Shopping around for a critical opinion

Critical thinking or critiquing is central to university level study, and becomes more important the higher you progress. It’s in your marking criteria, very often in the wording of your assignment question or instruction, and makes a frequent appearance in feedback.

However, critical thinking can seem strangely contradictory. How can a lowly student criticise the work of an authority with far more expertise than them? For years you’ve been told that you can’t believe all you read on the internet, and that you should look for ‘high quality’ peer reviewed sources in academic books and journals, as they are more trustworthy than Wikipedia. And then we tell you not to trust even these sources, which the university library provides, but that you have to question those too?! Why?!

One of the barriers to confident critical thinking is feeling that you have to criticise – to find something wrong with a text. Actually, critiquing or critical reading is often simply testing, checking. All academic knowledge is constructed, created through the process of research: posing a valid question, gathering evidence objectively, interpreting it logically, forming a rational argument. Academic peer review is one stage of filtering out poorly constructed knowledge before it is published – research that is flawed, inaccurate, biased, not rigorous or simply not very important. Peer review is a good process, but can overlook things. And any two scholars may see things differently. When we as students or academics want to draw on scholarship, one of the things we need to do is to take responsibility for just checking to see for ourselves if it was well constructed. We’re asking – how do they really know that for sure? And, following their reasoning, do I see it the same way?

Critical thinking is about more than just finding flaws. You may disagree with a source, but to decide on careful examination and thought that you agree with a source is also a critical judgement. And that isn’t necessarily a simple ‘right or wrong’ judgement, it’s also more nuanced positions, such as ‘mostly valid but with some reservations’, or perhaps ‘good as far as it goes, in certain limited contexts’ or ‘that’s one valid way of looking at it, but not the only one’. We’re also looking to see not just if it’s right/wrong, but if it’s relevant/not relevant, useful/not useful to us in our own work.

It’s like grocery shopping – you go to the supermarket and assume that what you’re buying is probably good quality- there are customer guarantees, after all. But when you select fruit and vegetables, you still just….check them to see if they are damaged, or which is the biggest, best or most appealing. When you’re buying meat or bread, you still just… check the use-by date, brand and quantity to see if it’s going to suit your needs. Sometimes supermarkets make mistakes, sometimes you just want to pick the most suitable ingredients for whatever you want to make. We try to resist being tempted into bad bargains, or things we don’t really need.

Similarly with academic reading – you’re checking to see if the information contained is good quality (how was it made?), how it compares to other information on the market (what other views are there? which do I agree with?), and, no matter what the quality is, whether it’s suitable for your own purposes (does this help me answer my own assignment question?). This involves understanding how knowledge in your subject is made – how data is gathered and interpreted, what counts as ‘evidence’, how arguments are constructed and conclusions drawn in your discipline. That’s what university study entails – not just learning the information, but learning to ‘think like a historian/medic/engineer/biologist etc’ to understand how that knowledge is created, and to begin to create knowledge yourself.

Posted by Helen

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