critical thinking

Get to Grips With Your Essay Writing: TUB-Thump 005

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I’m talking essays for episode 005 of TUB-Thump.

There’s mixing up the order of your writing, knowing when to stop researching, finding texts that talk to you, and much more on today’s show.

Whether you’ve got weeks until the deadline, or it’s due in a few days, check out these tips and find something that suits you.


Here are the show notes for the 15-min episode:

  • Write in whatever order you like while you draft. (01:10)
  • Keep thinking about how you feel, from the moment you get the assignment to the point of finishing (and reading through). Has your opinion/argument changed? How has it changed? Have you reflected this? (02:30)
  • Know when to stop reading and researching. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or you’re going over the same ground, it’s probably time move on. (04:10)
  • Find the clearest, most relevant references that make your point. (05:20)
  • There’s no need to be offended by help. There’s always more to learn. (05:35)
  • Discuss your drafts as you’re going along (07:40)
  • More on telling you to stop doing all-nighters! (08:20)
  • Think critically. Reason and references rule. (10:00)
  • Use/Find your own academic voice. And why the word ‘clever’ doesn’t mean much. (11:10)
  • Bullet-point planning. (12:10)
  • Check out what’s going on at your uni. (12:50)
  • Not all books and texts will talk to you. So don’t stop at one text and simply give up. (13:15)
  • Gaps in your knowledge aren’t weaknesses; they’re challenges. (14:30)

Music for TUB-Thump is Life, by Tobu, which is released under a Creative Commons license. Check out more of Tobu’s great sounds on Soundcloud, YouTube, and his official site.

TUB-Thump is part of the Learning Always Network.

Keep being awesome!

Are you asking enough questions?

Last week, I talked about understanding questions as a whole and then breaking them down into parts. Both stages are in order for you to get as much meaning from a question as possible.

Questions are important. You need to understand questions, answer questions, and ask questions.

photo by e-magic
photo by e-magic

Assignments go beyond asking how much information you can remember on a topic. Assignment questions also require you to:

  • create an argument;
  • weigh up different views;
  • provide examples and workings, as opposed to regurgitations;
  • demonstrate understanding of the topics under discussion.

It’s easy to get stuck on key topic words that you have a lot of knowledge on. But dig deeper and you’ll notice more to the question. The closer you come to answering the question clearly, deeply, and effectively, the more likely your grade (and enjoyment!) will benefit.

Look for:

  • What’s being asked of you – Does the question ask you to discuss, compare, analyse, argue, evaluate…? The question is probably worded so that you should talk about what you know, but relate to why that’s the case and explain how it could be different or why people have different theories on the matter.
  • Specific focus points – Some questions can be vague, but many ask you to concentrate on a particular feature to base your answer on. You may also notice the question is guiding you to frame your answer in a certain context, such as a single culture, time period, object, opinion, text, and so on.
  • Leading words and phrases – For example, you may be asked to analyse the benefits of something. This is not an invitation to lavish praise upon the subject. To analyse the benefits means to weigh up, to argue whether they really are benefits, and to discuss alternatives. You aren’t being asked a trick question, but you do need to show awareness that there is more than one side to any story. You are welcome to have an opinion on the matter, so long as you explain why you have reached that conclusion and show why you don’t share the same enthusiasm for the alternatives. You’re not stating right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad answers. Instead, you’re reaching a conclusion after exploring the topic.

You also need to ask a lot of questions. Unanswered questions, questions that arise from your study, and questioning assumptions.

Even after you’ve written up a good draft of an essay and you’re happy with it, read through the draft again. Ask yourself — and try to answer — these 15 questions throughout your draft:

  1. How did I come to say that?
  2. Have I backed this up?
  3. Can I say this any clearer?
  4. Does this point follow on?
  5. Should I give more detail here?
  6. Does this assume something I haven’t mentioned?
  7. Does this need referencing?
  8. Will a relevant quotation and/or summary help before I move on?
  9. Is this relevant to the question/title?
  10. Could my main point be made more prominently?
  11. Am I making sense here?
  12. Am I being critical or opinionated?
  13. Does this require an example or demonstration?
  14. Has there been a more recent development?
  15. Is something missing?

