Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Writing critically

Introduction

It is important to be able to write decriptively. You need to be able to define, describe, categorise and narrate. However, it is not enough for work in higher education. In the words of Nash (1990, p. 10),

The student who gives only the facts, with no assessment or interpretation, gets poor marks.

Therefore, as well as writing descriptively, you need to be able to write critically. As well as giving the facts, you need to be able to make use of these facts to come to general conclusions. These conclusions need to be justified and supported by evidence. You also need to be aware of other points of view that exist and this must be dealt with. So you need to describe other people's points of view and compare and contrast them with your own, stating their advantages and disadvantages. In this way you can analyse and evaluate your work and others and come to a balanced conclusion.

Bloom's Taxonomy

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago developed a classification of levels of intellectual behaviour which is considered important in learning. Bloom identified six levels within the cognitive domain, from the simple recall or recognition of facts, as the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract levels, to the highest level which is classified as evaluation. Most university level writing needs to involve writing at this high level.

bloom

The six categories are listed below. The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulty. That is, the first one must be mastered before the next one can take place (Bloom, 1956, pp. 201-207).

Category

Key Words

Associated Questions

Typical Question Instructions

Evaluation:
Makes judgements about the value of ideas or materials for a given purpose in a given context. 
Presents and defends opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.
Compares and discriminates between ideas.
Recognises subjectivity.

e.g. appraises, compares, concludes, contrasts, criticises, critiques, defends, describes, discriminates, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies, relates, summarises, supports.

Do you agree with the actions/outcomes ...?

What is your opinion of ...?

How would you prove/disprove ...?

Evaluate the outcome....

advise
assess
estimate
evaluate
judge
rate
recommend

Synthesis:
Puts parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure.
Combines information together in a different way by putting elements together in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.
Generalises from facts.

e.g. categorises, combines, compiles, composes, creates, devises, designs, explains, generates, modifies, organises, plans, rearranges, reconstructs, relates, reorganises, revises, rewrites, summarises, tells, writes.

What changes would you make to solve ...?

What would happen if ...?

Can you elaborate on the reason ...?

arrange
compose
construct
create
design
formulate
manage
organise
plan
prepare
set up

Analysis:
Examines and breaks information into parts by identifying motives or causes; making inferences and finding evidence to support generalisations.
Includes analysis of elements, relationships and organisational principles.
Recognises hidden meanings. 
Distinguishes between facts and inferences.

e.g. analyses, breaks down, compares, contrasts, diagrams, deconstructs, differentiates, discriminates, distinguishes, identifies, illustrates, infers, outlines, relates, selects, separates.

What are the parts or features of ...?

How is _______ related to ...?

Can you show connection between ...?

How would you compare/contrast ...?

analyse
calculate
categorise
compare
contrast
criticise
debate
differentiate
discuss
distinguish
examine
experiment
inspect
question
relate
solve
test

Application:
Uses a concept in a new situation.
Applies what was learned in the classroom into novel situations.
Applies general ideas to concrete situations.
Applies what is discussed in one paper to another paper.
Predicts probable effects.
Solves problems by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way.

e.g. applies, changes, computes, constructs, demonstrates, discovers, manipulates, modifies, operates, predicts, prepares, produces, relates, shows, solves, uses.

How would you use ...?

What examples can you find to ...?

Can you relate this information to the present situation?

apply
demonstrate
dramatise
employ
illustrate
interpret
operate
practice
schedule
sketch
use

Comprehension:
Demonstrates understanding of facts and ideas by organising, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions and stating main ideas.
States a problem in own words.
Knows what is being communicated and can make use of materials or ideas without necessarily relating it to other materials or seeing further implications.
It includes: translation of verbal material into symbolic statements; interpretation of data; extrapolation - trends and tendencies.

e.g. comprehends, converts, defends, distinguishes, estimates, explains, extends, generalises, gives examples, infers, interprets, paraphrases, predicts, rewrites, summarises, translates.

How would you classify the type of ...?

What was the text about?

