As a law student you may well have had feedback on assignments asking you to “explain your reasoning”, “add in more analysis and evaluation” or even “be more critical”. What this means is that your marker is looking for you to demonstrate more critical thinking skills. So, what is critical thinking and how does it relate to the law degree? Emma Jones, lecturer in law and member of the Open Justice team at the Open University explains for Lawyer Monthly.
What critical thinking is…
Put simply, critical thinking is about gathering evidence, ideas and/or arguments and then evaluating (weighing up) their strengths and weaknesses in an objective and methodical manner. For example, when writing an essay you could be presented with an article arguing that the Human Rights Act 1998 should be repealed. To assess its validity you need to spend some time identifying the key arguments contained it in. Depending on their content, you might then have to re-examine parts of the Act (or other relevant Acts and cases) used in the argument, search for counter-arguments in other articles and then decide which provide the most persuasive evidence.
When tackling a problem scenario, it may involve reading the facts with an open mind, identifying key information, comparing the information you have with the facts of relevant cases and considering any arguments the other party or parties may come up with.
… And what it isn’t
Sometimes students think that showing critical thinking involves including lots of quotations from cases or academic articles and putting in a lot of references. This might show you have found plenty of information, but it doesn’t demonstrate that you understand it or can apply it to whatever topic you’re discussing. Some students may go one step further and explain arguments they find in such cases or articles in their own words. However, while it is important to look at all the relevant arguments, critical thinking is more than that. You need to evaluate the arguments yourself and decide how strong you think they are. In other words, you need to put your own spin on them, rather than just describing them.
Using critical thinking in your studies
Here are some suggestions on how to incorporate critical thinking into your legal studies:
- Don’t make assumptions! Always question what you are told and what you are reading.
- Read around a topic. Don’t just focus on the set textbook or case, try to put it into a wider context so you appreciate its importance or relevance.
- Spend time discussing and debating topics with fellow law students. Whether this is in seminars, during coffee or using online forums, this will help you process your own ideas and absorb other points of view.
- Give yourself time to reflect. If you’ve read something, spend some time identifying its key arguments, but then make sure you pause and think about whether or not you agree and why.
- Try to interweave different arguments within your writing. If you write a couple of paragraphs of arguments “for” and a couple of paragraphs “against” it can be quite dull to read and doesn’t help you evaluate their comparative strengths. Taking one argument and exploring the “for” and “against” elements in one paragraph is much stronger.
- Use some key phrases in your writing which demonstrate your critical thinking. For example, “evaluating these points leads to the conclusion that…” or “an analysis of these sources indicates…”.
- Take on board feedback. If you are being told to use more critical thinking, the likelihood is your marker will have included some comments which indicate what that mean by that and how you could have approved. Spend time absorbing these and reflecting on what you can do differently next time.