The content in this section builds on the previous section on reading and it highlights the link between effective thinking about your readings and the quality of the writing you produce. In the previous section we looked at strategies for locating and recording information in texts. In some ways, thinking about reading is a like digging the ground. Often, the further we dig, the more valuable the items we find. When we first dig the ground, we find facts which are stated and are on the surface, as we go deeper we find themes or ideas which we have to identify for ourselves because they are not right there in the text. Next, as we dig even deeper we consider applications of ideas and how they will work in practice. Each layer of digging reveals more depth of thinking.

Bloom’s taxonomy gives us a structure to help us dig beyond the surface of texts.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

A useful way of ‘thinking about thinking’ or learning to dig deeper into ideas, is to use Bloom’s taxonomy (hierarchy). Bloom was an American educational psychologist who, amongst other things, proposed that thinking could be classified as a hierarchy of skills, starting with the least complex skills and advancing to the most complex type of thinking. Here is the taxonomy he proposed (starting with knowledge and ranging in complexity of skill to evaluation and synthesis). In Bloom’s original taxonomy, evaluation is the last and most complex skill, but I have made synthesis the last skill because of the way I have related these ideas to reading and writing as you will see later in this section. We can apply these steps to reading and the assignment writing process as well. To show the usefulness of the taxonomy, we will go through each stage and apply them to the well-known fairytale, Cinderalla.

This is the first step in the thinking process. It involves locating sources to read, finding relevant points in them and recording content. It is primarily about finding information or facts. The question we need to ask here is: what exactly are the facts of the matter?

The facts in the story of Cinderella are well known: after the death of her mother, Cinderella’s father marries a wicked woman whose daughters are bullies. They gang up on Cinderella, make her do all the housework, and finally prevent her from going to a very important ball. With the help of a fairy God Mother, she goes anyway and meets a prince who falls in love with her. She leaves the ball in a hurry and drops a shoe. Her prince finds her by using the shoe she left at the ball. He saves her from life in her step-family by marrying her. These are the simple facts of the story!

In an academic sense, strategies like skimming and scanning will help us to locate and record facts. The words we underline and the margin notes we make are the facts we find.

This is a ‘step up’ in the thinking process, because it takes us beyond the simple facts. Here we have to ask: what do these facts mean? This stage is about understanding the facts that have been found. An important way of understanding facts or making sense and meaning of them is to ask the question: what is the overarching idea that holds all these facts together? In other words what is the theme? The themes are the ‘big ideas’? Themes, unlike facts, are not usually directly stated. We need to infer (or figure them out from what has been stated).

The meanings or big picture ideas (themes) of Cinderella are as follows (you may have some other ideas as well):
• The ’goodies’ always win!
• Love triumphs over evil
• Step-mothers are evil people, step-sisters are worse!

In an academic sense, we might ask questions like:
• What is the purpose of this text?
• What is the text telling me overall?
• Why has it been written?
• What is the argument or overall flow of ideas?

It is important here to realise that no text is ever written just to communicate facts. People write because they have something to say, for example, this guide wants to say that successful study and writing is achievable, if you have tools, strategies and insight into the thinking and learning processes. This is an important theme or overarching idea.

Here we need to ask how this information and the themes we have worked out from the text can be applied in ‘real’ life. The question here is: how are these ideas useful?

In the Cinderella story the themes can be useful to us when we relate or apply them to our lives. We could do this in a number of ways. Here are two possibilities:
• Avoid marrying someone with children in case you become the evil step-parent!
• Keep looking for an “ideal” prince with an interest in shoes!

In an academic sense, we need to make the link between theory and practice, so we need to ask questions like:
• Would this idea apply in practice? If so how would it work?
• What would be the consequences of applying this idea?

Here, we look closely at the text or story and break it down into its component parts, so we can understand the structure or flow of ideas. We ask: how is this text or story put together? What is the sequence of events or how does each part of the argument work together with other parts? Sometimes it is useful to show how the parts fit together using a diagram:

Cinderella flowchart image

This would be continued, to show how the different elements of the story are connected together.

In an academic sense, we need to analyse how the argument is structured, or in the case of research, we need to determine exactly how the research was conducted and look at each component part to determine if there are inconsistencies or problems with it.

At this stage we evaluate the logic and usefulness of the argument and critique the research.
There are entire books written on evaluative thinking or critical thinking or the notion of critiquing texts, and there is much that could be said about this stage. In this guide, the term critical thinking is used interchangeably with evaluative thinking (looking for pluses and minuses; strengths and weaknesses; advantages and disadvantages; useful and not useful ideas). In some disciplines, critical thinking sometimes refers to the key types of thinking necessary in that particular field. These subject-specific elements of thinking in particular fields will not be examined here.

