A comparative investigation of what lecturers assess as 'critical thinking' in student essays in higher education: a legitimation code theory analysis of the 'rules of the game'

Balawanilotu-Roach, Gina S. (2017) A comparative investigation of what lecturers assess as 'critical thinking' in student essays in higher education: a legitimation code theory analysis of the 'rules of the game'. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Critical thinking is the most commonly listed of British university graduate attributes. However, its assessment in graduate students’ work in the disciplines remains underexplored in the literature. In the university, critical thinking is assessed within a disciplinary context and is synonymous with distinction or excellence. However, the discourse of ‘generic skills’ currently dominant in higher education has served to dissociate it from this base. The result is a single, generic understanding that may obscure crucial differences. Indeed, the often ignored question in discussions of critical thinking in student writing is ‘critical thinking about what?’ Karl Maton argues that overlooking ‘the what’ is prevalent in higher education research more broadly, resulting in what he terms ‘knowledge blindness’ (Maton, 2014c, p. 3). Knowledge, and its recontexualisation and reproduction in the curriculum, and teaching, sit at the heart of university practice. However, what knowledge practices are assessed as ‘critical thinking’ has remained mostly obscured in higher education research. The effect of ‘knowledge blindness’ is an unclear articulation of practices considered as ‘critical thinking’ in student writing in the disciplines. It is the central concern in this study.

The primary aim of this study was to bring into view what is recognised as enacted or demonstrated critical thinking practices in student writing in different disciplines by disciplinary assessors, with the purpose of informing pedagogy. The study was motivated by the problem of having to teach ‘critical thinking’ in writing in a professional capacity without clear writing directives from the disciplines. Coupled with this is lack of empirical evidence of demonstrated ‘critical thinking’ practices in student writing in published literature, evidence that might have guided my teaching practices. The research employed a qualitative case study approach that drew on the expertise of senior lecturers’ ‘habituated’ (Bourdieu, 1990) or ‘cultivated gazes’ (Maton, 2014a), as they assessed Masters-level essays in two different fields of practice: Political Science and Business. A single broad question anchored the study:

• What practices are assessed as ‘critical thinking’ in student writing tasks?

It was conceptualised as the Bourdieurian question:

• What are ‘the rules of the game’?

The research design comprised three phases: mapping and profiling of University and programme documents where critical thinking is conceptualised, and selection of participants; piloting interviews and analysis of student essays; actual interviews and analysis of student essays. The explanatory framework used for the study drew primarily on Karl Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) Semantics. Genre theory based on Systematic Functional linguistics was also used as a framework for initial organisation of student essays.

The study brought into view four key findings of critical thinking that pertain to the movement of knowledge across texts, having the right stance, using the right theory, and being able to master the right forms of knowledge. First, analysed in terms of Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory Semantics, more successfully ‘critical’ students in Political Science and Business moved knowledge smoothly across their texts in ways that resemble ‘waves of meaning’ – or what in LCT is termed as semantic waving. These successfully critical thinking texts created bigger waves, demonstrating greater semantic range. Less successful texts moved knowledge across the pages in ways that did not flow as smoothly and produced smaller waves – or less semantic range. Second, in the Political Science thinking task, a particular political stance was preferred over others, revealing a value charging or ideological preference of one political argument over another. A key finding, therefore, was that stances are unequal: some are more privileged than others. Further, while the personal stance was irrelevant in Political Science, it was a requirement in the Business task. A third key finding is that there is a hierarchy of theories in Political Science. Some theories are seen as having more power to solve political problems than others, and are hence more preferred. The fourth key finding is that there are differences in the forms of knowledge that students are required to master. The Political Science thinking task required a mastery and weaving together - termed semantic weaving in LCT - of more complex and abstract knowledge forms, or rhizomatic codes, with more complex and context-dependent knowledge forms, or worldly codes. The Business thinking task required mastery and semantic weaving of simpler context-independent knowledge forms, or rarefied codes, with simpler context-dependent knowledge forms, or prosaic codes. This study argues that teaching critical thinking in writing involves being able to see and analyse knowledge – their movements across texts, their forms, and knowing how disciplinary stances and theories are differentially valued in different fields of practice.

There are three contributions to knowledge in this thesis: empirical, theoretical, and methodological. The findings, presented as a set of ‘rules of the game’, provide empirical insights into critical thinking practices in student writing currently unavailable in the mainstream literature about student writing. The findings provide ