• Dawn Robinson-Walsh

How critical thinking helps you get higher marks in academia ...

Based on something called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, critical thinking is what students need to obtain higher marks.

If you find yourself puzzled by comments like “lack of critical analysis” or “too little debate”then this means your higher order skills are underdeveloped.

These are the skills that you find at the top end of the cognitive domain, outlined by Bloom, in his ‘taxonomic triangle’ which highlights knowledge, understanding and application as the more common skills, and analysis, synthesis and evaluation as the higher order skills.

Evaluation Synthesis Analysis

Application Understanding Knowledge


If you describe what an author has said in a book or article then you are explaining what the writer means.

If you are analysing then you are explaining how their argument works, examining the building blocks out of which they have created their viewpoint.

Description often starts with ‘what’ questions; analysis is more the ‘how’.

Description = What does Crystal say about texting? Analysis = how does Crystal justify his view that texting is linguistically sophisticated?

You see the difference?

Analysis goes beyond what is given

For higher level passes in exams and essays, you need to move beyond description and into analysis.

Analysis of how an argument is formulated/works leads you straight into evaluation.


Evaluation is about the strengths and weaknesses of ideas, the advantages and disadvantages, the uses and limitations.

So, you might wish to look out for: bias in an argument, use of evidence and reasoning, whether anything important has been left out of an author’s argument, and whether the research or theory is grounded in fact.

For example, if an author writes about wind energy technology, you might wish to evaluate this by checking factual information, check who commissioned any research used, see whether research has been used selectively, and investigate what other experts on the subject have to say.

Authors will not make it easy for you so you need to ‘interrogate’ their arguments (not in the form of personal attack but in a critical way). Is the argument consistent, are there any contradictions? If so, then dig them out….

My late colleague, Dr Jim Lane, wrote:

“As in the famous Sherlock Holmes story where the crucial clue was the dog didn’t bark in the night, evaluating requires the ability to identify and recognise the importance of what isn’t there”.

He added:

“If you really dissect an argument and put it under the microscope, some pretty slipshod reasoning is often revealed”.


Synthesis is that almost indefinable quality that a really good essay or piece of writing has; it is the overall quality of a really good essay, the whole shebang. For synthesis is the production of a whole that is greater than its parts. It is what makes some writing ‘sheer poetry’ to read.

Back to Jim:

“Achieving a synthesis is about harmony, rhythm, balance and the creation of an aesthetic totality”.

Harmony = the development of the argument, the discussion of pros and cons, integration of evidence and argument and flowing movement between different levels of analysis.

Rhythm = sentence structure, link words, and paragraphing, which helps to carry the argument along.

Balance = combination of coverage breathe and analytical depth. Too much breadth becomes superficial but too much depth without appropriate breadth becomes partial and incomplete.

Aesthetic Totality = an essay with loose ends firmly tied, conveying a coherent line of thought from start to finish, one that unfolds like a golden thread.

A final word on synthesis goes to Jim:

“If your essay achieves all this, then it is a genuine work of art. It is a literary masterpiece. It is poetry. It is yours”.

So, if your essays achieve middling marks, you might ask: “what have I done wrong?” The answer may well be ‘nothing’.

Critical thinking does not come easily. There is no formula, or mechanical method to achieve success. It arises out of flashes of insight, moments of inspiration and a good slog through the work. Ultimately, it is an expression of human creativity and originality. It is, perhaps, where mind meets heart and creates something truly special.

It is indeed something for us all to aspire to.

First written for the site Writing IT Better

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