A critical thinking game

A critical thinking game

Amanda Mitchison

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.

20 February 2020

A mixture of metaphors

A mixture of metaphors

Lydia Syson

Image credit: Gianluca De Girolamo, Adshot

Describing different writing techniques and explaining how to keep your writing on track present a challenge. When we were designing a workshop on paragraphing for second-year Life Science undergraduates, Consultant Fellow Elanor Dymott and I worked with a series of metaphors for writing, including a dog race, the red thread and MEAL.

Humour helps make images stick, and oils the wheels of learning. Watching an amusing video of a canine obstacle race, many undergraduates identified with the unruly Labrador endlessly distracted by tasty titbits along the way. What advice might they have for that dog, we wondered? ‘Focus!’ they replied. A good metaphor for writing.

A unifying central theme running through a piece of writing can be thought of as a red thread – a Scandinavian idea. In our workshops, we made the metaphor literal, stringing a bright red washing line across the room to represent the main argument, with students encouraged to hang their paragraphs from it. Every paragraph had to connect to the thread.

MEAL is a well-known mnemonic for paragraph structure, standing for ‘main idea’, ‘evidence’, ‘analysis’, and the ‘link’ to the thread of the argument. We used the metaphor of a satisfying meal to explain that most paragraphs contain all of these elements. We pegged up a series of images of different courses to represent the elements, from starter to coffee. Then we asked the students to sort out a jumble of sentences from sample paragraphs and peg these out in the order they thought worked best: a ‘writing meal’, as it were.

Another metaphor I’ve always found invaluable is the concept of ‘parachutists and truffle hunters’, coined by 20th-century French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. He divided historians into parachutists, who range widely over their terrain, taking a bird’s-eye, broad-brush view of the past, and truffle hunters, who sniff and dig for treasures, looking for the revelations offered by precise and detailed work in the archives. In any academic project, a writer needs to be both parachutist and truffle hunter. You need to float high enough above the ground to see the big picture and low enough to search systematically for those nuggets of information – the ‘truffles’.

We all learn differently, and it’s helpful to discover which conceptual metaphors work for our own writing.

6 February 2020

Paragraphs: the stepping stones in your argument

Paragraphs: the stepping stones in your argument

Trevor Day

Whether you are an undergraduate writing an essay or a postgraduate penning an academic paper for publication, you are inevitably building an argument. Each paragraph represents a step along the way. A paragraph has typical ingredients, such as a topic sentence at or near the beginning, which may connect to the previous paragraph: for example, ‘Taking Regina’s (2010) proposition, Ahmadi (2014) tested her predictions systematically.’ Sentences giving evidence and reasoning are likely to follow, with a concluding statement to draw the paragraph to a close. Regardless of how the paragraph is constructed, it should focus on a particular idea.

I find the ability to step back from the detail of the text, and gain an overview, is invaluable in spotting other people’s arguments — as well as developing your own. In reading or writing courses for postgraduates, I use the following activity to demonstrate how to follow an argument.

Get hold of an academic paper or a book chapter by a writer you like in your discipline. Skim read the first six paragraphs and work out the main idea conveyed in each paragraph. Can you reduce the idea in each paragraph to a phrase or sentence? Examples might be:

  • Why this topic is important, and for whom
  • Why the topic is controversial
  • Defining key terms
  • Setting out the key problem
  • Introducing one possible solution.

If the piece is clearly written, you should be able to plot the flow of the argument from your paragraph summaries.

Now turn to your own work and check whether you can reduce your paragraphs into statements that represent logical steps in your argument. You may have written the main idea for each paragraph in your essay plan or in the outline for your journal paper. Have you stuck to your plan? If not, is the flow of ideas still logical? Perhaps the text is working better than in your original plan! But if you find a gap in the logical flow, you’ll need to adjust the points you are making or perhaps swap paragraphs around.

Swiftly reading your own or other people’s work for the flow of ideas across paragraphs is a great way to improve your argumentation. Try it with your next assignment.

23 January 2020

Voice in academic writing

Voice in academic writing

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

We know what ‘voice’ is in creative writing: it’s the way Ernest Hemingway’s sentences are clean and direct, or Jane Austen’s are witty and elegant. It’s how a writer sounds. It’s a reflection of who they are. But is it possible to cultivate a voice in academic writing?

