Teaching and Learning Resource (TLR)

1. Title

Guidance Notes for ‘Critical’ Essay Writing

2. Keywords

essay writing; critical thinking.

3. Introduction

It is widely acknowledged that the capacity for ‘critical’ thought is a uniquely valuable intellectual asset in higher education, and that students who demonstrate this quality should be rewarded accordingly. Yet most study skills guides for higher education are quite unhelpful on the question of critical thinking in general; not surprisingly, therefore, sources which abound with advice on many aspects of academic writing are largely silent on critical approaches to writing (see, for example, Bell, 1993; Creme and Lea, 1997; Northedge, 1990; Northedge et al, 1997; Parker, 1994(1)). Equally, specialist texts on critical thinking generally have much more to say about critical reading (i.e. evaluating others’ arguments) than about critical writing (see, for example, Thomson, 1996(2)).

In seeking to foster awareness of the distinctions between ‘non-critical’ (or ‘descriptive’), ‘weakly critical’ and ‘strongly critical’ perspectives, this TLR is particularly concerned to develop students’ capacity for strongly critical approaches to essay writing (3). However it is not intended to convey the impression that non-critical and weakly critical perspectives have no place or value in environmental higher education; but, rather, that students should be aware of the philosophical assumptions associated with each of these various perspectives - and that, in general, they should seek to adopt a more (as opposed to less) critical approach in their writing and other learning activities.

Whilst principally seeking to facilitate the development of a critical approach in students’ writing, the learning activities proposed here also draw attention to some more general and elementary aspects (e.g. signposting, sequencing, structuring summarising and synthesising) - which support critical essay writing only indirectly.

4. Aim

This TLR aims to facilitate the development of a critical approach in students’ writing.

5. Learning outcomes

Students who have engaged successfully with the learning activities proposed here will:

6. Pre-requisites

In using this TLR, students should be able to find meaning in the distinctions between non-critical, weakly critical and strongly critical approaches to essay writing. However, it is not necessary that they have had prior formal exposure to these distinctions.

7. How to use TLR

It is envisaged that the TLR will be most appropriately used in small group discussions, particularly during the period leading up to submission of an essay. However it might also be incorporated into a programme of examination support (i.e. to encourage a more critical approach to examination writing); or may be used independently of each of these circumstances. Some of the learning activities could be continued as private study; but the nature and purpose of the TLR must be clearly understood, and support will probably be required in the early stages at least.

In all cases, students should have had a prior opportunity to read the guidelines in Appendix One. They should also have considered a selection of essay titles which seem to invite non-critical, weakly critical and strongly critical responses, respectively - but without being told which title(s) might be associated with each category. Titles may be selected from the examples in Appendix Two, and/or may be contributed by the tutor. The topic(s) chosen should be familiar to tutor and students alike; and, for each topic, there should ideally be at least one title from each category. Students should also be asked to bring any drafts or notes relating to the essay(s) (if any) on which they are working at the time.

The tutor should ask students to focus on a minimum of one topic and three contrasting titles. Each student should be provided with one copy of the table in Appendix Three for each title to be considered. They should then be invited to explore the titles, with the aid of questions/instructions such as:

Higher level students might then be asked to consider another topic, and to suggest (and justify) their own essay titles, in each of the three categories. Further work, based on the table in Appendix Three, could be undertaken as private study.

8. Instructions to students

As directed by the tutor.

9. Stimulus Material

See Appendices One, Two and Three.

10. Degree stage

The TLR is probably most appropriately used with students who are operating at academic level two or above. It is unlikely that less advanced students will have the experience, or be capable of the relatively abstract thinking, which is called for here.

11. Resource requirements

There are no special resource requirements, other than a room which is suitable for interactive learning.

12. Preparation

See above, How to use TLR.

13. Links with other TLRs

Some generic aspects of critical thinking, including their application in students’ own academic writing, are also considered in the following TLRs:

More generally, the aims and/or learning outcomes of this TLR are related to those of other TLRs listed in the following 'thematic cluster':

14. Follow-up activities

The main learning activities proposed here are relatively open-ended, and could be extended to include essay titles on additional topics. Follow-up work might also include tutor- and/or peer-supported reflection on completed (and marked) essays, again using the table in Appendix Three.