These questions are simple enough to make you think, and challenging enough to make you respond. If you’re not asking these questions about your writing, answer this question: Why not?

Find the right reasons to read ahead

You might think that reading ahead can only be positive. By knowing in advance what you’re meant to read, why shouldn’t you just read it now?

photo by lusiErin E. Templeton writes in ProfHacker, “the act of reading ahead is often exceptionally damaging to our work together in the classroom”.

Templeton, an English professor, notes that many students read ahead just to get it out of the way. Instead of engaging academically, the aim is to finish the task of reading as if that’s what matters.

What are your reasons for reading ahead? If it’s just another box ticking exercise to get another activity off your to-do list, you may be doing yourself a disservice. More than that, Templeton argues, you may be doing the whole class a disservice.

Your reasons are important. I loved reading ahead, even before I went to university. I wanted to get the initial reading and course texts understood in advance, because I knew there’d be so much more to deal with upon hitting campus.

Anyone who has been through their first year at uni will know what I mean. Overwhelm isn’t exactly difficult as a Fresher. Due to this, I would always suggest that future students swot up in advance, even if they continue to remain in the dark over most of the concepts and arguments.

I loved reading ahead. I worried less about confusing content, because I knew that lectures, seminars and tutorials would deliver clarity where I needed it. I would come armed with questions and specific goals. I was prepared to revisit the text and discover more.

This type of reading ahead is not what concerns Templeton. Unfortunately, this type of reading ahead isn’t common in Templeton’s experience. What she sees is a type of reading that severely limits critical engagement with the text:

“The study of literature is…not only reading a certain selection of texts in a particular order.  Instead, a good class takes the book list as a foundation and collaboratively generates an extended conversation through discussion and debate, analysis and critique. The themes and issues which emerge from our collective experience and conversation are not always (or even often) ones that can be predicted ahead of time.  In fact, the best of these are ones that cannot be anticipated precisely because they arise organically from the confluence of time, place and participants.”

Reading ahead is clearly not a problem in itself. However, you must be prepared to ‘read again’ to give close and careful reading of the text.

Without a critical eye, you might as well be reading for enjoyment.

Enjoying what you read is fantastic. I always preferred reading something I could appreciate beyond cold and critical study.

Perhaps reading ahead is crucial, then. It may be the only effective way to bridge that gap between enjoyment and engagement when studying subjects like English. Consume the texts in advance for your own fun, then read again with deeper focus.

How do you tackle your mountain of reading?

10 things to check when reading for research purposes

Just because it’s published, doesn’t mean it’s true.

photo by eye.contact

photo by eye.contact

When you’re researching, think about the following ten things before you accept what you’re reading:

  1. Who wrote the piece – What’s their perspective, intention, bias, belief, and so on?
  2. When it was written – Is the information relevant and accurate to today?
  3. The methodology – Is it clear and does it cover enough ground to be accurate, consistent & useful?
  4. Any obvious bias – Is it written in a searching way, or is it trying to persuade you it’s correct?
  5. References & sources used – Have they covered enough ground and are the sources trustworthy and worthy of use?
  6. Missing links & blind spots – If something is missing, has it been left out deliberately, or is it merely an oversight?
  7. Lack of references, generalisation and stating points as if they are facts (but are not) – Are you reading an opinion piece or an academic study?
  8. Your own understanding & opinion – You should never believe what you read just because it’s in a journal or written by a respected academic. What perspective do you have on the issues under discussion? And have you seen other pieces arguing in a different direction?
  9. Other works by the same author(s) – What other relevant output could expand upon this? Do they have anything more recent and/or fitting to what you’re researching?
  10. Reception within the academic community – In some cases, especially for older academic papers, a healthy number of citations probably means you’ve got a respected paper or a highly criticised paper. A quick check on sites like Google Scholar should give a taste of how many times the paper has been cited.  You’re also given the titles of those papers, which is handy for finding more relevant reading material. Result!

What do you like to check for when you’re researching?