Poor academic writing can be convoluted and obscure. The writer’s voice might be described as detached or passive — as though the writer is talking from a lofty position a long way away, to nobody in particular. Such writing can alienate the reader, not only because it’s difficult to understand but also because the writer and the reader don’t connect. The writer isn’t reaching out to the reader to help them understand. And if the writer cares about their subject, it doesn’t show.

In contrast, good academic writers communicate their ideas simply and clearly, conveying a sense of wonder or excitement about their subject and bringing a little of their heart into their writing. Here are some ways you can cultivate your voice.

Care about your reader

It’s hard to make difficult concepts easily understood. Help your reader by imagining someone who knows less than you do, rather than someone you’re trying to impress. Break processes down into steps and lead the reader by the hand through each step. In doing this, you’re likely to gain a deeper understanding of the subject yourself, too.

Get out of your own way

Stop trying to sound ‘academic’ and think hard about the subject. We’re at our most authentic (and most convincing) when we focus not on how we sound but on the subject itself.


Instead of imagining yourself lecturing from a podium, imagine you’re trying to explain your idea to a friend over a coffee. How can you help them ‘see’ what you’re describing? The imagination is powerful. Metaphors, similes or analogies can help a reader visualise what you’re talking about. Be creative.

Be emotive

Revealing emotion might seem to go against the core ethos of academic writing, which is usually to be impartial and objective. Yet a degree of subjectivity can help to engage the reader and convey your passion for the subject. Do you find a theory ‘compelling’? Or is an idea ‘baffling’ or ‘uninspiring’? Subjective words are powerful. Employ restraint, and only use them if you mean them.

Our writing voice can enthuse and convince. It’s a powerful tool that develops over the span of our writing lives.

9 January 2020
How to stay motivated

How to stay motivated

Lucy English


Image credit: Simon Goldstein

So you’re embarking on a Master’s dissertation or PhD in the Arts or Humanities. It can be exciting at the beginning but how do you maintain your enthusiasm throughout such a long project? When I was working on  my doctoral thesis, my attitude changed throughout the different phases.

I like to compare the process to growing vegetables. After planting the seeds comes a long period of tending your crops until you eventually harvest them. Your dissertation or thesis is like a crop that requires constant attention to ensure you reap the rewards.

Sowing the seeds
At the start, record your thoughts about why you are undertaking the project, describing your feelings and what you want to find out. Consider what you will be adding to the body of knowledge about your subject and how it will help others in the future.

The seeds are sprouting
The research period can be enjoyable as you explore your field, seeing what comes up. Check in with your supervisor and ask for feedback on your developing ideas; you may need to adjust the focus of your work. Share your research with other students and academics through papers and conferences, so you are not working alone.

Full bloom, but messy!
To present your research effectively, you need to create a clear, consistent narrative. I’d advise you to break down the work into manageable chunks, treating each chapter like a separate mini-project and rewarding yourself when you complete it. At this stage you may find that you go through moments of disengagement and even be tempted to give up. If this happens, try to reconnect with your passion for the subject. Why did you want to do it in the first place? Read the notes you made at the start to rediscover that early enthusiasm and get back on track to complete your draft.

After you draft each chapter, you will return to edit it, probably several times. I don’t enjoy editing and I find referencing tortuous, but I know both need to be done. My strategy is to create an editing timetable with hourly sessions; in each one, I give a section my full attention. Even if the process seems tough, you will have the satisfaction of seeing progress. After a final proofread, the fruits of your labour will be ready to present to the world.

5 December 2019
Freeing your writing

Freeing your writing

Trevor Day

I have been running writing workshops in research-intensive UK universities for more than a decade now. When working with academics or doctoral students, one of the activities that tops their ‘most beneficial’ list is freewriting.

Freewriting is the process of writing as a stream of consciousness, without worrying about the normal conventions of proper sentences, grammar, punctuation and so on. There are many approaches to freewriting, but the one I’ll emphasise here is freewriting just before you get down to serious writing.

In my workshops, I often ask participants to write down what they ‘think and feel’ about writing their thesis, paper or other major writing task. I give them up to 10 minutes to handwrite, not stopping to analyse their writing.

Whatever the discipline of the participants, the majority find the activity unexpectedly revealing. Freewriting shortens the distance between thinking and writing. Without the normal constraints of worrying about the audience, the purpose, and the conventions of ‘good’ writing, the participants can freely express what they think and feel. This could be an outburst of emotion, a free-wheeling exploration of potential solutions to a problem, stepping back from a situation and seeing it from a new perspective, or something else. Thoughts tumble out in a haphazard way, without the need for them to be organised. Often, new connections are made.