15. Recommended reading

The following sources are not primarily concerned with critical approaches to essay writing, but nonetheless include some relevant material on this and other issues addressed in the TLR:

Bradbeer, J (2000) Academic Writing: Tips for Students. Miscellaneous Paper No. 4, Integrating People and Technology Project, University of Portsmouth
See in particular his comment on the opposing needs for originality and for writing which is grounded in the literature (page 27). Contains a wealth of sound and concisely stated advice on ‘mainstream’ essay writing concerns (including structuring devices, paragraphing, introductions and conclusions, grammar and spelling); and a bibliography of guides to academic writing.

Bradbeer, J (2000) Student Academic Writing: A Guide for Tutors. Miscellaneous Paper No. 5, Integrating People and Technology Project, University of Portsmouth
Tutors’ counterpart to the above. See in particular his comments on ‘recall’ versus ‘argument’-based essay questions (page 26); and on the opposing needs for originality and for writing which is grounded in the literature (page 36). Contains a wealth of sound and concisely stated advice on ‘mainstream’ essay writing concerns (including structuring devices, paragraphing, introductions and conclusions, grammar and spelling); and a bibliography of guides to, and research on, academic writing.

Creme, P and Lea, M (1997) Writing at University: A Guide for Students. Open University Press
The book as a whole offers some sound advice; and chapters 3, 6 and 7 deal with some of the aspects of essay writing dealt with here, including development of an argument. But critical approaches to essay writing per se are not effectively covered.

Fairburn, G and Winch, C (1996) Reading, Writing and Reasoning: A Guide for Students. SRHE and Open University Press
More enlightened than most sources on the ‘problematic’ nature of knowledge and knowledge claims, whilst nonetheless offering limited insights. See pages 63-69, 75-82 and 126-9 in particular.

Appendix One

‘Unpacking’ the Title and Choosing a Writing ‘Strategy’

Always check that you understand clearly what the essay title is asking you to do (and what not to do!), including the meaning of individual words and phrases.

Different titles suggest fundamentally different strategic approaches to essay writing. In particular, some essays will ask you for a broadly non-critical (or descriptive) account (for example, of the chronology or uncontested ‘facts’ of an event). But, in higher education, most essay writing will call on you to adopt a critical approach - for example, to ‘explain’, ‘compare’, ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’, or in some other way to develop an argument.

It may be helpful to distinguish between ‘weakly’ and ‘strongly’ critical approaches, in the following way:

- Weakly critical writing may involve evaluating alternative points of view, especially for the soundness of their reasoning and the legitimacy of their conclusions. It may well also involve developing your own arguments, and advancing your own conclusions; and may sometimes involve making personal ‘value judgements’, e.g. about what government policy you would advocate on a given issue.

- Strongly critical writing involves recognising the problematic and contestable character of knowledge claims, including:

In other words, strongly critical writing is less concerned with ‘getting the right answer’ (e.g. advancing the soundest argument, or advocating the most appropriate course of action). It is more concerned with ‘getting inside’ competing claims, and showing that you understand how different arguments are constructed. This includes showing critical awareness of your own, as well as others’, arguments.

Developing your ‘Argument’

The ability to ‘analyse’, to ‘evaluate’, or in some other way to develop an ‘argument’, is widely regarded as a hallmark of success in higher education. In many cases, ‘arguments’ can be constructed - and evaluated - along the lines of the following ‘traditional’ model of critical reasoning:

Reasons arrow Conclusions

logical inferences


i.e. where:

Arguments consist of ‘reasons’ given in support of a ‘conclusion’

Reasons include evidence, principles, assumptions (which should normally be stated, unless they are widely held and undisputed) and logical inferences (eg causal connections)

Conclusions include ‘facts’, judgements and recommendations.

Amongst the highest order of academic skills are those which enable students to critically evaluate others’ arguments, and to develop sound and critically aware arguments of your own: these are the qualities which are most commonly being sought, when you are asked to write an essay.

