Thinking critically

Being critical in your university studies involves questioning and evaluating everything that you hear, see, think, read and write.

Critical reading

To read others’ arguments critically, try to understand their argument on its own terms (empathise), before you ask whether or not you agree – and why or why not (be sceptical):

  • Think about how their argument relates to other arguments about the topic.
  • Assess whether or not their argument is valid (well-made) and sound (reliable).
  • Is it persuasive, and why or why not?

Note that an argument can be valid without being sound – and vice versa.

What is an argument?

  • Most of us are very familiar with the word "argument" in its everyday sense, but it has a very specific meaning in an academic context:

An argument consists of a conclusion and one or more reasons (premises) for thinking that the conclusion is true.

  • Consider the following example of an argument:

Advertising is something we should have in New Zealand because it stimulates the economy to generate productivity, employment and greater physical well-being, by informing people of the availability of new or improved products.

The conclusion is that we should have advertising in New Zealand. It is based on the premise that advertising stimulates the economy, by generating productivity, employment and greater physical well-being.


How can an argument be assessed?

Arguments can be assessed in several ways. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it valid or not?
  • Is it sound or not?
  • Are its premises true or untrue?
  • Is it based on any unstated assumptions?

This last question relates to a missing premise: all assumptions need to be spelled out as premises of an argument.

Is the argument persuasive?

The above example about advertising is not a strong argument. Why?

Look out for possible problems with arguments:

  • Vague or undefined terms and concepts
  • Insufficient or faulty evidence
  • Selecting convenient examples (and ignoring competing ones)
  • Unjustified appeals to authority (e.g. the lecturer said so!)
  • Assuming cause and effect where none exists (it is only correlation)

To think critically is to always ask questions about your own and others' arguments (including those of your lecturers and tutors).

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To present arguments critically in your writing

  • Use a linear paragraph structure, in which each sentence follows logically from the previous one.
  • Stay on topic – avoid going off on a tangent.
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition.
  • Be explicit – don't leave out any steps in your argument, and support every statement with evidence or examples.

Academic arguments should

  • Challenge authorities, but in a qualified (modest and subtle) and impersonal way
  • Move from weak counter-evidence to strong positive evidence ("Although x is the case/we can argue x, … y is more important/a better argument.")
  • review existing arguments and then find something new to say.

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Last updated : 4 September 2018
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