Essays and critical thinking

What critical thinking consists of and how it should be taught to students is a continued subject for debate. One dimension of this debate relates to critical thinking as a personal disposition; another relates to whether or not critical thinking can be learned as a generic skill or must be embedded within an academic discipline (Davies 2006; 2013; Moore 2004; 2011). Mummery and Morten-Allen (2009) define critical thinking as the learner's development of "effective reasoning, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation and the monitoring/adjustment of one's own reasoning processes." At its heart, critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences has to begin with an understanding that knowledge is contested and that social phenomena are explained in radically different ways by different theories and approaches that have not been definitively found to be right or wrong. This means that any argument made by any writer is inherently contested by a rival school of thought. Among other things, critical thinking involves subjecting these rival theories and approaches to intellectual examination. This can include identifying and challenging their assumptions, testing their theories against real-world experience and empirical research, and examining the structure of their logic.

For university academics, a key outcome of many essay-writing tasks is for students to show evidence of critical or higher-order thinking (Andrews 2003). However, our experience of reading and marking student essays over many years suggests that they fail in this. As academics in the humanities, we have also routinely found that the majority were poorly researched and contained little real critical evaluation. Our experience is echoed by writers such as Clarsen (2009, 83) who describes student essays as "depressingly simplistic." In our experience, all but a small minority of essay texts are disorganized, the work of other authors cobbled together with little real consideration for its meaning. We have found it not uncommon for students unwittingly to copy a fragment of text in support of an argument that the author of that text actually opposed. We found little in the way of research related to essay writing and critical thinking that would provide us with solutions to these problems. This shallowness of student performance may be a result of what Norton (1990) and Vardi (2000) argue are conflicting and confusing instructions from lecturers and tutors about what essays should consist of, what is important, and what is prioritized by markers.

Research by Hounsell (1997, 112-114) found that students held three different conceptions of essay writing. These were:

  • 1. the essay as "arrangement . . . an ordered presentation embracing facts and ideas";
  • 2. the essay as "viewpoint . . . the ordered presentation of a distinctive viewpoint on a problem or issue"; and the most sophisticated,
  • 3. the essay as "argument . . . an ordered presentation of an argument well- supported by evidence."

The last was the only conception involving some intellectual priority for finding data and interpreting it. Yet even students who held this view of essay writing appeared, when interviewed by Hounsell, to focus unreflectively on finding information to support their own argument (Hounsell 1997, 115).

Our perception was that the essay as an argument supported by evidence is widely taught in Australian universities. To confirm this we examined twenty- six essay writing guides from the full range of institution types. The guides we found were easily accessible to students on websites, and were provided by individual disciplines and by centralized student learning centers. Only four conceived of essay writing as involving research and participation in a debate that sits within a specific knowledge domain. Many offered a decontextualized process that took students through a series of essay-writing stages, such as the following:

  • 1. analyzing the question and defining key terms,
  • 2. establishing possible argument or thesis,
  • 3. researching the topic, and taking notes from readings,
  • 4. developing an essay plan, then writing the first draft,
  • 5. editing and redrafting, and
  • 6. completing final draft, including references and citations.

The most common type of guide we found made explicit the requirement for research or reading as well as writing, but made no reference to a knowledge domain or a debate. Only a few gave students any sense of how they might develop a credible argument, or that developing a position on an academic question is often a vexed intellectual process. Their silence on such matters sends an implicit message that the argument a student makes is not as important as other tasks such as developing a logical structure and finding supporting evidence.

In such guides, divergent opinion is often referred to briefly, or not at all. At best, students are asked to assess the argument of an author without reference to other research, or to be critical by evaluating evidence used to justify conclusions without reference to either authors or a debate. Certainly there is no advice on how to deal with debate among writers. For this most common type of essay guide, critical thinking techniques were not outlined. The end result is that students using such guides are expected to carry out a task for which they are largely unprepared.

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