Can you summarise the author's point of view?

classify
describe
distinguish
explain
express
identify
illustrate
locate
recognise
report
restate
review
tell
translate

Knowledge:
Recalls data or information.
Shows knowledge of previously learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and answers.
Has knowledge of specific facts & terminology; knowledge of ways and means - conventions, trends and sequences, classifications and categories, criteria, methodology; knowledge of universals and abstractions - principles & generalisations, theories and structure.

e.g. defines, describes, identifies, knows, labels, lists, matches, names, outlines, quotes, recalls, recognises, reproduces, selects, shows,  states.

What is ...?

How is ...?

Where is ...?

When did _______ happen?

define
list
name
recall
record
relate
repeat
state
underline

 

Writing critically means writing at the highest levels. Therefore, in most academic writing it is important to analyse and evaluate. Simple description is usually not enough (Woodward-Kron, 2002).

This means making connections between theory and practice, drawing links between theories, as well as evaluating theories and research. It means giving your opinions (positive and negative) on the work of others and your own opinions based on what you have learned. Critical evaluation requires you to evaluate arguments, weigh evidence and develop a set of standards on which to base your evaluation. 

When writing critically, you need to:

  • Show an understanding of knowldge and theory
  • Analyse and categorise theories and research
  • Take different points of view into consideration
  • Examine ideas in depth before accepting or rejecting them
  • Identify causes and effects
  • Evaluate theories and research
  • Compare and contrast theories and research
  • Select from theories and research
  • Synthesise from theories and research
  • Make logical connections between different theories and practice
  • Give opinions (positive and negative)
  • Provide evidence for these opinions
  • Indicate gaps in theories and research
  • Weigh evidence and come to conclusions

NB: Some subjects accept stronger criticism than others - find out about your own subject.

Example

Read the following example:  Example 1

Exercise

Try this exercise: Exercise 1

Further details

As well as writing descriptively, you need to be able to write critically; you need to be able to make use of these facts to come to general conclusions. These conclusions need to be justified and supported by evidence. You also need to be aware of other points of view that exist and these must be dealt with. So you need to describe other people's points of view and compare and contrast them with your own, stating their advantages and disadvantages. In this way you can analyse and evaluate your work and others and come to a balanced conclusion. The following may be useful:

  • Reading critically

It is important to read critically. Critical reading requires you to evaluate the arguments in the text. You need to distinguish fact from opinion, and look at arguments given for and against the various claims.

See:Reading: Critical Reading Introduction

  • Reporting

One of the most important aspects of academic writing is making use of the ideas of other people. This is important as you need to show that you have understood the materials and that you can use their ideas and findings in your own way.

See: Writing Reporting Introduction

  • Arguing and discussing

You need to be able to make use of facts to come to general conclusions. You need to argue and discuss.

See:Writing Functions 11: Discussing

  • Evaluating other points of view

You need to be aware that other points of view exists and deal with this.

See:Writing Functions 12: Evaluating

  • Application

One thing that you learn in higher education is how to apply what you are learning to the real world. It is an essential part of writing critically as defined by Bloom

See: Writing Functions 22: Application

  • Comparing & Contrasting

When you are working with other people's ideas, you will compare and contrast the different ideas and your own, discussing advantages and disadvantages.

See: Writing Functions 13: Comparing

  • Synthesising

You will need to summarise other people's ideas, combine them and come to conclusions.

See: Writing Reporting Synthesis

  • Generalising

In most cases, the conclusions you come to and the points of view you hold will be qualified and generalisations will be made.

See: Writing Functions 14: Generalising

  • Expressing degree of certainty

You may also have different degrees of certainty about your claims.

See: Writing Functions 15: Certainty

  • Providing support

You need to provide evidence to support your points of view and conclusions.

See: Writing Functions 20: Supporting

  • Supporting an argument: Illustrating and exemplifying ideas

You can use examples to support your conclusions.

See: Writing Functions 8: Examples

  • Giving reasons and explanations

And you will always give reasons and explanations for your claims and points of view.

See: Writing Functions 16: Reasons

  • Working with different voices

You need to recognise and work with other people's points of view. Within all these opinions, you need to make yours clear.

See: Writing Functions 23: Voice

  • Taking a stance

You need to make sure that your point of view shows through clearly.

See: Writing Functions 24: Stance

  • Drawing conclusions

At various stages during your writing, you will need to sum up your argument and come to a conclusion.

See: Writing Functions 31: Concluding

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