How to use critical analysis

Discussing and describing

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Ask any university tutor what they most want to see in a written assignment, and you can bet you'll get replies like...

"Analysis - not description"

"Evidence of thought and reflection"

"Arguments supported by evidence"

"Discussion of issues and ideas - not just a reporting of facts"

"An understanding of why the topic is significant and interesting"

"An attempt to relate the topic to broader issues - to see the bigger picture"

This is what they want to see, but a lot of the time it's not what they get. Students often fall into the trap of describing or reporting, and not discussing or arguing. This is serious, because you can't get great marks if you don't put some critical analysis into your assignments.

But what's the difference between discussing and describing, and how can you make sure you're doing the discussing and not the describing?

Think about a time you had a discussion or argument - a friendly argument, not a fight! How did you defend your point of view? Did you back it up with examples and evidence? How did you try to persuade the other person that you were right? Or, did they manage to change your mind - if so, how?

When you argue or discuss, you try to 'make the case' using evidence, facts and examples: "because I say so" is not good enough. When you discuss or argue in writing, you're doing exactly the same thing - just more formally.

Activity: what does a discussion look like? - 20 minutes

The article used in this activity is taken from a popular medical journal, but don't worry if you're not a medical student - it's how the argument is constructed that interests us.

1. Read the article extract below. It's taken from an article published in the BMJ arguing for the introduction of learning portfolios for doctors.

2. As you read, think about...

  • the language the author has used
  • how he builds his argument by stating his point of view and then explaining why he holds this view
  • how he has used evidence to support his arguments

A major challenge facing us today is the move to assess doctors performance in the workplace instead of the examination hall. The portfolio remains our best solution. It allows the collation and integration of evidence on competence and performance from different sources to gain a comprehensive picture of everyday practice. Simultaneously, portfolios can guide and coach professional development. Studies in multiple contexts confirm that this is feasible if, and only if, users take on board the conditions required for effective use of portfolios.

To provide credible evidence of fitness to practice doctors have to show in realistic, often stressful, situations that they are competent in all aspects of patient management, diagnostics, communication, teamwork, administration, and professionalism. Since the 1990s various instruments have been developed to assess workplace based learning: the mini-clinical evaluation exercise, multi-source feedback, case based discussions, clinical work sampling, and direct observation of procedural skills.

These tools provide piecemeal information on performance. None is perfect. A portfolio amalgamates evidence from the different sources, allowing assessors to make an overall judgement of competency. The strengths of one assessment method can compensate for the limitations of another. Recent reviews confirm that portfolios effectively assess day to day performance. A comprehensive range of information, collated in this way, can produce a well founded summative judgement. There is an important additional advantage. Doctors or students can simultaneously analyse their own performance. They can reflect on and improve their practice and set realistic objectives for further learning.

However, when weighing the merits of portfolios, it is essential to realise that there is no one standard portfolio. Portfolios are as diverse as their potential content and can be adapted for various purposes. Their flexibility is a clear advantage. They can be tailored to the specific objectives or outcomes being assessed. Introducing portfolios is like buying new shoes: one size does not fit all. Careful fitting is essential. Their flexibility becomes a disadvantage when they are not tailored to the objectives they are supposed to help attain. If this is the case, misunderstandings arise.

Driessen, E., Are learning portfolios worth the effort? Yes. BMJ 2008;337:a513

3. Now read the second extract. In this extract, the author argues against the introduction of learning portfolios.

4. Again, as you read, think about...

  • the language the author has used
  • how he builds his argument by stating his point of view and then explaining why he holds this view
  • how he has used evidence to support his arguments

5. When you write a discussion or argument, you often have to give the arguments both for and against. Do you see how the second author has taken the evidence used by the first author in favour of portfolios, and explained why he does not find it convincing?

Learning portfolios, defined by one group as "a collection of a learner's work that gives evidence of learning and may be used for the purposes of assessment" have received increased attention of educators over the past few years. According to a systematic review by Driessen and colleagues, they have the potential to improve formative and summative assessment at all levels from undergraduate to post-professional education. The learning portfolio is not just another learning or assessment method. It is really a Jack of all trades, appearing in multiple guises to do almost anything we demand of it for learners at any level from novice to expert. It is an opportunity for students to report on "work done, feedback received, progress made and plans for improving competence."

How can it adopt so many roles? Simply because the title really is an accurate description - it is a portfolio with individually specified content. Although, this makes for maximum versatility, it also creates difficulties for anyone attempting to decide whether portfolios are good or bad. Unless you can specify what lies inside the folder, it's difficult to make generalisations about the value of the method. Asking whether learning portfolios are good for learning or assessment is a bit like asking whether drugs are good for treating disease. The answer must be, "It depends." However, fools rush in, so I will attempt some general observations.

Although the review found that, consistent with the rhetoric, most people regarded learning portfolios as useful for reflective learning, professional development, etc., this conclusion was based almost entirely on self perception. One study was conducted with practising physicians and examined self reported intention to change their practices. The other used interviews of students perceptions of their personal and professional development. It is doubtful whether these self assessments can be treated as legitimate performance measures, particularly in view of the considerable literature indicating that people, including health professionals, have enormous difficulty assessing themselves. Furthermore, it takes a lot of work to write portfolios and to mark them. Use of portfolios in the final examination at Dundee required at least 3-4 examiner hours for each student, a total of 400-500 hours of examiner time.

And it's not clear that the effort is rewarded. In one study, only 35% of trainees thought it provided an opportunity to analyse critical clinical incidents and only 15% thought it analysed critical incidents of professional behaviour another study found that only about half of trainee doctors and supervisors thought portfolios were "a good idea," and trainees described a "sense of burden" associated with their use.

Norman G., Are learning portfolios worth the effort? No. BMJ 2008;337:a514

6. Now you've read both arguments, do you think learning portfolios are worth the effort - has either author managed to persuade you?

Recommended Further Reading

On the next page, we'll explore how to build an argument or discussion in your own writing.

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