1.1 What will this handout help me with?
In Psychology, students are often asked to show evidence of “critical evaluation” in their work. Many students find this difficult, and even those who are told they do it well, often do not understand what it is they are doing! This handout is designed to teach you a little about how to evaluate critically, and what it really means! It is only an introduction – with practice, you will learn to develop this important skill for yourself, and you should find that your ability to evaluate critically improves throughout your undergraduate years.
1.2 What is critical evaluation?
Critical evaluation is a process of assessing the relative merit of a piece of work, which may have been presented as a journal article, in a text book, on the internet, in a radio or television article, or in just about any other format (for academic purposes, this will usually be written, but could include seminar presentations). You are being asked to decide and discuss what is good, and what is bad, about the arguments being presented to you. Critical evaluation is not about picking fault, it is about deciding how useful and worthwhile the work, methodology and the arguments presented are; deciding how much the work has contributed to your understanding, or the world’s understanding, of a topic. The crucial word is “evaluate” – to measure the value of something. You will find it extremely useful to be able to critically evaluate your own work, or to work together with a peer to do so for each other, and so identify and improve on weaknesses in your coursework prior to submission. To see good examples of critical evaluation, try reading the introductions of some published articles in Psychology journals.
1.3 Asking questions
A major part of critical evaluation is learning to ask questions of the text you are reading. At first, students tend to assume that just because something has been published, it must be true. This is understandable, but it is not the case, and is not a helpful way to approach your reading. Authors of papers and books are human, they make mistakes, they sometimes misunderstand or draw incorrect conclusions, and they often have their own agenda, which biases their opinions and thus the arguments they are making. To do well in academic work, you need to learn to spot problems like these. This gets easier with practice, and also if you read several texts on the same subject, as this will help you to notice inconsistencies and contradictions. Think about:
1.4 Who is writing?
An important question, which covers several issues:
1. Is the person an expert in the field? If they are an authority, then you might be more likely to believe them. For example, if Rogers had written an article on person-centred approaches to counselling, you would expect his article to be error-free and knowledgeable (he devised this approach). However, if the same article had been written by a psychologist with no experience of counselling, or even someone who was not a psychologist, then misunderstandings could occur. If you don’t know whether someone is an expert, do an internet search to find out what they have published, and look at other articles to see whether they have been cited by other authors.
2. Does the person have their own agenda? For example, the emphasis of an article on risks associated with drug use written by an expert psychologist researching the topic might differ from one written by someone arguing for the legalisation of cannabis for their own personal reasons, or written by someone who is paid to present a particular point of view. You need to decide whether the author’s agenda will have influenced their expressed opinion, and if so, how. So it might also be important to consider why someone is writing (their motivation), as well as who they are. One way...