Students are often told their work should be more ‘critical’ rather than ‘descriptive’ and often they feel quite stumped by this. Perhaps because they are in awe of academic texts, they accept the work of academics without examining the suppositions or looking for contrary evidence or arguments. They do not pull their chairs back from their desks and think. They fail to assess, and as a result their essays may meekly recount what they have read.
Last month, with a group of second-year Politics undergraduates, I trialled a new activity aimed at encouraging critical thinking. I explained that students are critical all the time, about their clothes, food and films. When they leave the cinema, they don’t describe the plot of the film to each other, they discuss what worked and what didn’t. They have a view; they make judgements.
We spent a few minutes discussing critical approaches. I elicited a few prompts and wrote them on a whiteboard:
The unexpected thing about X is . . .
The problem with X is . . .
The interesting/tiresome/innovative thing about X is. . .
X works/doesn’t work because. . .
I gave each group of three students a bell and a sheet with the prompts above. I also distributed cards, each with a topic of conversation. They included political subjects such as Donald Trump, the Arab Spring and the Gilets Jaunes in France; famous film stars and musicians; and random topics such as the Welsh language, veganism and cufflinks. The message was that you could think critically about anything.
Each student in turn had to turn over a card and talk critically about the subject. If they became descriptive, the other students would ring the bell and another player would take over. If a player could think of nothing to say, they could try the next card.
Some of the students found the game quite hard and were reliant on the prompt sheets. But they did seem to enjoy playing. I would see someone speaking and another player with their hand hovering over the bell, waiting for the speaker to trip up and become too descriptive.
After the activity, we discussed how the students could use critical approaches in their academic work, bearing in mind that any assertion they made needed to be supported by evidence and the work of other academics (who, in turn, had to be assessed). In their feedback, the students commented positively about the game. They had found the activity great fun and it deepened their understanding of critical thinking.