How being a student is like being a detective

If you’ve ever been told by your lecturer or tutor that your paper is “too descriptive”, you need to show more analysis, or you need to take a more critical approach, then Librarian Clinton Bell has an unusual solution: imagine you’re a detective…

Let’s say you’re working on a case. When you start out, nobody knows what the correct solution is - you certainly can’t look it up in a textbook! Instead, you need to collect evidence, and then try to establish what might have happened based on the evidence you find and your own reasoning. As the case proceeds, you need to investigate thoroughly and avoid jumping to conclusions. Sometimes evidence can be false or misleading - witnesses might lie, or something that seems suspicious at first might have an innocent explanation. This makes it important to collect evidence from multiple sources and carefully assess how reliable your information is. As well as collecting evidence, you need to put it together to work out what happened. 

You might start by coming up with several possible explanations and then comparing each against the evidence; or you might look at the evidence and try to link all the pieces together to come up with a coherent explanation. Once you think you have a solution, you need to convince the police or the courts. To do this you will need to explain your reasoning and show that the evidence supports your conclusion. You may need to contrast your conclusion with other possibilities, and demonstrate that your explanation is more likely to be true.
So what does all this have to do with being a student?
Like the detective’s case, the questions you work on at university don’t always have one correct solution that you can look up in a book. Instead, you’re expected to gather information from various sources and then form your own view based on that information. The emphasis is on trying to establish which answer is best, rather than just accepting what someone else has said or compiling a list of information. You can’t accept all the evidence at face value either. Some sources just aren’t very reliable, but even experts can disagree with one another. Like the detective, you need to carefully evaluate the information you’ve gathered and avoid relying on a single source. As well as gathering information, you need to analyse and interpret it. Exactly what this means depends on the assignment and what field you’re studying, but in general you need to link the information you’ve found together and make judgements. Asking yourself questions is a good way to do this.

Some questions you might ask are:

  • What are the different views on this matter? How do they differ?
  • How strong is the evidence for each view? Are some better supported than others?
  • If there are conflicting opinions or evidence, why is that? 
  • Based on the information you’ve gathered, what actions should we take? What result do you expect from these actions? 
Finally, you need to communicate your findings and explain how you reached them. You need to show the person reading your assignment that you’ve come to a conclusion based on sound reasoning and evidence. This is what your lecturer is asking for when they tell you to be critical or show analysis - they want you to demonstrate that you’ve gone through the process of careful investigation and reasoning I’ve just described.

Good luck with your assignments - hopefully with these tips you’ll find them elementary.

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