Many students dread writing ‘critical discussion’ essays. This is partly because they don’t understand what is required of them.
So, how do you ‘critically discuss’ in an essay? Well, first and foremost, make sure you’ve truly considered all sides of the argument. You also need to think carefully about whether the source(s) you are discussing are reliable and valid. Finally, you need to develop a ‘thesis statement’ so that you can structure your critical discussion essay effectively.
Critical discussion essays can cause headaches, but they can also be incredibly rewarding if you approach them with the right attitude. Here are some tips to set you off in the right direction!
What does ‘critically discuss’ actually mean?
Before attempting a critical discussion, check you understand what is required of you. Let’s turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a useful definition.
|Critically||in a way that expresses or involves an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art.|
|Discuss||talk or write about (a topic) in detail, taking into account different issues or ideas.|
So, in short, a critical discussion requires you to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of a theory, concept (or work of some sort), and write about this in detail – taking into account various relevant issues and viewpoints.
I would go one step further and say that to ‘critically discuss’, you should also emphasise the significance of your critiques. In other words, why does your critical opinion matter? (more on this later).
What critical discussion is NOT…
Before moving on to show you how to write a critical discussion, let’s take a look at what a ‘critical discussion’ is NOT:
Pure negativity – Some students fall into the trap of thinking that critical discussion requires you to be excessively negative. Whilst you should consider the weaknesses of a theory or argument, you should also consider its strengths and/or new applications.
A repetition of others’ critiques – Whilst you can (and typically should) use other theorists’ critiques to support your essay, you should also try to say something original in your critical discussion. Don’t only repeat other people’s ideas.
Describing – Remember, you are not only being asked to describe a particular work of art/literature/science. Part of your essay will probably include description, as you set the scene, but you must include a critical opinion of the theory, concept or work you are discussing.
Quick and Easy – Unfortunately, writing a critical discussion is not a straightforward task. You should give yourself plenty of time to read the material, digest it, reflect upon it, critique it, and then formulate an argument for your essay.
An example of critical discussion
Learning from examples is often the best way. So, here is an excerpt from an essay which critically discusses whether pay-for-performance schemes motivate employees – written by one of our PhD Experts:
Theory X states that, because employees are primarily motivated by pay, a pay-for-performance system will be motivational (McGregor, 1960). However, this theory was not supported by empirical data, thus its validity is questionable. Moreover, up-to-date research suggests that employees are not primarily motivated by pay, but are instead motivated by intrinsic factors (e.g., flexible working hours, autonomy, and creating impactful work) (Kaleb, 2015). This undermines the suggestion that pay-for-performance would be motivating. Indeed, further research has found that pay-for-performance can actually “crowd out” intrinsic motivators, since it overly monetises the employer-employee relationship, thereby resulting in poorer motivation (David, 2018). There is more empirical research to support the more recent findings than theory X, thus, it seems pay-for-performance schemes are unlikely to motivate employees.
Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of this critical discussion so that you can try to replicate it for yourself.
Compare two (or more) theories
Notice how this single paragraph contains three references to three different theories. In order to critically discuss competently, you will need to be able to compare and contrast different theories and perspectives. This is one of the reasons why critical discussion essays are time-consuming, i.e., because you need to spend time researching material to cover both sides of the argument.
Critique the methodologies
Notice how the above paragraph has critiqued the validity/reliability of the research mentioned. Namely, theory X was criticised for having a lack of empirical (experimental) evidence to support it, whereas the later theories were deemed more valid because there is quite a lot of empirical research to support them.
Depending on what subject you are studying at university, you might need to critique the methods in more depth (e.g., consider sample size, procedure, method of data analysis, etc.).
Keep your thesis statement (or argument) in mind at all times
Remember we said that you need to emphasise why your critiques matter? This is key because it will help you to achieve first-class grades. Let’s dive a little deeper into what I mean by this…
Before writing your essay, think of a thesis statement. In the above case, it would be ‘pay-for-performance does not boost employee motivation’. Now, when you are critically discussing your evidence (and comparing and contrasting theories), be sure to finish each paragraph by returning to the thesis statement.
In other words, be sure to emphasise why each point of critique is significant for your argument. You will notice, for example, that the above paragraph finishes by stating that ‘thus, it seems pay-for-performance schemes are unlikely to motivate employees’.
So, sticking to your thesis statement will allow you to consistently emphasise why your critical points are relevant and significant. If you can do this then, say hello to first-class grades!
Tips for writing a critical discussion
Critical discussions aren’t easy, but if you approach them in the right way, you can make things simpler for yourself.
In fact, our writers say that critical discussion essays are the most enjoyable to write because they are stimulating and challenging.
That said, try out these tips when preparing for your next critical discussion essay (and hopefully you won’t find it such a painful process!).
Start reading ASAP
When preparing for a critical discussion essay, it’s easy to fall into the trap of procrastination. There’s so much to read, yet so little time (or energy) to do the reading, right?
Well, try not to fall into this trap. Choose the texts/theories that interest you the most and try your best to really engross yourself in them. If you can become truly engaged in the research you’re reading, your energy and enthusiasm will ‘flow’ naturally.
Play devil’s advocate
One hurdle often faced by students is that they agree with everything a particular theorist is saying, and thus they don’t feel confident in critiquing the theory. In this case, it’s time to play devil’s advocate.
What does this mean? Well, to play devil’s advocate means to adopt the opposing side of the argument, even if you don’t agree with it, in order to make the discussion more interesting.
So, let’s say you are completely against animal testing, and you agree with Peter Singer’s theories (which are also against animal testing). However, for the purposes of writing a good critical discussion, you should be willing to engage with the opposing side of the argument.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are ‘for’ animal testing. What reasoning would you use? And how could this reasoning be used to discredit Peter Singer’s theory?
Plan, Plan, Plan
It’s best to make at least a rough plan of your critical discussion essay before you begin. As mentioned, your critique should be tied to a broader ‘thesis statement’ so consider this thesis statement when planning your essay.
Each paragraph should make a broad point that relates back to your thesis statement. Remember to use signposting to link back to the thesis statement and help keep your reader on track.
The final tip is the most important tip of all – be bold. To earn first-class grades, you need to demonstrate an ability to think independently and critically about a specific topic.
This means you must be willing to say what you really think and not just parrot another person’s argument. Indeed, the opportunity to ‘be bold’ demonstrates why critical discussion essays are so enjoyable to write.
So, next time you are tasked with writing a critical discussion essay, see it as an opportunity to be bold, confident, and creative! Though it might be quite a time-consuming task, you’ll certainly feel satisfied once you’ve got your argument down on paper.