The traditional view of critical reasoning is more closely aligned with weakly, than with strongly, critical approaches to argument and writing. It is premised on an ‘unproblematised’ view of knowledge - wherein the evaluation of arguments can be undertaken using primarily ‘objective’ criteria. In particular, this approach depends upon the following assumptions:

  1. It is ultimately possible to evaluate most arguments in terms of their proximity to a singular and definitive ‘truth’ - which account is ‘right’ and which ones are flawed.
  2. Soundness of reasoning and sufficiency of evidence may be relevant to the evaluation of an argument’s persuasiveness, but not the communicative devices through which the argument is advanced - for example the language and the rhetoric.
  3. ‘Experts’ can normally be relied upon - more so than non-‘experts’ - to provide ‘truthful’ accounts: their interests and allegiances are less important than their privileged access to the ‘truth’.
  4. Critical reasoning can be undertaken objectively by users, who have no personal interest other than the ir/relevance of a argument to their own work - and no other personal qualities which might intervene between the soundness of the argument and their evaluation of it.

A strongly critical approach would question each of these premises. For example, it suggests that you should be critically aware of your own values, assumptions and interests - and that you should try to make these explicit, rather than ignoring and concealing them. It also suggests that you should take a sceptical view of the claims advanced by experts - and anticipate that experts who identify with different ‘knowledge communities’ will tend to base their arguments on different underlying values and assumptions.

Making it Relevant

Material that is not directly relevant to the title should normally be kept to a minimum. This is all the more important if your word limit is tightly constrained. On the one hand, you will want to include sufficient evidence, conceptual and theoretical underpinning, explanatory detail and illustrative material, to support the ‘case’ you are making. On the other hand, there may be a body of broadly uncontested ground that can be assumed to be ‘shared knowledge’, between writer and reader - and which can be left ‘unsaid’; this may include low level ‘facts’, widely understood concepts, or even the theoretical positions of authors whose work is relevant to the essay. The question of what can be left ‘unsaid’ is clearly one which calls for careful judgement; but it is analogous to the situation we frequently encounter in class discussions, where we don’t normally begin by telling other participants everything we know on the topic! (However, in essay writing and class discussions alike, it usually becomes readily apparent whether or not there is genuinely shared knowledge in these ‘unspoken’ areas!).

Making it Authoritative

Use bibliographic citation to lend authoritative support to your arguments. This will generally be provided by academic books and articles etc, but there are circumstances where non-academic sources (e.g. newspaper articles or television broadcasts) will be relevant.

‘Strongly’ critical approaches to writing will take account of the potential plurality of expert views, and will to seek to identify their underlying allegiances, values and assumptions - i.e. not merely to cite them uncritically. However there may be circumstances in which you will also wish to acknowledge ‘lay’ (i.e. non-expert) perspectives - particularly in relation to publicly disputed issues, where they call into question the authority of expert opinion.

Bibliographic citation may be helpful where aspects of the case you are making have been left ‘unsaid’, but judgements are again required: for example, widely held and undisputed knowledge does not normally require authoritative support.

Signposting, Sequencing, Structuring, Summarising and Synthesising

Look for advantageous ways of signposting, sequencing, structuring summarising and synthesising your arguments.

Paragraphing is often the most effective way of creating a structure: for example, one paragraph for each argument - or for each step in the overall argument - you are wanting to make. (If you are considering arguments and counter-arguments, before reaching an overall judgement, you may also want to present and examine these opposing viewpoints in separate paragraphs.) For each paragraph, the opening statement may be used to signpost the direction and substance of your case - perhaps in the form of a ‘key sentence’, which distils out the essence of the point which is to be developed in the remainder of that paragraph (with the aid of evidence, conceptual and theoretical underpinning, explanatory detail and illustrative material).

Often, though not always, you will need to sequence the paragraphs in such a way as to make clear the connections between them - for example, the way in which one step in your overall argument builds on preceding steps. Words and phrases which may serve to reinforce these connections include “Therefore ...”, “It follows that ...” and “This view is contradicted by ...”.

The introductory paragraph may provide an especially valuable opportunity to signpost the overall direction and substance of your case; in effect, you can use the introduction to give the reader advance notice of what argument(s) to expect in the main body of the essay. Likewise, your concluding paragraph can often most usefully summarise and synthesise the foregoing case: it is rarely appropriate to introduce wholly new material in a conclusion.

