply referring to the sources you ha!e found and uoting extracts that support your
answer, you can go further by comparing and contrasting !arious aspects of your
sources. "hus you might consider)
the breadth of different pieces of work - how wide a range of the possible
subject matter defined by your uestion(s) or task(s) do different pieces of
work co!er*
the depth of the different pieces of work - how detailed is the analysis of the
subject matter in each piece of work*
the rele!ance of each piece of work to your specific uestion(s) or task(s) -
how much of the subject matter you are being assessed on do different pieces
of work co!er* +hat details do each source miss out* - and so on.
gaps in the form of rele!ant details of the subject matter that one might
reasonably ha!e expected the works you are reading to ha!e dealt with, that
are present in one piece of work but not another.
contradictions and inconsistencies that arise from comparisons between the
work of different authors
In some subject areas you will find a number of suitable academic publications
discussing the ad!antages and disad!antages or costs and benefits of a gi!en policy or
course of action. In such circumstances it is possible to become more critical by
looking for examples of authors arguing for and against the same factor within that
subject area.

,or example, at the time of writing, there is a large amount of material published on
the debate about whether the -. should join the /uro. 0ome authors argue that
joining the /uro would enhance -. competiti!eness. 1owe!er, it is also possible to
find academic authorities arguing that it was precisely the fact that the -. did not
allow its currency to match that of the rest of /urope in the months following 2lack
+ednesday in 3445 that led to a sharp increase in -. competiti!eness. In other words
that if we had joined the /uro earlier it would ha!e reduced our competiti!eness. "hus
it would be perfectly possible to offer appropriate, high uality, academic sources
arguing for and against the same topic. You could then use each to critically assess the
other. "his procedure is applicable in any subject area where there are arguments for
and against a policy or course of action.
The identification of logical flaws
"he comparison of published sources is a good place to start, but the award of the
highest grades will be assisted if you can also apply more sophisticated forms of
criticism. 0ome of these do not reuire an expert#s mastery of the detail of a subject
area. "hus you may draw upon your understanding of critical reasoning theory and
identify logical flaws in the sources you are employing by)
recognising unco!ering and challenging key, un-stated, in!alid assumptions in
distinguishing when authors mistakenly use unpro!en hypotheses as though
they were established facts.
identifying occasions when authors wrongly employ opinions whilst claiming
that they are facts.
highlighting the absence of e!idence that is rele!ant and essential for the
!alidation of an argument in the work you are referring to.
identifying when arguments contain irrele!ant statements and e!idence.
identifying logical fallacies.
The critical assessment of Research Methods
If you are working with empirical studies you may be able to draw upon your
understanding of 6esearch $ethods and critically comment upon)
the suitability of the research design.
the effecti!eness of the data collection process.
the !alidity of the sample selection process .
the appropriateness of the chosen research methodology to the subject being
"his kind of critical analysis is helped if you can find more than one published piece
of empirical research and compare the way the different authors approached the task.
%gain, the process of comparison may highlight deficiencies in one or other piece of
Searching for help in the literature itself
0ome forms of publication may contain self-critical comments. "hus many empirical
studies include section entitled 70hortcomings# in which the author(s) discuss how the
methods or approach they used could ha!e been impro!ed upon. You may also find
such comments in sections entitled #,uture research#. You can uickly identify
empirical studies by scanning the contents of papers to see if they ha!e sections on
7research methods#, 7research design# or 7findings#. /mpirical papers freuently also
ha!e a section dealing with 7the literature# or called 7literature sur!ey# in which the
author(s) discuss existing published treatments of the subject they are writing about.
In the process, many authors take the opportunity to highlight the deficiencies of the
existing treatments.
0ome publications consist of re!iews or comparisons of other papers. "hese
typically include the words 7$eta-sur!ey#, 7$eta-re!iew# or 7$eta-analysis# in their
title or abstract, and freuently include critical assessments of the papers they re!iew
or sur!ey.
,inally, some papers helpfully include the word 7critiue# in their title.
Illustrative Examples of critical comments
"he extracts shown below were taken from a mixture of student assignments and
published papers. "his is not an exhausti!e list, merely a sample of the many different
ways one can go about critically assessing published work. You should also note that
the examples were not selected for the uality of their written /nglish. I am not
recommending or endorsing any particular writing style or format by uoting these
examples. I would like you simply to focus on the !arious methods of constructing
criticisms of published work. "he examples illustrate the following types of criticism)
,lawed understanding of a phenomenon
&hallenge to a statement of 7fact#
/xcessi!ely narrow subject focus
8oor data collection methods
9mission of potentially rele!ant information
:ack of e!idence to support conclusions
:ack of current data
&hallenge to the !alidity of the conclusions
/xaggerated and unsubstantiated claims
Insufficient detail to permit the assessment of the !alidity and reliability of the
&hallenge to the generalisability of the conclusions
8ossible confusion between correlation and causation
Flawed understanding of a phenomenon
'eiss (5;;5) contends that foreign creditors would ha!e suffered huge and
immediate losses had the I$, not inter!ened. 1owe!er, these are nai!e
comments from a member of an organisation that promotes the free market
approach. ,oreign creditors would ha!e known the structure of the financial
systems in 0outh /ast %sian countries and the close links businesses would
ha!e with their respecti!e go!ernments. <In other words, they would ha!e
been well aware of the risks and did not need protection from the ,und. =6>
Challenge to a statement of fact
3. In this article The Economist is also responsible for portraying the I$, as
an organisation that had no choice other than to implement the policies it
implemented. 0ince the ,und had an enormous range of possible courses of
action in response to these e!ents this portrayal is clearly not true.
