Wrestling with the question

Wrestling with the question

Arm wrestling

skeeze from Pixabay

When academics grade essays, originality is the one quality regularly cited as essential to a first-class grade. The way to stand out from the crowd is not just to answer a question but to challenge it, play with it — and maybe even rough it up a little. In particular, seek to wrestle with specific words in the question. Take this classic history question: ‘Why did the idea of “class” emerge when it did in the modern world?’ You might want to question the ideas of ‘class’ or ‘modernity’. Are they meaningful terms? You might attack the premise of the question — perhaps you feel that the concept of the ‘modern world’ only emerged with the idea of ‘class’. Wrestling with the question in this way indicates that you’re not accepting the usual assumptions and you’re up for a battle of ideas.

James McConnachie
25 June 2020

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

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

Logical ligaments

Logical ligaments

graphic of human bodyThe words ‘therefore’ and ‘however’ are sometimes used loosely, as if to add an argumentative feel. But they are potent words with highly specific uses. ‘Therefore’ expresses a strictly logical consequence. There are no eyewitness accounts. We must therefore treat other sources with caution. ‘However’ signals strong contrast or contradiction. The inside temperature fell. The outside temperature rose, however. (Note that you can’t use these words to join two sentences at a comma, as you would with ‘and’ or ‘but’. They need a full stop or, if you like, a semi-colon.) If the underlying logic is not there, adding these words will expose the gap not paper it over. Are you really describing a consequence or only a connection? Are you revealing a contradiction or only a distinction? We sometimes think about writing like we look at the human body – paying attention to the organs, bones, muscles and the surface of the skin. The ligaments, the elastic tissues that connect our joints, are often ignored. Yet ligaments hold bodies together. And logical ligaments hold essays together.

James McConnachie
31 October 2019

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Thinking critically involves asking questions. Academic researchers who have been reading material from their field for years do this automatically. To help you adopt the same questioning mind as a student, it can be useful to keep a list of critical prompts — questions to ask every time you encounter a new text. When reading a paper, you might ask: ‘Was the method the best choice to test the hypothesis?’ or ‘Does the conclusion follow on logically from the research?’ Keep a notebook to record these questions and try to add to the list every time you read for an assignment. You might not use all the questions every time you analyse a text, but they will help to remind you of all the different ways you can evaluate what the author is saying.

Dr Anna Barker
16 May 2019

Pictures make words

Pictures make words

Max Adams

Image credit: Kona Macphee / RLF

During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.

In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?

The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?

The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.

Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.

All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.

Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Image credit: National Gallery and Wikimedia Commons

11 April 2019
Think in points

Think in points

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

Recently, while working with some undergraduate students, we discussed what happens when they receive their essay assignment. Most said they immediately started thinking about the content they needed to include. They would then write an essay that they felt ticked all the boxes, including details about the subject the essay question had asked them to explore. Unfortunately, these students sometimes received feedback that their writing was too descriptive; it lacked critical analysis. How can you make sure that your essay contains critical analysis as well as the right content?

When you are planning your essay, it helps to get yourself into a critical frame of mind. You are setting out not just to describe what others in your field have said, but also to offer a line of reasoning, an argument, an analysis of the current research and thinking. Consider which points – or statements – you can make that will answer the question and deliver your argument. Points usually begin new paragraphs. Think of a paragraph as a container for a point. It might look a bit like this:

I – Identify one point or statement in your argument that relates to your essay question. (1–2 sentences)

D – Define or add detail to your point. (1–2 sentences)

E – Give evidence that underpins the point. What proof can you provide to substantiate what you have said? A study? Some statistics from a journal article? (3–4 sentences)

A – Analyse the evidence — explain the significance of your point. How does it contribute to your overall argument? What might the limitations be? Are there any other reliable sources that present a different view? (3–4 sentences. If your paragraph is becoming long, begin your analysis in a new paragraph).

Thinking about points you can make in your essay puts you in a critical frame of mind right from the beginning. Describing evidence will get you marks, but presenting a point that you underpin with critical evaluation of the evidence will be marked higher. When you are planning your next assignment, start with an open mind, do some reading and think about which points you can make.

You can find out more about thinking in points in Step 3 of the RLF’s free essay-writing tool, ALEX.


14 March 2019


Paraphrasing is explaining what an author has said in your own words. It’s an important skill in academic writing that indicates that you have understood the source and are able to use it to advance your own argument.

Some students think that you can paraphrase by simply changing some of the nouns or verbs but keeping the sentence structure of your source. But to paraphrase properly, you need to really understand what you’re reading and be able to explain it.

Effective paraphrasing is a skill that can be learned. In workshops at Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt University, I try to encourage good paraphrasing by addressing two key principles: using your own words, and employing a sentence/paragraph structure that is different to the original. Here’s how to do it.

Read the passage first. Underline or highlight key phrases. Then put the text away. Now use your voice – I’m talking vocal chords here – to articulate what the text is saying. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone. You could give yourself an opening line, such as ‘Here, X argues for a novel methodology because . . .’ or ‘Y’s theory is important because . . .’ Once you have said it, scribble it down; it doesn’t matter if the style is informal — you can edit it into shape. Now check it against the original. Have you captured the essence of what the author is saying?

Cherise Saywell
7 March 2019

Summarise your argument

Summarise your argument

students talkingCan you express the central idea or argument of what you’re planning to write, in a couple of sentences spoken aloud? This short but effective exercise works for both academic and creative writing. It will test the project’s roadworthiness before you start. You don’t need to tell an expert; you can present your idea to a friend or a family member — as long as it is someone whose judgement you trust. Your listener can tell you if the argument is compelling and if the connections between the elements are robust and logical. Without doing this simple test, you might waste time writing up an idea that will never work.

Amanda Swift
7 February 2019

Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
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