Reading their freewriting afterwards, people often discover useful insights. At the very least, they tend to feel better having expressed something that had been concerning them.

When I follow up with the academics or students several weeks after a workshop, I sometimes ask them how and when they use freewriting. The most frequent response is ‘just before I have to write something serious’. Typically, they spend 10 minutes or so writing their stream of consciousness. Some use it to ‘clear the mind’ and get their ‘writing muscles’ working. Others use it to explore the piece of writing they’re about to do: ‘What do I think and feel about this paper?’ or ‘Why am I so resistant to writing this paper?’ They tell me it makes them think more holistically about the task and the process, stepping back from what they’re trying to do. A few say that by making new connections, they end up writing the paper more creatively, without the headings and structures they habitually use. It helps breathe life into their academic writing. They find their formal writing becomes more expressive, without losing its rigour.

Freewriting is a marvellous complement to academic writing, and the benefits far outweigh the little time it takes. Try it next time you have something important to write.

21 November 2019

Treat it like a day job

Treat it like a day job

Image credit: Ben Smith

Writing of any kind can be overwhelming. One reason is that as writers we care about what we are writing: we want to communicate, to share, to be understood. Writing for many is not a day job, it is a vocation. As such, it can be wonderfully fulfilling, but it can also be deeply depressing.

I used to let work take over and I was miserable. I worked all day and night, and fell asleep at my desk. The deadlines felt terrifying and impossible. Writing took over my life, getting into every fibre of my being and affecting my sleep, my appetite, my relationships and my mood. I couldn’t switch it off and it affected me 24/7. It certainly was not a day job.

This is precisely why I decided it should be treated like a day job. Nowadays, I try to write only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. In this way, I am putting some boundaries around my work and exerting some control over the effect it has on my life. Of course, I still think about it during evenings and weekends, but doing other activities at these times helps me relax and gain some perspective on my work. Boundaries even help me solve problems with the writing when I return to my desk. I’m fresh and re-energised.

Of course not everyone is free to write from 9 until 5, but whatever the time available, I suggest limiting it in a similar way. If you can only write at the weekend, then you might work on Saturday and have Sunday off. You may feel you will achieve less but I believe you will achieve more.

Sometimes, despite such timetabling, the writing takes longer than planned and deadlines seem unattainable. Then it is tempting to let the work bleed back into every area of your life. In this situation, I might decide to expand my working week, but only temporarily. So for a month I’ll work on Saturdays, but then revert to my usual schedule. The key is not to let the work take over.

Writing used to feel like being imprisoned; now it feels like I’ve been set free.

7 November 2019

The point of no return

The point of no return

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

You’ve started writing an essay, Masters dissertation or PhD thesis. In my case, it’s a new novel. Somebody asks how it’s going, so I ask myself ‘Am I beyond the point of no return?’

Academic work involves a variety of points of no return. In a 1,500-word essay for which you’ve chosen a line of argument and three themes, it might be when you’ve covered two of those themes. You’ve drafted your introduction, written 800 words (400 for each theme) and your argument is working. For practical dissertations, you may reach the point of no return when you discover whether your data analysis confirms your hypothesis. For PhD students, it may be your upgrade from MPhil or writing a Year 2 progress report and research plan charting the road towards completion.

It’s important to celebrate these points of no return. Firstly, writing can be a lonely business, full of moments of self-doubt. A point of no return marks a milestone achieved. Secondly, passing a point of no return is the moment to switch from looking backwards, worrying ‘should I have started from there?’, to looking forwards towards the end. There will, of course, still be problems to overcome, but your commitment to going forward is built on solid foundations.

My point of no return is roughly 25,000 words into my historical novel. If my characters are lively, their dialogue unforced and my notebook abandoned, I’m over the point of no return and the book will be finished. Finishing is no guarantee of success but, like pressing ‘pay’ on a non-refundable holiday, the course is set.

Ah, you may be asking, but what happens if at 25,000 words the course isn’t set, the characters aren’t breathing, the dialogue is stodgy and I’m glued to my notebook of ideas? Setting a point of no return is the best way to prepare for such a possibility. It will force you to stop, take an objective look at your work and spot any wrong turns before you go any further.

In one-to-ones with PhD students during writing retreats, we discuss wrong turns, with ‘why didn’t I spot that earlier?’ a shared writerly torment. It’s good to discuss how to deal with that sick feeling of ‘wasted’ work. My colleague Lucy English has good advice about text recycling[1], and once you’re back on course it’s a comfort that even deleted work has its uses.

