Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Critically evaluate...

It’s difficult for me to truly critically evaluate scholarly ideas. Feedback from my tutors tells me that I sometimes achieve this quite well, and at other times less so. It’s rather hit-and-miss.

This could well be due to some aspect of my personality, or it could be because I have a human psyche. Lack of critical faculty seems to be the default human condition, which I find quite touching. What makes me suspect this? I did a psychological experiment a while ago using the Wason selection test. It was a replication of a fascinating study which demonstrated that the majority of people seek to test a rule by confirmation rather than the correct approach of attempting to disconfirm it. So it seems that for many of us, the art of critique must be consciously acquired.

This is important for us as essay writers, because, you’ve guessed it, evidence of critical engagement is one of the criteria by which our work is assessed. The Assessment Plus/Write Now criteria formally state that students should be:

“Determining the value, significance, strengths and/or weaknesses of something (e.g., research findings, theory, methodological approach, policy, another’s argument or interpretation). Good essays contain evaluative assertions or descriptive points about the strengths and weaknesses of elements referred to in the essay. Better essays contain systematic, reasoned explanations for the evaluative points being made”.

So, to rise in our tutors’ esteem, we should not only say how good a particular idea is, but exactly why we find it to be so. This suggests to me that I really need to get down and dirty with the material.

Actually I do have a me-specific issue with this, related to my being rather over-impressed by authority. My erstwhile boss once told me that the word gullible had been deleted from the dictionary and I believed him. Having been told this, you will appreciate the extent to which criticising a published concept doesn’t come naturally to me. So I try hard to think up alternative models and sharp critiques ahead of encountering the ones in the textbooks. At best it provides me with some material I can adapt for use in my essay, and at worst it wakes me up to the need to question everything I read. I always write out my ideas and alternatives as a letter to myself. It hits the spot and allows me some level of critical involvement before I am totally lost in admiration for Philip Zimbardo or whoever. There is also the fringe benefit of enabling me to satisfy my craving for originality. Parroting received wisdoms just isn't nourishing.

Having touched upon the idea of a critically engaged dialogue, I was wondering which of you out there (students and teachers) finds specimen essays to be useful. Like the assessors, I’d be especially interested in the reasons for your position.

19 comments:

Rebecca said...

Hi Lynn, first can I say that I think this is a fascinating project - I am really looking forward to it developing. Second, your question: model essays. As a tutor, yes and no... Yes, because they are tangible - they make real this 'practise of mystery' as Theresa Lillis terms it and show students what it is they should be aiming to produce themselves but No, because they can become a substitute for the engagement with ideas, words, thoughts and experiences that writing (academic or otherwise) is. So, ambivalent - maybe, models with notes, multiple models are okay...

David Hardman said...

Hi Lynn,

As a cognitive psychology lecturer at London Met, I thought it would be better not to engage in the discussions about the nature of memory. However, in relation to your question about the usefulness of model essays, the short answer is "I don't really know". I never had one as a student. I remember in my first year searching out some guidance on how to write an essay, which I found in some book somewhere (we didn't have all the "How to Study"-type books that you can get now). That always served me well. The one bit of useful feedback that I remember getting from a tutor was about not introducing new topics in your conclusion section; the main part of that particular essay had reviewed some theories and findings, and then in my conclusion I had tried to indicate how this was probably all wrong on the basis of some new theory and evidence. But that isn't what the conclusion section is for - it's for summing up and directly addressing the question/title, including stating your own view and any reservations you have.

Last autumn, I gave some first years a model essay. I must say it never occurred to me that anyone might feel intimidated by this. Does anyone really believe that model essays appear fully-formed? I do a lot of writing. I enjoy it, but it is difficult and almost everything I write goes through several revisions, including passages being cut and paste from one place to another, passages being rewritten, and some stuff being cut out entirely. As a student, my coursework went through several handwritten revisions; that is, I would - for example - write out a research methods report in ballpoint pen, realise that several things weren't quite right or needed restructuring, etc, so I would write it all out again (and maybe even a third time). That was before I purchased my first Amstrad word processor....

Many essays I see as a marker demonstrate little understanding of how an essay should be constructed or what the content should involve. Many people will of course learn from feedback. But not everyone - e.g. based on the amount of marked coursework that goes uncollected I assume that some people actively avoid feedback (there is a literature that shows people have a tendency to avoid potentially bad news).

As an analogous situation, politicians often believe that top atheletes will be role models for young people, such that they will be inspired to take exercise. But one academic I heard on television claimed that athletes may have the opposite effect on many people, who may feel that they could never achieve what top athletes have. So I can understand that model essays might likewise put people off.

But there again, people don't have to read a model essay if they don't want to. Either way, there's no magic bullet that will help someone write a good essay. It's a combination of motivation and willingness to learn from feedback. No-one becomes good at something overnight and, indeed, learning never stops (writing papers for academic journals means having to deal with a lot of tough feedback from referees, so criticism doesn't stop once you become a lecturer...!)

Lynn said...

Mmm, yes, all extremely good points, imho. Thank you for them!

You bring up the issue of basic structure, and that's very informative. It's helpful for us as student writers to realise things such as what a conclusion should do, even if we realise nothing else.

Your post here is right in line with what I am about to blog, so you're clearly well in touch with the current evolving essay vibe!

Lynn said...

...I forgot to say that no amount of Windows Vista tomfoolery can never hold a candle to the naive splendour of Locoscript...

Peng Hui Lee said...

A model essay may be useful for someone who does not read widely and is perhaps new to studying. Someone who is an avid reader may already be familiar with different ways of writing and different modes of expression. For such an individual a model essay might be less helpful and perhaps inhibiting.

kizza said...

Hi Lynn,

As a mature student it was quite daunting going back to study. It is amazing how much changes on an academic level in just a few years. I believe model essays are the way forward. I found my first essay back at uni very difficult and the tutor commented on my old fashioned style of writing and referencing. The is no harm in making this available to all students, at least those who are in the same boat as me will appreciate it. Those students that find it less applicable will not lose anything, will they?

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