Proposition Testing: A Strategy to Develop Critical Thinking for Essay Writing

Sara Hammer and Phil Griffiths


One of the proudest claims of the humanities and social sciences is that our disciplines develop the capacity of students for critical thinking. This is not a claim that is supported by research, and there are good reasons to be skeptical of it. Davies (2011) has suggested that universities are actually teaching very little critical thinking. In particular, there are serious doubts about the value of the most important student learning activity in most of our subjects, and especially those in second year and above: the student essay. Complaints about the shallowness of student essays are widespread.

One of the first questions to ask is whether we should be even asking students to write essays. Well-known British higher-education scholar Phil Race reminds us that essay writing is inherently difficult. He also believes that it tends to reward students who are more capable of adopting the rules of essay writing as a genre over those who are better at other forms of writing and presentation (Race 2009). This was the position of the first author of this chapter, Sara Hammer, at the beginning of our collaboration.

As well as outlining an alternative approach to teaching essay writing and using it to develop critical thinking, this chapter will report on a qualitative case study led by Sara that explored two separate but interrelated issues: the first was students' preconceived ideas about essay writing and critical thinking as part of essay writing, and the potential of these to shape the way they believed essay writing should be approached. The second was the effectiveness of the second author, Phil Griffiths's, assessment process redesign in developing his students' ability to test and evaluate author propositions. This research was conducted by someone other than the teacher and the teaching team. The assessment of student performance was undertaken by Sara, who had access to all student assignments, and did this independently of the official marking of those assignments. It was she who selected students for interview or forum post analysis, and conducted the subsequent data analysis.

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