Academic excellence

Critical thinking and writing skills

One of the most important skills required to succeed academically is the ability to think critically. This skill will not be of much help at GCSE level, yet is a contributing factor in distinguishing the best students from the rest at A-level and above.

A 14 year old will be successful academically to the extent they are able to memorize course material and coherently regurgitate it during exam conditions. Subject knowledge is a central determinant of academic excellence at this level.

This skill is less highly valued as children transition through academia. Reading from textbooks, believing everything therein, and demonstrating to an examiner your subject knowledge will not get you far at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

Academic writing at the highest level involves challenging the status quo and creating coherent arguments in doing so. Central to a good quality academic paper are the skills of critical reading and writing. These skills often do not come naturally to students and need practice to master. The following will help you understand what it means to be a critical thinker and how to develop the necessary skills:

    • Thinking critically does not mean being critical or negative. Adopt a skeptical stance towards what you are reading, but keep an open mind and be willing to be convinced.
    • If you are making an argument, clearly state your claims and support them with appropriate evidence.
    • Search for, and state assumptions. If you are critiquing an academic argument, your first task is to recognize the assumptions underpinning any argument. These may be explicit, but are often implicit. The same applies if you are writing an essay – state your assumptions. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your assumptions.
    • Discuss limitations. This refers to your arguments, not just your assumptions. Does your argument hold under all circumstances, and if not why not and in what way? Do you hold certain values that affect your claims?
    • Consider alternatives. Is your argument the only way of thinking? What other arguments did you consider before deciding upon your argument? What are their relative merits and limitations? Why did you consider them to be less persuasive than your argument?
    • Define your key terms and use them consistently.
    • Sustain your focus. Avoid irrelevancies and include everything that is relevant.

A common error students make when writing at University is to do what they did at school – attempt to impress the examiner by telling them everything they know about a subject. Depending on the generosity of your tutor, this will only get you so far.

In general, it is good practice to think up your own ideas on a topic you are studying and to discuss them with other students and academic tutors. Equally, listen to others’ ideas and offer constructively critical comments. Do not be afraid to challenge (respectfully) ideas put forward by academics.

Most importantly, do not wait until you get to University before you start doing this. Begin at school, by becoming a skeptical learner. Question what you read and are told, as well as what you write and the arguments you make. This will improve your ability to think logically and to recognize the flaws in your arguments.