Applying the idea of evaluative or critical thinking to Cinderella would reveal our ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of the story. For example, we might criticise the story because of the way in which it confirms stereotypes, while on the positive side, we might also note that children can benefit from it, for example, by learning that it is important to be kind to others.

In an academic sense, we might conclude that an article is useful for certain reasons, while still pointing out some of the difficulties or problems with it. Alternatively we may critique an argument because parts of the argument do not follow logically or there is insufficient evidence to support the argument. Additionally we might critique an argument because an author does not explain the ideas clearly. Evaluation or critiquing does not mean only pointing out the weaknesses; it also means commenting on strengths, for example we might point out that an argument is well researched or logically constructed.

The following tables outline some questions to ask when evaluating academic research and when evaluating academic ideas or arguments.

Questions used to evaluate research

Question Student writing example

• How big or widespread was the study? How many people or events were considered?

Usually the bigger the study, the more robust the result.

This extensive research study of over 1000 students from around the world showed….

• How were the subjects recruited or the conditions of the study determined?

Randomly selected subjects and a range of conditions often make for a stronger study.

The findings of this study suggest ….however since the subjects were mainly university students, it may be necessary to replicate the study using a randomly selected population which includes students and non students and people of different ages.

• Are there any other possible reasons why the results could have occurred other than the reasons the researchers gave?

Sometimes there are other possibilities or additional factors that could have affected the results.

The researchers claim that positive results were found because of the effectiveness of the teaching strategy, however, it is possible that the results occurred at least in part because of the enthusiasm of the students who participated in the study.
• Can the results be generalised or applied in other similar contexts or are there similar situations where the results would not apply? This study was conducted on tourism sites in developing countries, however, the results may not necessarily apply in developed countries.

• Would the findings be true in the long term? If an effect is found, how long would it last?

Usually a finding is more robust if it lasts over time.

The experiment showed that depression decreased as a result of the program, however, the researchers did not test whether the results continued after the program ended.

• Have other researchers found similar results? In other words has the research been replicated?

Usually, the more research that confirms the results, the more acceptable the idea is. All the same, it is possible that no one has found those results because it is a new area of research or it is on the cutting edge of new ideas.

To date the findings of the research have not been replicated. Until further research confirms these findings, the results may need to be interpreted with caution

• Are there any issues that should have been considered in this study but were not? In other words are there any gaps in the research process?

Identifying gaps enables us to conduct new research and thus contribute to knowledge.

The experiment did not explain the ways in which the rats were trained to make decisions.

• Was the way in which the research was designed appropriate when considering the purpose of the research?

There are statistics course which go into this is considerable detail. All the same, it is possible to make general comments about these issues.

The researchers aimed to determine the effectiveness of the strategy, but there were no pre-test measures taken, therefore it is difficult to determine how effective the intervention was.
• Is there any possibility that the research was biased in any way (for example, asking certain types of questions, considering only certain aspects of a problem or drawing certain conclusions and not considering other possible conclusions). There is an element of bias in the research because of the style of questions asked. The multiple choice design of the questions, forced participants to answer in particular ways which meant it was impossible to show subtle differences of opinion.
• Are the results equally convincing whether they are reported as numbers or percentages? (For example, 80% sounds convincing, but if only ten people were surveyed, this is a less convincing result). The authors claim that 75% of small businesses succeed, however this result is based on a questionnaire return rate of only 40%. If all the questionnaires had been returned, the results could have been different.

Note that the words in bold in the table above, are to highlight the link between the student response and the question being asked. You would not use bold in your own writing in this way.

Questions used to evaluate arguments

Question Example text Problem
Does the text refer to experts without necessarily including evidence to support the claim? Mary Crayston, head of the Reserve Bank, believes the economy will boom in the next six months. This might be her opinion, but without evidence to support it, we should not accept it on face value just because she is an expert.
Does the text suggest a line of reasoning is useful simply because it has always been used or has been used before? Politicians have always argued that some level of exploitation is acceptable. Past arguments do not mean that the same arguments should be taken into the future.
Does the text use emotive language in an effort to convince you? The crowd, frenzied with hatred, stampeded the building. A more objective version would be: The angry crowd advanced on the building.
Does the text assert or assume that an idea is true without providing evidence?

Concern for the environment is the predominant social issue of our time.

Dung beetles, the most destructive import to Australia, have created…

This may be true, but the statement should be supported with evidence about the percentage of the population who are concerned for the environment.