Appendix Two

Some Examples of Non-Critical, Weakly Critical and Strongly Critical Essay Titles

Pollution (general) and risk


Weakly critical

Strongly critical

Choose three of the following groups of pollutants, and describe their main characteristics:

  • toxic chemicals (including heavy metals)
  • organic compounds
  • radiation

· heat

  • particulates
  • electromagnetic fields
  • noise
  • genetic contamination

Use examples to demonstrate how the physical and chemical characteristics of materials affect their movement, persistence, distribution and fate in the environment.

What is the difference between ‘perceived risk’ and ‘actual risk’? Use examples to explain why people sometimes perceive risk inaccurately.

Explain, and compare the respective advantages and limitations of, ‘cost-benefit’ and ‘contingent valuation’ approaches to pollution management.

How does the principle of ‘precaution’ challenge conventional scientific views of the ‘burden of proof’?

Critically examine the failings in risk assessment and management which led to one environmental disaster, with which you are familiar.

In the debate about genetically modified food, whose arguments do you find most persuasive - those of the GM industries and their supporters, or those of their opponents? Why?

Why has the precautionary principle become something of a cause célèbre amongst its advocates - and, conversely, a bête noire for its opponents?

Critically examine John Adams’ assertion (in Risk, 1995, page 169) that “[t]here are scientists to serve all the established myths of nature”.

Donald Schön has argued (for example, in The Reflective Practitioner, 1983) that professional practice based on a ‘technical-rational’ view of knowledge leaves decision-makers ill-equipped for dealing with uncertainty and novelty. Examine the implications of this argument for scientific risk assessment.

Resource economics and environmental management


Weakly critical

Strongly critical

Distinguish between reserves and resources, and between renewable and non-renewable resources. Use examples to illustrate your account.

What are ‘externalities’, and why is it important to take account of them in the management of environmental resources? What is the ‘tragedy of the commons’?

Explain, with examples, how the UK’s environmental laws and regulations are made and enforced.

What is meant by environmentally sustainable development? What would be some of the major features of an environmentally sustainable society?

Explain the concept of green taxes. Provide examples and explain the advantages and disadvantages of their use.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of cost-benefit analysis?

Do you believe that we should be striving towards environmentally sustainable development? If ‘yes’, what actions would you suggest? If ‘no’, what alternative course of development do you advocate?

Critically examine the importance of environmental auditing for either businesses or local authorities, in responding to statutory and other pressures for enhanced environmental performance.

Which political party in the UK has the most effective policies for confronting the challenges of environmental sustainability, in your view?

“The economic valuation of costs and benefits, associated with alternative environmental management decisions, can never be free of non-economic values”. Discuss.

For one prominent area of environmental policy, critically examine the views, behaviour and influence of a selection of stakeholders, ‘opinion-formers’ and other ‘agents of persuasion’ (e.g. government, expert communities, pressure groups)

Critically examine the arguments for and against more ‘participatory’ or ‘inclusionary’ approaches to environmental decision-making (e.g. citizens’ juries, consensus conferences and focus groups).

At the last UK general election, environmental protection ranked eighth in the Labour Party’s ten major manifesto commitments - compared with economic growth, which ranked third. Critically examine the values (hidden and/or acknowledged) and ‘worldview’ that underlie these priorities?

Atmospheric processes


Weakly critical

Strongly critical

What are the major sources of outdoor and indoor air pollution? Why do indoor air pollutants tend to pose a greater hazard to human health, compared with their outdoor counterparts?

What is acid rain, and how is it produced? What are the environmental impacts of acid rain, and how might they be minimised?

Why is radon gas a serious environmental health concern? What can be done to alleviate the problem?

Explain the main anthropogenic factors which are thought to modify natural climate change.

Explain how the ‘greenhouse effect’ promotes global warming. What are the most likely major consequences of global warming?

What are the major causes of human morbidity and mortality from air pollution?

Explain the scientific controversy surrounding global climate change. Is the evidence for global warming convincing, in your view?

