22 September 2015

Critical thinking at university

At school you might have focused on learning the “right” answer, but in the real world things aren’t always so clear-cut. That’s why it’s essential to develop your ability to think and write critically. By Clinton Bell

The world is complex, and filled with conflicting information. It’s not always clear what’s true, and even ideas which seem plausible and are widely accepted can turn out to be wrong (the geocentric model of the solar system is a famous example). Often there is no answer which is objectively correct - only different approaches with different benefits and tradeoffs.

Because of this uncertainty, it’s important that we don’t just accept information or ideas at face value. Instead, we need to establish how strongly they are supported by evidence, what the alternatives are, and what the broader implications of accepting an idea might be.

This kind of evidence-seeking and analysis is what we call “critical thinking”. It’s also what your lecturers want when they say your work is “too descriptive” or that you need to “show more analysis”!
Evaluating sources of evidence

When you’re looking at the evidence for a position, you’ll often rely on information from sources such as research articles, media reports, and others. However, not all sources provide the same level of evidence, and no single source ever provides all the evidence you need. This means you need to look at a variety of sources and carefully consider what evidence they provide.
One way to evaluate your sources is to ask “What, Who, Why, How, and When?”
  • What is this source?
    • What type of source is it - opinion piece, research article, statistical information, case study, something else?
    • What does it say?
    • What doesn’t it say?
  • Who created this source?
    • Do they have any expertise in this field?
    • Do they have biases or interests which might influence their work?
  • Why was this source created?
    • What is its purpose?
    • Who is it aimed at?
  • How did the creators of this source formulate their position?
    • What evidence do they use to support it?
    • Are there any weaknesses or limitations in that evidence?
    • If they conducted research, was it done in a rigorous manner?
      • If they refer to other sources, are those sources reliable? Are they represented accurately and fairly?
      • Are their conclusions logical, based on the evidence they’ve used?
  • When was this created?
    • Is it still relevant?
    • Are there more recent sources or events which cast doubt on its findings?
(Adapted from Woolliams, M, Williams, K, Butcher, R & Pye, J, 2009, ‘Be more critical!’: a practical guide for health and social care students, School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brooks University, Oxford.)

Putting things together

As well as being able to compile and evaluate evidence, you also need to be able to interpret what you’ve found. This means considering how each piece of information relates to the others, as well as developing an overall assessment of what you’ve discovered and how it relates to the topic at hand.
Some key questions might be:
  • What are the alternatives you’ve identified?
    • Are there any similarities between them?
    • What are the major differences?
  • On the whole, how strong is the evidence for each alternative?
    • Are some better supported than others?
    • Is there strong evidence for any of them?
  • If there are conflicting opinions or evidence, why might that be?
  • Based on your analysis, what actions should we take, or what viewpoint should we adopt?
    • What result do you expect from those actions, or what are the implications of that viewpoint?

If you’re writing an essay or a report, don’t be afraid to show original thought when performing this analysis. While you need to ground your work with the evidence you’ve found, in most units you’re expected to build on what you’ve learned rather than simply describing it.

Want to know more?

If you want to know how critical thinking is like choosing an apartment, check out this video on being a critical student from the University of Leicester.
If you prefer the written word, try this helpful introduction to critical thinking from Edinburgh Napier University.

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15 September 2015

5 strategies to manage your group assignment

Nearly every unit requires some type of group project or assignment and it can be challenging, no matter how many times you've done it. If you missed this article written by Sebastian Borutta, one of our Learning Skills Advisers, we are publishing it again to give you practical strategies to manage the challenges of working in a group.

Do you dread working on a group assignment?  Are you sick of group members dropping off the radar, and having to carry the group across the line? 

Research into attitudes towards group work among undergraduate students would suggest that you are not alone.  One study revealed that more than half of undergraduate students surveyed had a negative attitude towards group work, with around 40% stating that they would rather work alone[i].

According to the study, the most significant factors that contributed towards negative attitudes were difficulty coordinating schedules and “free riders” in the group, followed by members not contributing equally and differing grade expectations[ii].

