Postgraduate study skills
The written assignments you submit must address the key issues in the question in a manner that demonstrates a thorough understanding of the theories and the concepts studied. It should present your views and findings, based on well-reasoned views and judgements.
Assignment markers look for two things.
- An indication of your level of understanding
- Evidence that you are capable of independent, well-reasoned thought, application and reflection.
If you have started to develop your skills in critical reading you will have a good understanding of the literature and already formed many of your own ideas on the subjects an assignment relates to. In assignments you will often be expected to use these ideas in academic argument and critical evaluation.
In order to articulate and communicate your understanding, it is often necessary to translate the language of other authors into a form that represents your own perspectives and is comprehensible to your readers. In this process of translation you reflect on your understanding of the literature, and this helps you to recognise omissions in your understanding. You also call on the breadth of your knowledge to construct the arguments and counter arguments required in balanced debate.
In a similar approach to that of critical reading, if you need to make an argument for a particular theory or approach it is important that you fully understand it. You should ask yourself key questions, such as these.
- Who wrote it?
- What is their methodology or theoretical position?
You also need to make sure that you back up your position with academic opinion, facts, examples and statistics, rather than mere personal opinion. Your argument will then appear balanced rather than biased.
Take care to demonstrate that you recognise the difference between fact and conjecture. So if something only might be true, rather than is definitely true, you should make this clear by stating this suggests that... or it could be said...
An assignment question that asks you to critically evaluate something is seeking a balanced debate. Your answer should consider the positive aspects of the thesis alongside the negative aspects of the thesis.
There is a specific rationale for asking you to consider both. Very often, when first reading about a theory or a concept, the response is to form a value judgement; that is to either agree or disagree. However by thinking of both sides of the debate, both good and bad, you develop and refine your analytical skills. These skills are important as they form the foundation for robust problem solving and decision making. Furthermore they help build creativity and innovation by encouraging you to challenge how you think about things, and are crucial to the development of reflective practice. Cumulatively the impact of this is that you become more receptive to new ideas and approaches.
Sign in to download the 'Thinking critically' booklet available to OU students.
Key points to consider include the following.
- Do you agree with what the author is saying?
- If so, why? If not, why not? Make sure that you back up your opinions by critically engaging with the text.
- Do different authors agree or disagree with each other? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Compare and contrast academic opinion; this will make your own work stronger.
- Is the methodology utilised by your authors sound? Criticise it if it isn't, making sure to have sound reasons for your own opinions.
- Can you identify any gaps in the research? If so, state what they are and think about addressing them in your own work.
Where a critical evaluation is sought, it is important to include your own conclusions. These should take the preceding debate as their premise, and can refer back to the literature as necessary. It does not matter whether or not the marker agrees with your conclusions. However, it is important that your conclusions are justified, and based on a well-reasoned rationale.
When you refer to material in a source you've found, you can summarise or paraphrase the work, or quote directly.
It is important to get a good balance between the two. Indeed, too much quoting can appear lazy - the person reading your essay wants to know what you have to say about a particular subject or theory. You also demonstrate that you understand what you're talking about it if you paraphrase something.
Whether you paraphrase or quote material, you should always include a reference to its source.
It is important that your work is written to professional standards and that you use appropriate academic words and terminology. However, it is also important to write clearly and accurately - these attributes should not be lost in the search for an academic style of writing.
Linking words and phrases can help you to build up an argument by linking one sentence or idea to another. Using linking words and phrases, such as moving on to... or this argument suggests... can help your argument follow a logical flow.