A point of return is a good friend. After you’ve either changed or confirmed your course, when somebody asks how the writing is going, you can reply with complete confidence ‘I’m beyond the point of no return’ and know that every writer from every age is cheering you on.

[1] Lucy English, ‘Don’t waste – recycle’ https://rlfconsultants.com/dont-waste-recycle/

24 October 2019
Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Writing training for different stages of a PhD

Anne Wilson

Academic writing interventions for PhD students seem to be more effective if they are tailored to specific stages of the PhD. I run two-day writing retreats with RLF Consultant Fellow Katie Grant for Humanities PhD students, and we use different formats and approaches for Years 1, 2 and 3. In feedback, participants confirm the benefits of sharing experiences with others at a similar stage and they appreciate activities that focus on the type of writing they are doing at that time.

Year 1, we find, is about uncertainty — about the boundaries and nature of the project and the quality of writing expected at this level. Many Year 1 students lack confidence and carry baggage about themselves as writers. We give these students permission to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions like ‘What is academic writing?’ and ‘Why do we write in this way about research?’ We give them time to reflect on what constitutes ‘good’ academic writing in their discipline, and how to identify their own place and value as an academic writer. We reassure students that ambiguity and confusion are normal in a creative process. Although it feels uncomfortable, uncertainty allows us to keep an open mind and explore new avenues of enquiry.

Year 2 is about choice. Having done the groundwork, students see multiple possibilities. Many students come to this retreat feeling overwhelmed by too much material, unable to see the wood for the trees. Getting them to draw their emotional journey as a timeline, road or graph clears the air and helps them to assess their intellectual progress more dispassionately. We encourage them to write ‘elevator pitches’ for their project and summaries of their argument. Students who said they felt ‘daunted, intimidated and overwhelmed’ before the retreat were ‘calmer, more confident’ and ‘ready to write’ after it.

The Year 3 retreat is about developing good writing habits and improving productivity. Students at this stage tend to want focused and individualised support. They know their writing strengths and weaknesses by now; they need encouragement for the final sprint to the finish. We structure 45-minute writing sessions in a calm, supportive atmosphere and show them techniques to tackle writer’s block.

It’s possible, of course, to design writing training relevant to all PhD students, but differentiating between the years enables a more sophisticated learning experience. Some students organise their own writing groups following the retreat — a development we welcome and encourage.

10 October 2019

Orwellian versus stained-glass window prose

Susan Barker

Image credit: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

George Orwell once said, ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.’ In other words, writing shouldn’t draw attention to itself and instead should be a clear medium for conveying meaning. The opposite of clear Orwellian prose would be ‘stained-glass window’ writing — flowery and ornate, and obscuring what it means to convey. And while complex, convoluted sentences can be creative and intellectually stimulating, they are inappropriate in some contexts.

I facilitate workshops on writing with clarity and conciseness for non-academic staff. We focus on writing emails, social media, blog posts and newsletters, as it’s disconcerting to see how these swift, digital methods of communication can be used to obscure the messages themselves.

It often comes down to a battle between writer and message. For example, an email should communicate directly to its intended reader, but is the writer stepping in front of Orwell’s transparent window and acting as a barrier? Perhaps the writer is using unnecessary obscure vocabulary in an attempt to appear more important — why use ‘adumbrate’ when ‘outline’ is simpler? The same can be said for an over-reliance on long, complex sentences that may look very business-like, but the resulting blocks of text run the risk of losing or alienating the reader.

Confusion may arise when the writer knows what they have to say, but is nervous of saying it. Perhaps the message will be unpopular with the intended audience, for instance, a reduction in overtime. It may be tempting to embed crucial information in long-winded preambles and apologies that not only obscure vital material, but also doubly infuriate the recipients who have to sift through them.

In these cases, it is essential that the writer makes sure critical information is first and foremost. This can be achieved by writing in short paragraphs and using bullet points for key messages. If the writer combines this approach with simple vocabulary that has a touch of warmth and sympathy to it – after all, being succinct does not have to mean being cold – the reader’s focus will be on content of the message, not the message itself.

In our workshops, participants are encouraged to take a step back from what they are writing to focus on getting key information across as clearly and concisely as possible. Miscommunication is one of the biggest sources of conflict between colleagues, but by keeping Orwell’s window in mind, we can make the workplace a more harmonious place to be.

6 June 2019