Why have group assignments at all?

Unsurprisingly, the ability to work in a group is an increasingly important skill required by employers; therefore, students who have experience working in groups are better prepared for the collaborative nature of work in their future careers.[i]  Consequently, as a student it is useful to develop strategies to effectively work in a group setting.

So how can we try to manage these challenges?

The following five-part plan will offer prompts to consider when you embark on your next group task.

1.  Group formation and expectations
  • If given the choice, select group members who you can work with effectively. Friends are not necessarily the best option.
  • Develop ground rules to guide your group’s behaviour and activities.
  • Assign roles based on members’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • Ensure that all members are involved in initial planning discussions. Members who feel that their voice is heard during these discussions are less likely to disengage from the group.
  • Ensure members have compatible availability, or options to maintain regular contact with the group.
  • Set goals such as grade expectations early, and together as a group.
2.  Scheduling and meetings
  • Organise regular meeting times from the beginning of the task, including expected outcomes for each meeting.
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of face-to-face VS online meetings when deciding on meeting format.
  • Record decisions made, and the allocation and progress of tasks.
3.  Division of work
  • Before dividing work, ensure that the group has a clear understanding of the task, and all the associated work involved in the task’s completion.
  • Determine an equitable method of dividing work.
  • If this is difficult or not immediately obvious, share initial tasks and then divide the workload. For example, share the initial research stage of a task and then divide up the written component once you have a better idea of task expectations.
4. Communication
  • Be polite and respectful when communicating with each other.
  • Ensure team members listen carefully, and with an open mind to each other’s suggestions.
  • Be aware of your non-verbal communication when engaging with the group
  • When giving feedback, also focus on positive aspects rather than only negative aspects.
  • Don’t take constructive feedback personally.
5. Dealing with conflict
  • Be polite and respectful when communicating with each other. 
  • Problems usually arise due to group dynamics or task progression.
  • If conflict arises, as a group, clearly identify the problem.
  • Consider solutions to address the problem, allowing specific and constructive discussion.
  • Focus discussion on ideas rather than individuals.
  • As a group, make necessary changes and revise initial plans. 
Group work can be challenging and rewarding, both in an educational setting and in the workplace. Through planning and by anticipating and managing potential challenges, you can help your group work experience be a more positive one.

For more information on group work, or any other aspects of your approach to learning, take a look at the Library’s online resources, meet with a learning skills adviser at a drop-in session, or attend a workshop.

[i] Gottschall, H. & Garcia-Bayonas, M. (2008). Student attitudes towards group work among undergraduates in Business Administration, Education and Mathematics. Educational Research Quarterly, 32(1), 2-28.
[ii] ibid
[iii) Hansen R. (2006) Benefits and problems with student teams: Suggestions for improving team projects. The Journal of Education for Business, 82(1), 9-11.

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10 September 2015

How to make databases work for you!

Whether you’ve been given an article as a starting point or are embarking on a detailed literature review, databases can take some of the hard work out of finding quality articles that are relevant to your topic… By Catherine Hocking

Snowballing your results with citation searching

You’ve been recommended an article? Great – let’s get started! You can grow your results quickly, just like rolling a snowball, by looking at just one article. A quality article - like one your  supervisor has recommended - is a great starting point for your search.

Firstly, you can look at the reference list at the end of your article – this will point you towards earlier materials that helped the author(s) to write the article. But what a database like Scopus or Web of Science can do is allow you to look  forward in time, discovering how others have built upon this research with the "database citation tracking" feature.

Here’s how it looks in Web of Science: Click on the ‘Times Cited’ number and instantly you have a whole new list of related resources at your fingertips!

If you haven’t been given an article, never fear, as you can find out how to get started by taking our tutorial on Developing a search strategy or contacting a subject librarian for expert advice. Once you have found a good article or two you can get on with citation searching!

Want to know when the latest cutting edge research is published?

Setting up an alert can help.  Most databases offer some form of alert service.  By setting up a Personal Account in your favourite databases you can access alert services for your saved searches, new citations for a particular author or journal article, TOC (table of contents) for new issues of a specific journal or RSS feeds.

