All entries for Sunday 13 November 2011

November 13, 2011

First Entry on Developing Your Critical Thinking at Masters Level

Workshop tutor: Austin Griffiths

Date: 8-Nov-2011

Introduction

This workshop was very well structured and with interesting and engaging practical example of how to apply critical thinking. So why is critical thinking so important? Well it is considered the 'meta-skill' that underpins postgraduate study in the UK and we began by discussing within the group around our tables what we considered the main differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study. The main answers included:

  • Undergraduate study is more structured with stricter guidelines and emphasis on what needs to be done to achieve a good mark compared to postgraduate where it is assumed you are competent students.
  • Postgraduate has less 'spoon fed' or 'rope learned' material and you are required to take an active role in engaging and finding your own relevant reading material.

The three main areas covered by this workshop included:

  1. Questioning and Hypothesis
  2. Arguments and Issues
  3. Assessing Journal Texts

As a warm up exercise to generate data, which we could then apply the principles of critical thinking to, we created a list of words. Firstly, 10 words to describe ourselves, then 5 words to describe what you think other people like about you and 5 words to describe what you think other people don't like about you - Not the most scientific approach.

From this we then went on to question the data from two main angles, verification (Bias, Reliability/validity, Methods) and analysis. Some questions to interrogate data include:

Bias - was the data bias? - probably, because our opinion is subjective.

  • Who can see the data? Will my girlfriend/boyfriend see or hear about this? - this can affect the answers you give, you might not want them to see everything..
  • Did the order of the questions affect the answers? - if it began with 10 words to describe what you think is bad about yourself, would this put the survey in a negative perspective?

Reliability/Validity

  • Would the weather and time of day have made a difference to the answer? - last thing, late on a Thursday during a dark and cold winters evening. Would you be as motivated to answer?
  • How big is the sample? - too small to draw generalised conclusions about Warwick students as a whole perhaps but this doesn't make the data less valuable. It can highlight interesting areas for further development.
  • How can you be sure that the descriptions were honest?

Methods

  • How was the data collected?
  • Did the respondents understand the questions?
  • Is the test consistent or is it enough to only do it once?

Then how can we analyse the data and make it tell us things?

Analysis

  • What proportion of positive words did people use to describe themselves?
  • How do we define positive and negative?
  • What proportion of responses describe physical appearance? etc
  • Are Warwick University students modest?

A example of student opinion expressed on one of the main library cubicles doors

From this thinking we then went on to decide on a hypothesis we would like to prove or disprove concerning students at Warwick University and we combined all our data so that we had more to work with.

A hypothesis also requires questioning:

  1. Analysis to come up with questions and ways to test the hypothesis
  2. Definitions and parameters - what is considered modest may have to be defined etc

These are the questions that illustrate that we are critically engaging with our data and it was an enjoyable exercise to demonstrate a key skill for postgraduate level study.

2. Arguments and Issues

The example of 'The Queen v Dudley and Stephens' was the next exercise we used to look at:

  • the connection between arguments and issues.
  • testing arguments by exploring different points of view.
  • the idea that arguments are not simply for and against but operate on a continuum

This case became known as The Lifeboat Case and involved a group of men who committed a murder and cannibalisation of another young man in order to survive extreme circumstances. The key moral issues we raised included: 1) Murder 2) Cannibalism 3) Consent 4) Utilitarianism 5) Sanity.

From this, in groups, we then took one of these moral arguments and constructed a case for the men being guilty and guilty but.. in order to explore as many sides of the argument as possible. Followed by moving the poster presentations around to then construct arguments for the men being not-guilty and not-guilty but.. for another moral aspect. This exercise involved a violent but engaging case study that proved difficult to generate multiple opinions, for example - the fact remains that one man killed another prematurely (even though he may have been ill and dying) and the remaining survivors participated in cannibalism. But, it was done as a result of such incredibly pressured circumstances directly determining the men's survival, that their sanity and the utilitarianism of the actions could possibly outweigh the crimes despite a lack of any consent.

  • The uncritical approach would have a single justified view - i.e. Murder is always wrong because it goes against the 10 commandments.
  • The critical approach will see a range of arguments on a continuum.

This continuum is important because it allows us to question and test the strength of our own position and prepare a defence of our arguments having understood examples of different preferred viewpoints.

The final part of the workshop involved:

3) Assessing Journal Texts

Here we focused on filtering texts. As postgraduate students we deal with a body of literature so we need to be able to look at a large number of articles and decide which are most relevant to our study. The key filter elements include the 1) Abstract 2) Conclusions.

Looking at a handout of studies into self-esteem of pupils in schools for social, emotional and behavioural difficulties: myth and reality (Swinson 2007) we then critically engaged with the material applying what we had learnt from the previous exercises. Commenting on any bias, reliability/validity and methodology we generated strengths, weaknesses and questions we would like to ask about the data to summarise our learning.

This workshop will help to support my study by helping to challenge the quality of methods and data I find in my journal articles and help me to improve the quality of data I generate in my own research.


Actions Points:

  1. To increase the amount of material I read whilst balancing my time by using the filtering techniques described.
  2. To not take data for granted as fact and try to critically engage with it, always ask why?
  3. To remember that there is always more than one side to any argument and this continuum is important to understand and can be applied to strengthen the position of my own arguments in work and life.

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