5. "here appears to be an error, or at least a discrepancy when the data on
waterway freight growth - 4 million tonnes (?,6%, 5;;5, p. 54) is compared
with the figure of 35 million tonnes cited in %I'% (5;;3).
Excessively narrow subject focus
9nly .rippendorf (3444) fails to discuss in detail the economic impact,
fa!ouring instead a discussion of some of the other effects of tourism. 9ne
might argue that the tight concentration by other authors on the purely
economic effects may result in unnecessarily narrow, incomplete and possibly
biased conclusions.
Poor data collection methods
3. 1owe!er, 0tanton and 2ardoni@s (34A5) research can be uestioned in that
whilst they carried out an anonymous uestionnaire to enlisted males under 5B
years of age in Cietnam, they left the respondent to define @flashback@ for
themsel!es. "his personal definition is clearly unsatisfactory and does not
enable comparisons between studies, nor does it allow for an examination of
the nature of such @flashback@ reports. &onseuently a major !ariable was not
controlled for or uantified.
5. 1orowitD (34E4) inter!iewed a smaller sample (n F G3) of indi!iduals said
to be representati!e members of a drug-taking community, found that G5H
(that is I indi!iduals) reported ha!ing flashbacks. 1owe!er there was poly-
drug use amongst this group, which could ha!e confounded the results.
G. "he problem of possible participant bias also plagued another study) the
2oris and $andel (344J) study which used 5E consecuti!e %?1? children
referred to their allergy practice. K. "he study has been criticiDed because
2oris is an allergist and the group of participants was small.
mission of potentially relevant information
+hen defining culture as an acuired element, the authors omit consideration
of an indi!idual#s personality and genetic makeup, although both if these
factors interact with the culture in which they are brought up to create their
obser!ed beha!iour.
!ac" of evidence to support conclusions
"he main shortcoming of this text is the author#s reliance on personal opinion
rather than empirical data. ,or example, on page G5B there is a critical attack
on the go!ernment#s policy towards pri!ate eye hospitals, but the author offers
no data to support the argument he is making. In the absence of any supporting
e!idence there is no way of judging the !alidity or reliability of his
conclusions and this seriously undermines the !alue of the work.
!ac" of current data
6ecent years ha!e seen the publication of a number of critiues of changes in
funding regimes, for example) %nderson (5;;G)( 8hillips (5;;5). 1owe!er this
text was published before the recent wa!e of reforms took place.
&onseuently, although much of the book#s contents remain !aluable, the
conclusions on this particular aspect of the problem are at best partial in
nature, and at worst no longer rele!ant.
Challenge to the validity of the conclusions # alternative conclusions drawn from the
same supporting evidence
6esearch by the /- (/uropean &ommission, 5;;5) has also shown that the
most important factor impeding 0$/s of all siDes from going digital is the
belief that e-commerce is not applicable to their type of products or ser!ices
and the lack of percei!ed commercial benefit. 1owe!er this may be due to the
sur!ey#s focus on e-commerce rather than e-business. I&" skills gaps seem
also to be more important for small enterprises than for larger and medium
Exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims
+hen creating this theory of =I" in the late 34I;#s 1arrison and "ersine
(34I4) p. 5GJ made the completely unrealistic claim that it is possible through
the pursuit of total uality objecti!es to achie!e production with the creation
of no waste.
$nsufficient detail to permit the assessment of the validity and reliability of the
% lot of primary research has been conducted to help support policy
recommendations in this subject area, but 1aywood (5;;5) is lacking depth in
its explanation of both the data collection process and sample selection
criteria. Lreater elaboration of the research process was offered in an earlier
paper) Lreensmith and 1aywood (3444), but in the current work, in the
absence of adeuate detail, it is extremely difficult to assess the !alidity and
reliability of the findings.
Challenge to the generalisability of the conclusions
6ecent research by %ctinic (5;;5) shows that, in their sample of -. 0$/s,
A5H belie!e their e-commerce site is profitable, and that increased sales
remain the main justification for e-commerce adoption, K1owe!er, it should
be noted that 7early adopters# may ha!e done so because they could obtain
these benefits and it does not follows that all 0$/s will benefit in the same
Possible confusion between correlation and causation

2oniface describes %frica ha!ing)
K a low le!el of economic de!elopment. $ost %frican countries fall
into the 7least de!eloped# category with only a few ha!ing breached
the intermediate le!el of de!elopment.
2oniface, 5;;5, p. 5J3
In contrast to this, he describes :atin %merican countries as being at an
intermediate stage of de!elopment, although tourism in 2raDil, for example)
Kaccounts for less than one per cent of L?8.
2oniface, 5;;5, p. G5A
"his ties in with the pre!ious discussion in which :umsdon (5;;3) and Youell
(3444) argued that the extent to which a country benefits from its tourism
acti!ity depends on the success of its other industries. "hus :atin %merica is
noticeably more de!eloped than %frica, but it can be argued that this may be a
result of the possession of more successful industries, rather than higher le!els
of tourism acti!ity.