Thinking like an academic: developing criticality

The critical thinking approach: an introduction

The term ‘critical thinking’ is about developing an ability to understand, critique and create the argument. It is used here to describe the intellectual, philosophical and analytical approaches to problem solving that the student will learn to use.

This approach has four elements:

  • 1 understanding different beliefs about knowledge and an ability to assess statements in relation to those beliefs
  • 2 defining and evaluating the argument in a manner appropriate to the relevant discipline or discipline(s)
  • 3 solving problems in a logical manner
  • 4 reflecting metacognitively on performance.

Different beliefs about knowledge

What does knowledge ‘look like’ to you? How does knowledge appear? This is a fundamental question to be considered in relation to critical thinking - are there any differences in how knowledge emerges or appears in different disciplines? Figure 5.1 suggests so many overlaps across the disciplines that there is no particular disciplinary pattern. Mathematics was not one of the disciplines studied by Donald and some argue that mathematicians understand knowledge differently because they are working within man-made rules and patterns. Once a mathematical formula is proven, unlike a scientific, artistic or social scientific one, it is not going to be disproven. Some mathematicians argue that at its peak or its edge, their subject becomes an art form and therefore can also be subjectively appreciated. Many students struggle with the notion of conditional and provisional thinking, however at doctoral level, one supervisor observed that ‘most students do make the leap from dogmatic to provisional thinking’.

Beliefs about knowledge are an important part of understanding critical thinking. Knowledge can be examined in several ways. These include looking at it as a socially constructed process and/or as an inductive/deductive process (Biggs & Tang, 2007). Propositional and practical knowledge are more recognisable within traditional forms of education, and they can be integrated with two other forms of knowledge - experiential and imaginal (Gregory 2006) - or divided into hard/soft/pure and applied, as Biglan( 1973a, 1973b) originally did.

Interviews with academic researchers were analysed to see if there were different ways in which knowledge emerged. Knowledge was seen as having different properties and the sorts of comments that academics made suggested that they saw knowledge as:

  • • being personally experienced, risky, exciting and transforming
  • • useful when applied
  • • constrained by procedures
  • • controversial, contested and provisional
  • • emerging
  • • moving, growing and unbounded
  • • constructed through dialogue
  • • can be absolute and verifiable
  • • different in different contexts, for example in different cultures
Poster summarising quotations from researchers about knowledge

Figure 5.1 Poster summarising quotations from researchers about knowledge

  • • creative
  • • measured differently in arts and sciences
  • • hidden, tacit, not easy to classify.

These comments were turned into a poster (Figure 5.1) and academic researchers from different disciplines were invited to show how they thought knowledge appeared in their subject. From the excited discussions around the poster, it would appear that further research would be interesting.

If we look behind the concepts that emerged from the discussions we find several key beliefs.

  • • Knowledge is provisional or absolute (for example ‘constructivism’ supposes that we create our own knowledge and ‘atomism’ supposes that knowledge consists of units that are linked to each other).
  • • Knowledge can be created and constructed.
  • • There are procedures that constrain the emergence of knowledge.
  • • Knowledge is sometimes hidden, can be risky and personally transforming.
  • • Knowledge is different in different contexts and cultures.

Johnson and Johnson (2001) argue that more than 40 studies indicate that constructive enquiry produces higher achievement and retention than concurrence-seeking debate. The stages they recommend (and that you may find your supervisors take you through) are:

  • 1 Reaching a position on an issue
  • 2 Being challenged and becoming uncertain about one’s views (epistemic curiosity)
  • 3 Actively searching for more information and reconceptualising one’s knowledge in an attempt to resolve the uncertainty
  • 4 Reaching a new and refined conclusion.

Defining the argument

In Chapter 4 we looked at some of the traditional arguments in several different disciplines. However, disciplines are on the move, and it is no longer sufficient for a student to be master of one disciplinary approach to thinking. Golde and Walker (2006) describe how students entering doctoral studies in neuroscience can have come from backgrounds in biology', psychology', chemistry or pharmacology' (p. 207) and even sociologists are bringing insights to bear on the problems that neuroscientists are involved in. Environmental science is another example of a ‘hybrid discipline’; it requires engineering, chemistry, management and psychological understanding. Some music technology' courses noyv demand a high level of competence in physics and computer science, and these are considered as important as any musical background. Appendix C has a list of different terms relating to research methods. It is a useful list to examine if you are working in a cross-disciplinary team and tlying to understand what research methods or analytical tools are being talked about or why they people are arguing in different ways.

At the early stages of outlining a thesis Murray (2006) suggests a (relatively) simple exercise that the student can use to structure their argument. She suggests that students use between 25 and 50 words to complete each of the following sentences:

  • 1 My research question is...
  • 2 Researchers who have looked at this subject are...
  • 3 They argue that...

a. argues that...

b. argues that...

  • 4 Debate centres on...
  • 5 There is still work to be done on...
  • 6 My research is closest to that of X...
  • 7 My contribution will be...
  • (Murray, 2006, adapted)

Traditionally, critical thinking is considered to be at the heart of doctoral supervision. Browne and Freeman (2000) offer the following definition:

critical thinking comes in many forms, but all possess a single core feature.

They presume that human arguments require evaluation if they are to be

worthy of widespread respect. Hence critical thinking focuses on a set of

skills and attitudes that enable a listener or reader to apply rational criteria

to the reasoning of speakers and writers.

