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What is meant by critical analysis?

Judith Barton
Judith Barton, Director of Coaching & Mentoring

At the British School of Coaching (BSC) we are proud of the quality of all our programmes, including ILM Level 7 programmes such as Level 7 Certificate and Diploma in Executive Coaching and Mentoring, Level 7 Certificate and Diploma in Coaching Supervision. Level 7 qualifications are designed to be consistent with Master’s level qualifications of higher education (MA, MSc, MPhil).  BSC learners benefit from studying in small groups with 1 to 1 personal tutor support, one area of discussion is; “what is meant by critical analysis”?

The requirement to be ‘critical’ is a key component of level 7 qualifications, for example to critically analyse or review. Ofqual (which regulates general and vocational qualifications in the England) provides Level 7 descriptors, as follows:

For knowledge and understanding, the descriptor includes requirement that the learner: “Critically analyses, interprets and evaluates complex information, concepts and theories to produce modified conceptions.” (Ofqual, 2015, Qualification and Component Levels Requirements and Guidance for All Awarding Organisations and All Qualification, p 8)

In relation to skills, the descriptor includes the requirement that the learner is able to: “Critically evaluate actions, methods and results and their short- and long-term implications.” (Ofqual, 2015, Qualification and Component Levels Requirements and Guidance for All Awarding Organisations and All Qualification, p 8)

Over the years we have learnt that sometimes learners struggle with the requirements of Level 7 assignments and assessment.  For example, we may find the following written exchange on the mark sheet for a Level 7 assignment:

Assessment Criterion – ‘Critically assess the contribution of coaching to improve both individual and organisational performance.’

Feedback – ‘You have provided a detailed description of the contribution of coaching to improve both individual and organisational performance, but there is limited critical assessment.’

In a recent debate hosted by the organisation Intelligence Squared in Sydney Australia, and aired on the BBC, a member of the panel, Professor John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy, University of St. Andrews, opens the debate by suggesting “the capacity for critical engagement and reflection is diminishing. He went on to say “we used to say I disagree and this is why…. We now say I feel and I am offended”. Professor Haldane went on to share his observations, which he described as a trend that if you disagree with the prevailing view there is less likely to be a space to present your thinking, your critical review and arguments. This made me think of examples when the popular view becomes the ‘right’ one. I wonder is this because individuals follow the feelings rather than listening analysing the evidence and reflecting?

I also wonder whether the space to listen and reflect has reduced through the need for an answer.  If we are not seen to have an instant view on something we are thought less off.  I have experience of clients who shared examples of feeling under pressure to provide an immediate answer without being allowed an opportunity to consider the reasons for and against.  One client described this as “it isn’t fashionable to think”. I wonder whether immediate decision making is considered efficient and therefore productive? That if the majority have a certain opinion it must be the “right”, almost out sourcing our critical thinking to a third party. This reminds me of times, when I have said, “this idea must have been thought through” – I can’t be the only person who’s said this?  Whilst I recognise the good stuff of information sharing on social media I also think the instant nature of it creates emotional followers rather than informed followers or informed thinkers.

So thinking critically requires deeper thinking, we need time to think. But first what does ‘critical’ mean, in this academic context?  And how does it differ from description?

First, to dispel some common misconceptions – being critical is not being negative, condemnatory or simply pointing out what is wrong with something such as an idea, a theory, or evidence.

Thinking positively, here are some definitions of what being critical is:

•    “Being thoughtful, asking questions, not taking things you read or hear at face value. It means finding information and understanding different approaches and using them in your writing” (www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/postgraduate/taught/learning-resources/critical).

•    “Critical thinking is the process of applying reasoned and disciplined thinking to a subject….. You will need to develop reasoned arguments based on a logical interpretation of reliable sources of information” (http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/skillsforstudy/critically-processing-what-you-read.php).

•    “… a form of intelligent criticism which helps people to reach independent and justifiable conclusions ..” (Moran AP 1997 Managing Your Own Learning at University, University College, Dublin, quoted in University of Bradford Academic Skills Advice Critical Analysis – So what does that REALLY mean”)

These definitions (from the University of Edinburgh, the Open University and Bradford University) are complementary and to me the key points are:
•    understanding information
•    reasoned and disciplined thinking
•    questioning and challenging
•    evaluating information
•    developing your argument
•    drawing conclusions

Let’s look at these in turn.
•    Understanding.  Before you can be critical of anything you have to be really sure you understand it – whether it is a theory, a model, an idea, an aspect of coaching practice, research evidence.  Usually, when writing critically you will need to describe (say what it is in some detail) the ideas, models, theories, evidence that you are going to be critical of.

•    Reasoned and disciplined thinking. This is a development from understanding – now you really understand the ideas think about them logically and carefully.

•    Questioning and challenging.  Don’t take what you read or hear at face value – question if the information is valid and reliable, is there bias in the information, are conclusions supported by the evidence provided, was the methodology used to collect the evidence appropriate, could there have been a conflict of interest between the author and funding body? Show why the information you have used is relevant and appropriate – is it up-to-date? If not, will this undermine its value? Is the information from a reliable source – e.g. a peer-reviewed journal or an established academic authority?

•    Evaluating. Come to a judgement on the strengths and weaknesses of the information (whether your or other’s research findings, theories and models from the literature, your own ideas) you have described; this can also involve weighing up one piece of information against another.

•    Developing your argument.  This builds on the reasoning, questioning and challenging – develop your argument using logical interpretation of information.

•    Drawing conclusions.  What are the implications of your analysis and interpretation of the information? To go back to the initial example, can you conclude that coaching makes a positive contribution to personal and organisational performance? Is coaching generally effective but with limitations? Or has your analysis of the information led you to conclude that coaching is no more effective than standard performance management?

Conclusion
The key differences between a ‘descriptive’ piece of work and ‘critical’ writing is that the former simply demonstrates what you know. The latter demonstrates that you have thought about what you know sufficiently to be able to make a judgement about the information and draw conclusions from it.

Further reading:
Series of guides and tips from University of Bradford Academic Skills Advice
Series of guides from University of Edinburgh Institute for Academic Development
Guide on critical writing and a guide on critical reading from University of Leicester
Intelligence Squared

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