How serious do you consider the problem of global warming to be? What should be done about it?

Critically evaluate the policies taken by the international community to curb one of the following:

  • ozone depletion in the stratosphere


  • global warming by ‘greenhouse’ gases in the troposphere.

Who are the major actors and ‘agents of persuasion’ in the international debate about global climate change? Critically examine the behaviour and influence of two key ‘players’ who have adopted contrasting points of view.

Critically examine the portrayal of global climate change in one national newspaper. What wider social and political significance should be attributed to the mass media’s coverage of controversial environmental issues such as this?

How far can current inter-governmental agreements on either ozone depletion or global climate change be claimed to have their basis in ‘sound’ science and ‘rational’ cost-benefit analysis?

Using Coupland and Coupland (1997)(4) as your point of departure, consider ways in which discourse analysis might be used to analyse the competing (academic and ‘lay’) knowledge claims associated with either acid rain or radon gas or global climate change.

Nuclear energy


Weakly critical

Strongly critical

What are the two major ways in which radioisotopes affect the environment, and what are the major pathways of radioactive materials in the environment?

What is nuclear fission, and what are the basic components of a nuclear power plant? What are the most common reactor designs, and how do they differ from each other?

How can we safely dispose of the high-level and low-level radioactive wastes that result from nuclear power generation?

Describe the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents. How have these accidents affected the public’s perception of nuclear power?

Discuss the advantages and dangers of nuclear power. In your view, should we be more - or less - concerned about the risks posed by nuclear power?

“Nuclear energy offers an alternative to many of the environmental and human costs associated with fossil fuels, but introduces serious problems of its own”. Discuss.

Critically examine the failings in risk assessment and management which led to one nuclear accident, with which you are familiar.

How well have conventional approaches to environmental risk assessment and management (based on fault-tree and cost-benefit analyses) served the nuclear industry? In what way does the principle of ‘precaution’ challenge these approaches?

Who are the major actors and ‘agents of persuasion’ in the debate about the future of nuclear power in Britain? Critically examine the stances adopted by two key ‘players’ who have adopted contrasting points of view.

“Environmental scientific knowledge claims are not impervious to the social context in which they are advanced.” Discuss this statement, with reference to the risks posed by nuclear power.

Critically examine the portrayal of Britain’s nuclear industry in one national newspaper. What wider social and political significance should be attributed to the mass media’s coverage of controversial environmental issues such as this?

Appendix Three

‘Critical’ Approaches in Essay Writing

Use the table below to summarise your reflections on the essay or other piece of writing you have been looking at today. Specific comments (e.g. about bibliographic citation, relevance, or the details of your argument) should be written directly onto the script.

Essay title



‘Unpacking’ the Essay Title







Developing an ‘Argument’







Making it Relevant







Making it Authoritative







Signposting, Sequencing, Structuring, Summarising and Synthesising







Bell, J (1993) Doing Your Research Project. Open University Press (2nd edition)
Creme, P and Lea, MR (1997) Writing at University: A Guide for Students. Open University Press
Northedge, A (1990) The Good Study Guide. Open University Press
Northedge, A et al (1997) The Sciences Good Study Guide. Open University Press
Parker, D (1994) Tackling Coursework: Assignments, Projects, Reports and Presentations (DP Publications)

(2) Thomson, A (1996) Critical Reasoning: A Practical Introduction. Routledge

(3) ‘Non-critical’ and ‘weakly critical’ approaches are associated with (broadly) ‘realist’ positions in epistemology (i.e. the branch of philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge). ‘Strongly critical’ perspectives, by contrast, are associated with ‘constructivist’ (and, arguably, with ‘critical realist’) positions in epistemology. For a brief account of these alternative positions, and their significance for environmental higher education, see Jones, P, Merritt, Q and Palmer, C (1999)‘Critical thinking and interdisciplinarity in environmental higher education: the case for epistemological and values awareness’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23 (3), pages 349-57

(4) Coupland, N and Coupland, J (1997) ‘Bodies, beaches and burn-times: “environmentalism” and its discursive competitors’, Discourse and Society, 8 (1), pages 7-25.

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