(Browne and Freeman, 2000, p. 301)

Stevenson and Brand (2006) point out that critical thinking is largely a Western, secularist intellectual tradition, and we need to be sensitive to this when applying it in different cultures or to some disciplines. Critical thinking is Western philosophical tradition that encourages analysis, looking for propositions and arguments for and against them. The roots of this approach to supervision are both dialectic and dialogic.

In practice it addresses such questions as ‘what is the underlying conceptual framework?’, ‘what are the arguments for and against?’, ‘what has been considered and what has been left out?’ Wisker (2012) argues that practising using the metalanguage of viva defence is a very useful supervisory skill because it ensures that the student addresses gaps in knowledge, boundaries and methodology.

Thinking skills

In this next section we turn to three different ways of examining our own research findings. The first list of coding questions adapted from Donald can be used as a menu to choose from, to identify the most important aspects of your study at any level. The second approach looks at concept maps and the third asks more philosophical questions, which will become important in most doctoral-level work.

Coding key questions for thinking skills

Donald (2002) looked in detail at thinking in several different disciplines (physics, engineering, chemistry', biological sciences, psychology, law, education and English literature), and identified six key components of critical thinking as they applied to each discipline. Table 5.1 has an abstraction of the key components and some illustrations of lines of enquiry that academics might pursue. Donald (2002) gives many further examples for each of the disciplines she has studied.

No student will use all of these thinking processes and behaviours in one piece of research, but they are listed here in Table 5.1 so you can check that you are consciously omitting the elements that are not important for you.

Using concept maps to explore links in your data

When we are trying to make sense of how things link together, diagrams are often helpful. We saw a Venn diagram in Figure 5.1 and in Chapter 1 Figures 1.2 to 1.4 were graphical illustrations of different types of doctoral research programme. Concept maps can help you to link together different key ideas and demonstrate impact and sequencing.

Figure 5.2 is a sample concept map designed to explore effective teaching at master’s level. The software used is taken from a website that helps people draw their own maps and can be downloaded from that site: http://cmap. ceptMaps.htmThere is also further information on concept mapping in work by Kinchin and Hay (2007).

Using methodology (not research methods) to answer the difficult questions

There is an important difference between research methodology and research methods. Students doing research might be using the same methods but be operating from a very different methodology' (or paradigm). So, for example, interviews can be used as a research method by an anthropologist, a phenomenologist, a critical realist and a psychologist, and because of the

Thinking processes and behaviours

Typical questions the academic might ask


Describe what you think we are looking at here.

Identify context

What are the surroundings in which this is happening?

State conditions

What elements of this context are essential prerequisites to this happening?

State facts

What generally accepted information applies here?

State functions

What normally happens here?

State assumptions

What assumptions or propositions have been accepted? What do you mean by...? What is your reason for proffering that opinion? But in another situation is the converse true?

State goal

What is your aim? What are your objectives?


What were the other options you looked at? Why was this chosen in preference to them?

Choose relevant information

What information is particularly relevant to this question?

Order information in importance

How do you prioritise it?

Identify critical elements

What are the important units or parts of that information?

Identify critical relations

Which connections are most important?


What symbols are relevant here?

Recognise organising principles

What laws or rules cover this part of the picture?

Organise elements and relations

What does a concept map of this area look like?

Illustrate elements and relations

What are the words or symbols that describe the links between the concepts?

Modify elements and relations

What connections or concepts can be altered, and how?


If x is true, what are the implications? What conclusions can you draw from your findings?

Discover new relations between elements

Describe connections between concepts or elements that have not been seen before.

Discover new relations between relations

Describe connections between these connections.

Discover equivalence

Is that like anything else?


What classification does that fall into?


Where in the sequence does it fall?

Change perspective

What if you were to look at it from another perspective?


Does this analysis help you to form a proposition?

Thinking processes and behaviours

Typical questions the academic might ask


Combine parts to form a whole

Can you see a whole pattern emerging?


Describe that pattern in more detail.

Generate missing links

Where are the gaps? What do they not explain?

Develop a course of action

How can we prove, expand, and/or illuminate this phenomena?


How can we test the validity of this finding? What examples can you give? What evidence can you show?

Compare alternative outcomes

Is there any consistency across different contexts, over different times?

Compare outcome to standard

How does this result compare to what might be expected?

Judge validity

What is the soundness of these results? In how many ways could we prove it wrong? Would we get the same result if we used different experimental methods?

Use feedback

What feedback are we getting? How do we need to adjust to it?

Confirm results

What test-retest or triangulation strategies do we need to employ? Are the findings repeatable?

Source: Adapted from Donald (2002, pp. 26-27)

A Sample concept map

Figure 5.2 A Sample concept map: effective teaching at master’s level

different philosophical backgrounds of each, they will draw different conclusions.

Understanding your methodological perspective is a doctoral-level requirement and will enable you to answer questions such as:

  • • How do you choose your sample or the texts you examine? How do you bound an archive? How do you choose a canon?
  • • How did X get published, funded and become influential?
  • • Is there a reasoned argument here?
  • • What is the generalisability of your work?
  • • How do you situate your methodological approach within an epistemological framework?

If you want to explore different methodological approaches further, Quinn Patton (1990) has some helpful definitions.

Understanding and articulating the methodological perspective you have embraced will enable you to identify any assumptions you might have unwittingly embraced. This is particularly important when it is easy to generate lots of data, but questioning where it came from and what it implies is not always so evident.

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