Now that we are knee-deep in the middle of term, it’s likely that you’ll have already received the results from your January essays and exams. Whether you’re pleased or not, and no matter what degree discipline you take, chances are that either your feedback or your mark scheme will mention the words ‘critical analysis’. Critical analysis, or critical writing, is a vital part of any degree, particularly Law, that students will need to understand in order to succeed. However, this is something that students often find difficult to grasp and, as a result, they are often disheartened to see that their work is marked as ‘too descriptive.’ So, what is critical analysis? Why do we need it and how can we incorporate it into our essays in order to get those elusive top marks? This article aims to shed some light on the topic and help those of you who are struggling to prevent yourself being disheartened the next time results day comes around!
Critical thinking has been quoted as ‘a form of intelligent criticism which helps people to reach independent and justifiable conclusions about their experiences' [Moran, A.P. (1997) Managing Your Own Learning at University. University College, Dublin]. While this definition is helpful, it doesn’t go very far to tell us what we actually need to be doing and how we need to be doing it. Essays and exams are often marked for a number of things, including an all-round understanding of the subject and the ways in which students analyse the question, which is where the all important critical analysis comes in. While essays can often be marked down for being ‘too descriptive’ and ‘lacking analysis’, it is difficult to know where this critical analysis comes from.
So what is the difference between description and critical analysis? When writing essays, we often tend to focus on getting across all of our knowledge on the particular subject on paper as quickly as possible in order to prove that we’ve been revising – but this isn’t necessarily the best approach to show that you really understand the topic discussed. While the descriptive element of exams and essays are vital in order to give a summary of events or describe the relevant law around an area, for example, in order to really demonstrate your knowledge you need to go further than just description and show that you know more. You need to show that you know the positives and negatives and the academic debate that surrounds the topic. Critical writing requires students to demonstrate that they are confident in their own opinion of a topic and have a well-thought out debate including evidence to back it up. Critical writing requires us to develop our own academic voice and opinions, whilst engaging with the material that we have.
In order to do this there are a number of things you can include in your essays and exams. For law students, it is important to look around the law in essays and problems and seeing beyond what’s in front of you. This includes acknowledging and talking about any suggestion for reform of the law, and whether you agree with suggested reform and why. Equally, it’s important to include academic debate around a subject where the law may be unclear as critiquing what other authors have said and adding in your own opinion is a great way to include critical analysis. In order to effectively write critically, it’s important to fully understand what you’re writing about and what critiques there are around it, so independent reading outside of your reading lists is a must! Critical analysis is important as it allows students to develop their own academic mind and way of thinking, and allows them to fully analyse and understand all areas of the law as well as the practical application of it. Hopefully this article has shed some light on the subject and you now feel able to go forward and reach for those top marks in your next essays!