A Disruptive Force
Research anxiety seems to be taking an increasingly dominant role in the world of academic research. The pressure to publish or perish can warp your focus into thinking that the only good research is publishable research!
Today, your role as the researcher appears to take a back seat to the perceived value of the topic and the extent to which the results of the study will be cited around the world. Due to financial pressures and a growing tendency of risk aversion, studies are increasingly going down the path of applied research rather than basic or pure research. The potential for breakthroughs is being deliberately limited to incremental contributions from researchers who are forced to worry more about job security and pleasing their paymasters than about making a significant contribution to their field.
A Slow Decline
So what lead the researchers to their love of science and scientific research in the first place? The answer is critical thinking skills. The more that academic research becomes governed by policies outside of the research process, the less opportunity there will be for researchers to exercise such skills.
True research demands new ideas, perspectives, and arguments based on willingness and confidence to revisit and directly challenge existing schools of thought and established positions on theories and accepted codes of practice. Success comes from a recursive approach to the research question with an iterative refinement based on constant reflection and revision.
The importance of critical thinking skills in research is therefore huge, without which researchers may even lack the confidence to challenge their own assumptions.
A Misunderstood Skill
Critical thinking is widely recognized as a core competency and as a precursor to research. Employers value it as a requirement for every position they post, and every survey of potential employers for graduates in local markets rate the skill as their number one concern.
Related: Do you have questions on research idea or manuscript drafting? Get personalized answers on the FREE Q&A Forum!
When asked to clarify what critical thinking means to them, employers will use such phrases as “the ability to think independently,” or “the ability to think on their feet,” or “to show some initiative and resolve a problem without direct supervision.” These are all valuable skills, but how do you teach them?
For higher education institutions in particular, when you are being assessed against dropout, graduation, and job placement rates, where does a course in critical thinking skills fit into the mix? Student Success courses as a precursor to your first undergraduate course will help students to navigate the campus and whatever online resources are available to them (including the tutoring center), but that doesn’t equate to raising critical thinking competencies.
The Dependent Generation
As education becomes increasingly commoditized and broken-down into components that can be delivered online for maximum productivity and profitability, we run the risk of devaluing academic discourse and independent thought. Larger class sizes preclude substantive debate, and the more that content is broken into sound bites that can be tested in multiple-choice questions, the less requirement there will be for original thought.
Academic journals value citation above all else, and so content is steered towards the type of articles that will achieve high citation volume. As such, students and researchers will perpetuate such misuse by ensuring that their papers include only highly cited works. And the objective of high citation volume is achieved.
We expand the body of knowledge in any field by challenging the status quo. Denying the veracity of commonly accepted “facts” or playing devil’s advocate with established rules supports a necessary insurgency that drives future research. If we do not continue to emphasize the need for critical thinking skills to preserve such rebellion, academic research may begin to slowly fade away.
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4 The importance of critical thinking and analysis in academic studies
The aim of critical thinking is to try to maintain an objective position. When you think critically, you weigh up all sides of an argument and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. So, critical thinking entails: actively seeking all sides of an argument, testing the soundness of the claims made, as well as testing the soundness of the evidence used to support the claims.
You will encounter a number of activities and assignments in your postgraduate studies that frequently demand interpretation and synthesis skills. We introduced such an activity in Session 1 (Activity 3). Part of this requires use of ‘higher-order thinking skills’, which are the skills used to analyse and manipulate information (rather than just memorise it). In the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom identified a set of important study and thinking skills for university students, which he called the ‘thinking triangle’ (Bloom, 1956) (Figure 1). Bloom’s taxonomy can provide a useful way of conceptualising higher-order thinking and learning. The six intellectual domains, their descriptions and associated keywords are outlined in Table 1.
Table 1 Higher-order intellectual domains, descriptions and associated keywords
|Knowledge||Exhibit memory of previously learned material by recalling information, fundamental facts and terms, as well as discovery, through observing and locating.|
|Comprehension||Demonstrate understanding of facts and ideas by organising, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptors and stating main ideas.|
|Application||Solve problems in new situations by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different or new way.|
|Analysis||Examine and break information into parts by identifying motives or causes. Make inferences and find evidence to support generalisations.|
|Synthesis||Compile information together in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.|
|Evaluation||This is also denoted as ‘critical evaluation’, often used to emphasise the depth of evaluation required. You will be required to present and defend opinions by making judgements about information, the validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.|
Box 1 What ‘being critical’ means in the context of critical thinking
Critical thinking is not:
- restating a claim that has been made
- describing an event
- challenging peoples’ worth as you engage with their work
- criticising someone or what they do (which is made from a personal, judgemental position).
Critical thinking and analysis are vital aspects of your academic life – when reading, when writing and working with other students.
While critical analysis requires you to examine ideas, evaluate them against what you already know and make decisions about their merit, critical reflection requires you to synthesise different perspectives (whether from other people or literature) to help explain, justify or challenge what you have encountered in your own or other people’s practice. It may be that theory or literature gives us an alternative perspective that we should consider; it may provide evidence to support our views or practices, or it may explicitly challenge them.