I’ve mentioned mindfulness in a previous post, considering the benefits of how truly being in the present moment can enhance our ability to relax, avoid emotional overreactions and diminish stress. Today, I want to look at an application of mindfulness that many of my students have found helpful whilst working towards their degrees, and that is developing mindful strategies for critical thinking.
I was lecturing last week to a group of mature students preparing to start university study and taking Access courses to help them get prepared, and their feedback on my session was the same as pretty much any student group I teach, from first year undergraduates to PhD candidates: “Why didn’t someone tell me this before?” The longer I work as a coach the more I understand that, if you want to have a greater chance of succeeding with your goal, you have to define it as specifically as possible and in as much detail as you can imagine. This applies to producing university assignments too – how can you work towards your desired mark (a 2:1 or a First?) if you don’t know what an essay that achieves those kinds of marks actually looks like? The crux of my study skills teaching and coaching is all about ensuring that students understand what is required so that they can develop a clearer vision of how to get there.
Sounds obvious, right? Well, life would be simpler if universities could unpack a lot of the terminology used to describe their marking criteria and be more specific with the feedback provided on students’ work. In the days of satisfying external quality audits and increasing numbers of student enrolments (i.e. more marking and paperwork to do) I understand how a certain kind of academic ‘shorthand’ develops. However, some of the more discrete student groups I work with, like mature students, international students and those from a widening participation background who may be the first in their family to be gaining a university education, find academia and its varied languages a mystery, and I’m certain from my years of teaching experience that even our home students would benefit from having a more transparent approach to marking and assessment.
One of the main terms that needs clarifying is ‘critical analysis’ – a phrase over which many students agonise, and which provides the source of much tutor feedback, generally referring to the lack of it in any given assignment. It is a complex term which needs breaking down. It also requires a process that students can follow, just like the action plans we associate with goal setting, and I believe that developing processes is the key to academic success: if you know in your thinking where you are now, where you have come from and where you are likely to go next, you will be developing a mindful approach to study that will help you crack the critical analysis mystery.
Developing meta-cognition This term simply means ‘thinking about thinking’ and becoming aware of the processes you use to develop your understanding of concepts and ideas. Take time to make regular pauses while you are working and check in with yourself. If you feel stressed, lack focus or simply feel as if you are not getting anywhere, you need to get strategic. Set some goals for what you want to achieve by the end of your study session, write out some specific questions to which you need to find the answers, or try an exercise called ‘writing to the resistance’ where you write out all the reasons why you’re struggling until you make a breakthrough and solve your own problem. Developing this level of cognitive awareness is called ‘comprehension monitoring’, and it will help you to avoid those days where you feel like you’ve been working hard but not really getting anywhere.
Separate ‘analysis’ from ‘criticism’ and be aware of which process you are engaged in and when. Analysis is the process of taking apart the concept, argument or model in front of you in order to understand how it was put together and the academic evidence that supports it. You should complete your analysis by contextualising what you have just learned – ask yourself, ‘How does this relate to what I already know about this subject?’ and use this to build the bigger picture of your field of study. Ask questions throughout this process: Who is the author? Does this influence later studies? What is the supporting evidence? Criticism is your evaluation of what is in front of you based on your analysis. The questions you ask now are qualitative, such as, ‘What is the strength of the evidence here?’ ‘How does this compare with this other study?’, ‘What is my interpretation and how can I justify it?’ Be aware of what you are doing, when you are doing it and if it is achieving the results you want. You may have to ask different questions, look at a concept from a new perspective or go back and do some more analysis if you feel that you are still struggling; many students put pressure on themselves to come up with a complex interpretation of an idea or concept without having thoroughly analysed it first. How can you evaluate something of which you have an incomplete understanding?
Be able to defend your thinking Many students doubt their own ability to produce a reasoned interpretation or argument based on their academic work, and much of my teaching focuses on developing that confidence. You will feel much more able to articulate your own ideas and arguments if you know how you arrived at them in the first place, hence the mindful approach and meta-cognitive strategies. Please do not simply absorb everything you read or are told, treating your mind like a sponge; ask questions all the time to help you make sense of new information and ideas, so that you can really develop your own thinking and use your brain like a sophisticated processor. Describing & retelling what you have read doesn’t get you marks at degree level so, if you feel you are starting to regurgitate information, cut across it by asking some questions and get that critical mind set back.
Apply this critical and mindful approach consistently By this I mean using critical analysis at every stage of study: interpreting an essay title or topic; deciding what you need to research; from that research, deciding what you need to read and in how much depth; asking questions while making notes, not mindlessly copying, and recording your thinking; asking yourself questions about how to structure your answer, why you are prioritising certain things, and what evidence is required to support your argument, and continuing to question your work during the proof reading and editing stage, right up until handing it in.
Just remember: know what you are doing at any given time when you’re studying, as well as where you’ve come from and where you want to go. You’ll find study a much less stressful experience as you’ll be thinking so much more clearly and have a stronger sense of purpose. To be honest, I wish I’d known all this when I was an undergraduate; I learned a lot more from teaching my own students and explaining how things worked than I did when I actually was one! Check out the Study Skills Coaching page if you feel you would benefit from one-to-one help, or if you would like Brainbox to offer a workshop at your institution. Good luck!
Last changed: Feb 20 2012 at 12:06 PM