Without evidence to support this, this could be an opinion rather than a fact.

Does the text use generalisations in an effort to convince? Most experts in the field agree that climate change is a natural phenomenon. There is a need to list at least some of these experts to support this claim.
Does the text select facts and ideas that support only one point of view while ignoring counter arguments? There is a strong teamwork ethic amongst small business workers. Their cohesiveness is exemplarly….. It is necessary to provide evidence to support these claims and to also examine arguments that may contradict these arguments.
Does the text shows signs of prejudice where conclusions are reached without a thorough examination of the evidence? Poaching in Africa occurs because of corrupt governments. It is necessary to examine the relationship between poaching and corruption, but also to consider other factors that may affect it.
Does the text use persuasive language? Clearly, undeniably, obviously, naturally, there is little doubt….. It is seldom the case that anything is this clear, so be cautious of these claims!

At this point, in the reading and writing process, we look at all the different texts that we have located, made sense of, applied to real life, analysed and evaluated and we create something new (our essay) on the topic by synthesising or showing the similarities and differences between the ideas.

With the Cinderella example, we may look at similar stories and create a new story or write an assignment discussing the elements of those types of stories.

In an academic sense, when we have looked at information, themes, applications and evaluated a number of sources, we consider how we can put all of that thinking into a piece of writing which is a unique creation and is our answer to the question we were asked. As we create this new thing, we use the sources we have read and show the similarities and differences between the ideas, and we make new links about how the ideas might apply to this particular topic. This is synthesis.

When you are reading and trying to engage in critical thinking and particularly when you are trying to synthesise all that you have read, it may be helpful to use a table such as the following example to record your ideas at each stage of the thinking process:

  Knowledge and analysis Comprehension Application Evaluation Evaluation
Author or title of source read + date Main points of content (brief) Themes (overarching ideas – inferred from content) Applications (how the ideas could work in practice) Plus
(strengths, advantages)
Minus
(weaknesses, disadvantages)
Jones (2009)
  • Reading skills necessary for uni
  • Speed reading not nec best.
  • Be strategic as a reader
  • Persist!
  • Take time to practice skills
  • Could be difficult with heavy reading courses
  • Evidence based on research with students all over the world
  • Some of the strategies might not be applicable to subjects like statistics or mathematics.
Short (2010)
  • 5 strategies for comprehension
  • pre reading essential
  • Thinking and learning at core
  • Mental acuity important
  • Teachers should teach students to be alert
  • Metacognitive skills need to be taught
  • Practical advice
  • Applicable to teaching
  • Argument builds logically
  • May be time consuming to teach these strategies
  • Little discussion of students who lack motivation.

When writing, you can look at a table like this to remind you of all the elements of critical reading and you can also see what different authors say about the same topic, so that as you write you can synthesise your ideas by showing the similarities and differences between ideas. Copy and use this blank Author critique table to help you keep track of authors and your critiques of them.

In order to develop critical thinking skills, it is important to move beyond simply finding information (the knowledge phase). It is necessary in academic life to ask questions at each stage of thinking to be sure that we have thought broadly and in enough depth about the topic. Here is a table that will help with this. Photocopy and use the table on the next page while you are reading. The questions at each stage will help you to move beyond content and facts to the higher levels of thinking outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy.

Thinking Questions
Knowledge What are the main ideas?
Where can I find information?
Is this idea important?
What other facts do I need to find?
Comprehension What do these ideas mean?
What is the main idea of theme in this text?
What do these ideas mean in relation to my topic?
What is the purpose of this text or why was it written?
Application What would happen if these ideas were applied in real life?
What problems could arise in applying these ideas?
Would these ideas actually work in practice? How?
Analysis How is this text structured?
What is the nature of the relationships between ideas?
Which ideas form the basis of the text and how do subsequent ideas build on these ideas?
Evaluation How useful are these ideas?
Was the research carried out effectively?
Are there problems with the logic of these ideas?
What are the strengths and weaknesses or advantages and disadvantages of these ideas?
Are there any ideas that should have been considered but were not? Are there gaps?
Synthesis How are these ideas similar and how are they different?
Which ideas could be used together to create a new way forward?
Which authors generally agree or have carried out research that has similar findings?
If there are similarities between texts, are there any points of difference, and if so, in what ways do they differ?
Which authors would you cluster together as similar? In what ways are they similar? How do they differ?

Reflection and conclusion

How will you use the taxonomy?

Which aspects of thinking discussed in this chapter are most new to you?
Which ideas do you think will be most helpful to you when trying to engage with texts in a critical way?