There are so many ways in which databases can  help you keep on top of your research.  Read our basic guide on Alert services and check out the Help in your favourite database for specific details.

Image: Snowball, Oxford UK 2007 Kaymar Adl, CC/2.0/

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8 September 2015

Incorporating research into your assignment

How much of the assignment should consist of my ideas about the topic, and how much should consist of researched ideas? When my tutor’s feedback says “Where is your voice?”, what does that mean? How will my tutor know what my thoughts are in contrast with those of the authors I’ve read? This blog post will answer these questions and more …  by Damian Gleeson

It’s (mostly) all about you

Your tutors are interested in your response to the assignment topic. They are more than familiar with the experts’ thoughts on the matter; they may indeed have contributed significantly to the body of expert knowledge on the issue themselves. What your tutor wants to know is: after listening to the lectures, attending tutorials or labs and reading widely on the topic, what do you think about it? What is your stance? What can you prove and how can you prove it? For these reasons, the majority of most assignments should consist of your considered response to the topic.

Show your working

In terms of attribution, the majority of your assignment should comprise your particular response, but not all of it. Of course you need to incorporate the research you’ve done

  • to show off all the reading, note-taking, critiquing, evaluating and synthesising you’ve done
  • to have published experts support what you want to say, adding weight and credibility to your academic position.
The voice

So the majority of your assignment comprises your response. The research you’ve done is introduced to back up your contribution. In doing so, you demonstrate your control and authority. Nice! Of course the ideas you’ve borrowed need to be acknowledged in-text with citations and at the end of your assignment with referencing. Check out the blog post on this, see the Library’s guides to citing and referencing to learn more, and always have one of these guides open when you are writing.

Some points about incorporating research

Borrowed ideas should generally not appear in the first sentence of a paragraph. You should show control of the topic by stating the point you want to make first. In simple terms, your paragraph should consist of

  • a topic sentence summing up your main point,
  • further explanation of that main point,
  • evidence and examples to demonstrate the point in action and
  • a link back to the topic and your point’s relevance to it.

Paraphrasing is preferred to quoting as it shows deeper understanding of the literature. Your choice of reporting verb (‘state’, ‘claim’, ‘assert’,  etc.) also demonstrates deeper understanding, and reminds your reader that you have processed published ideas and incorporated a response to them in your work.

If you remain uncertain about how to incorporate the thoughts and work of others, don’t forget a friendly librarian or learning skills adviser is available to speak with you at a Library drop in.

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2 September 2015

Explore old texts in new ways

Read old texts as they were originally intended by their famous or non-famous authors, with Oxford Scholarly Editions Online , says Anne Melles, Subject Librarian for Literary Studies.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) has recently added three new modules of literature to its collection. These are extensive collections of Romantics Poetry and Romantics Prose, and a very limited collection of Romantics Drama.

Works from the most famous English and European Romantic authors and poets are included, for example, Byron, Goethe, Shelley,  and Dorothy and William Wordsworth.  In addition the modules contain the works of selected philosophers of the time, including Bolzano, Godwin, and Hegel.  The collection contains fascinating insights into the world of that time:
• Lord Byron saw the waltz as "a sign of indecorum, even depravity", and his poem, Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn By Horace Hornem, Esq, conveys his distaste.
• What did Percy Bysshe Shelley have to say of Frankenstein, the famous Gothic horror penned by his wife, Mary Shelley? Read his review of her book.
• An alderman meets his untimely demise during a fantastical feast in this prose, attributed to William Hazlitt and inspired by the opulence of the Lord Mayor's Banquet.

Primary texts in OSEO are annotated by respected scholars, for example many of the Shakespeare texts are edited by Stanley Wells.  The annotations are both textual and background in nature and provide a much useful information for students working on assignments and scholars researching this period.

Oxford provide some excellent material to help researchers learn about OSEO. You can browse A-Z and chronologically by Author, Work and Edition. Click here to take a tour of the collection. 

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