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Christopher Douce

Critical thinking and writing (Intermediate)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 14 June 2023, 08:32

On the evening of 13 June 2023, I attended a university wide session about critical thinking and writing, which was delivered as a part of the Student Hub Live programme. The event was facilitated by Margaret Greenhall, study skills specialist, and OU tutor in Science, and was supported by another tutor, Nicky Mee. An edited recording to this session is available through the Student Hub Live website.

Margaret presented what could be described as a “a buffet of ideas” to help students to work through ideas and concepts they are presented with during their studies. Whilst it is intended to be a starting point, the buffet presents some really useful tools that could be used by anyone who is approaching the study of a new subject. It may also be useful for anyone who needs to do a review of a topic, or to carry out a literature review.

We were given a lot of notes to download, which shared some of the key concepts which I hope to summarise through this short blog.

What follows is my own notes from the session, which are presented, of course, from my own perspective, complete with my own understandings (and misunderstandings!)

What does critical thinking mean to you?

We were asked a question, and invited to respond by giving answers in a text box. We were then led towards a suggestion, that perhaps critical thinking could be thought of a pyramid, or hierarchy, which has a number of levels, such as:

  1. Content
  2. Validity
  3. Relevance
  4. Criteria
  5. Evaluation

These concepts could be unpacked further, by asking accompanying questions, such as:

  1. What? What is the content?
  2. Who? Who wrote it?
  3. Why? Why is it relevant to you and the problem?
  4. What? What is important with what you have found?
  5. How? How does it connect to other things and how is it useful?

In the following sections, I summarise how each of these key points were broken down.

Content: What?

A question I noted down during the presentation as: is this all about reading the information? We were also asked a question during the session: what do you do before you read the course materials? This question led to a short activity, where we were shown sections of text.

There was an important point which was made here, which is: critical thinking starts before you read the assessments; you’re gathering criteria before you start. Critical thinking before reading helps to prime oneself with respect to what things we will be looking at.

I made a note of some tips: read the TMA first, write down your own questions, look at big picture and detail, leave things overnight before reading in detail, and then go back to review the material. I might have imagined this, but I’m pretty sure that spider diagrams were mentioned too.

Validity: Who?

In other words, where did the information come from? This connects to the source of the material. Who wrote it? Did it come from a reputable source.

The tool that we were introduced to help us think about validity was PROMPT: Provenance, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Presentation, Timeliness. There is some accompanying OU materials about PROMPT on the OU website.

Another tool, which was gently rephrased as being ‘CAARP’ serves a similar purpose: CRAAP: Current, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose (University of the West of Scotland)

Relevance: Why?

Simply put, why is something important? It is very well looking at an article and thinking you know something is important, but why is it really important? 

One tool is to keep continuing the ‘why’ question 5 times over. When you get an answer to the first ‘why’ rephrase it, and ask another ‘why’ question, until you create a chain of five of them. This might be the real reason why something is studied or examined. By rephrasing question, you dig deeper into the issue.

Criteria: What?

What is important? In other words, how do you make an evaluation about whether a particular article or source (or topic) is important in the context of the problem? A meta question (questions about questions) is: what questions would you ask what is important?

An interesting tool that was shared was something called the CIA Phoenix list (Wikiversity).

Three of the first questions from this list are: Why is it necessary to solve the problem?, what benefits will you receive by solving the problem?, and what is the unknown? The idea is to use this list to try to dig deeper to evaluate a problem. There is also a list of questions that relate to evaluating a plan.

One further question was asked, which was: which question (on the Phoenix list) is your favourite?

Evaluation: How?

How does everything all connect with each other. In other words, if you have found something out, how can you use it? When it comes to being a student, an evaluation is often expressed through a tutor marked assessment, which is often in the form of an essay.

One of the tools that might be useful for essay writing is something called PEEL, which is an abbreviation for: Point, Evidence, Explain, Link. In other words, you make a point, you evidence that point (with a reference), explain to the reader what it is (and why it is important in the context of an argument), and then add some words which link to the next paragraph. There could well be one PEEL per paragraph.

Another tool was introduced was PESELS, which is an abbreviation for: Point, Explain, Support with evidence, Evaluate (for or against), Link, Signpost to the next paragraph.


I haven’t ever come across this particular pyramid before, but I do know of another (and arguably similar) pyramid, Bloom’s taxonomy (Wikipedia) which is likely to be more useful in terms of thinking about our own understanding and learning of a topic, as opposed to surveying, and reading. 

I had heard of the PEEL approach to essay writing, but I had not heard of the PESELS abbreviation; this just goes to show that there are always things to learn! Another tool that was unfamiliar to me was the Phoenix list, which looks quite useful in terms helping to reflect on what has been found about a subject. A lot was covered in a short time, and I will certainly have come round for another pass of this buffet.

The closing points were helpful, which included: critical thinking starts before reading, it takes time, and you need to spread it out over an extended period of time; it is something that can take days, since you need time to let things sink in.

It was also a quite a busy session, with up to 120 students attending. The session is, of course, one of a series on Student Hub Live. A later section will focus on the evaluation stage of the pyramid model. It was also interesting to learn about what general study skill support is available for students. There are, of course, recordings of other sessions that are available.

A final point: please don’t use Wikipedia in formal pieces of writing; always consider the validity of your sources. Formal references from the university library presented using the Harvard format, as described in CiteThemRight is always the way to go. 


Many thanks to Student Hub Live, and to Margaret Greenhall who was the presenter and facilitator of this session. The structure of this blog completely mirrors what she presented. I also have quoted from her directly when preparing these notes. I did try to find references for each of the tools that are mentioned in this blog, but I haven’t managed to track these down.

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