Welcome to the School of Human Services and Social Work. This booklet is designed to help you acquire some essential university skills relevant to many of your assessment tasks. These skills include critical or analytical thinking, synthesis, essay planning, essay writing and referencing. Your tutors will support you in this process by providing feedback on your work, and assistance will also be provided in lectures, tutorials and workshops. There are also other support services at Griffith University specifically designed to help students, and apart from this booklet, a range of other resources and online tutorials. Page 43 of this booklet explains where you may find this support.
It is not uncommon for students to feel overwhelmed by how much they are expected to learn at university, especially in their first semester. Please remember though that all skills needed for life, the workplace and university take time, patience, perseverance and practice to acquire. Similarly, the acquisition of these particular thinking, writing and referencing skills will be a gradual and ongoing process. If at any stage you do feel overwhelmed, it can be useful to remind yourself of how much you have already learnt in a very short space of time. Asking yourself at the end of every week “what do I know now that I didn’t a week ago?” can be a very useful reminder of how far you have journeyed already. For example, by reading this introduction, you already know several things that you possibly didn’t know several minutes ago!
IMPORTANT: It may be that particular tasks have different requirements from the information set out in this guide. You will be informed by your markers if their expectations are different from these guidelines.
A sample essay is provided at the end of this booklet (page 46) to model the general advice given in this booklet. Please read this essay now to gain a general understanding of what an academic essay looks like. Throughout the guide you will also be directed to look at the essay at relevant points.
At university, you will hear the term “critical thinking” used widely, and you will be expected to “think critically” when undertaking your assignments. Critical thinking is important for most academic tasks though, including reading, note taking, tutorial discussions and examinations. So what is critical thinking?
Critical thinking does not mean being negative or engaging in criticism. Instead, critical thinking involves a range of attitudes and skills that together assist in developing your “higher order” thinking. As you read this booklet, you will see how critical thinking is an essential part of the entire essay writing process.
Critical thinkers develop the following attitudes to what they read, hear and write
Being open minded to different ideas or viewpoints
Having interpersonal and intercultural sensitivity
Being flexible – i.e. able to change
We all have beliefs and ideas, but those beliefs and ideas are based on a range of factors, including our age, our gender, our family background and our social and cultural backgrounds and experiences. So it is important to be aware of this, and to remember that our beliefs and ideas are not the only ones in existence. We need to test all our ideas against evidence, and question their validity and appropriateness. So we all need to be flexible, to assume that our way of approaching a situation may not always be the best way, or even the right way.
Making connections, seeing relationships between ideas, approaches, arguments etc
Reasoning- i.e. logical thinking, supporting claims or ideas
We can learn to be creative in how we approach a task, to see relationships and connections between ideas, to seek out all possible answers to a problem, but also to accept an answer that is different from what was originally thought. Critical thinkers don’t just accept what they hear or read, but look for evidence for claims being made. Importantly, they also base any claims they make on valid evidence.
The term ‘critical thinking’ is often used interchangeably with the word ‘analysis’, although analysis is really just one form of critical thinking. Students are often given feedback in assignments that they need to be ‘more analytical’. There are many definitions of analysis or analytical thinking (look them up on the web) but for your purposes, it may be useful to see analysis as asking and responding to specific types of questions. The following table outlines the kinds of questions that involve analysis. Descriptive questions (level 1) will need to be asked and answered, but these questions are less important than the analytical questions (levels 2-4) outlined below. Importantly, you will also receive fewer marks for description than you will receive for analysis. So, unless you are specifically asked to write a descriptive essay, always minimise description. Instead, make sure that your essay contains information that answers ‘how’ or why’ or other types of analytical questions.
How many/how much...?
What is an example of…?
Level 2:(Analytical) Analysis/interpretation
What are the reasons for…?
To what extent ……?
How similar/different is.....?
Level 3:(Analytical) hypothesis/prediction
If ... occurs, then what would happen…? Why?
If … had happened, then what would be different…? Why?
What does theory … suggest might happen if …? Why?
Level 4: (Analytical)
Is … correct/incorrect? Why?
Is …effective/ineffective? Why?
Is …clear/unclear? Why?
Is …logical/illogical? Why?
Is …valid/invalid? Why?
“The essence of communication is to understand and be understood”
The information in this booklet is designed to help you overcome some of the main problems that may prevent you from getting good marks for your essays. These include
Not addressing the task clearly or completely
Being descriptive instead of analytical
Lack of clear, supported argument
Not having a good introduction/conclusion
Insufficient or incorrect referencing
Poor format i.e. spacing, capitalisation, title page missing
Note though that although this information is about writing essays, you will find that much of the information, particularly the pre-writing stage information, is relevant to other assessment tasks such as report writing and oral presentations.
Writing an essay involves much more than showing your understanding of a particular topic. Although your content understanding is important, how you communicate your ideas is equally important. While there are many skills that are necessary for success, communication skills are among the most important. This is especially true for the professions that you have chosen by taking a program in the School of Human Services and Social Work. So given that effective communication is an essential professional attribute, see your essay writing as learning to master the skills that are essential to effective communication – clarity of ideas and argument, a well organised structure etc.
Successful essay writing involves much more than just writing. It involves a process of thinking carefully about the task, collecting and organising relevant information, deciding what your position is (your argument), planning the essay, writing it and editing it. In this booklet the process of essay writing is modelled on an essay task of general interest to students – what makes students successful at university. The completed essay is on page 46 of this booklet.
The pre-writing process
The pre-writing process involves five stages. Each stage will involve critical thinking.
Unpacking the task
Developing an argument
Planning your essay
Stage 1: Unpacking the task:
It’s common for students to get poor marks for otherwise well written essays because they have not addressed, or have incompletely addressed the essay task. So your first task is to make sure that you understand what you are required to do so that you know exactly what to write about and you can stay on track. After all, it’s no use making a brilliant advertisement about toothpaste if your task was to make an advertisement about shampoo!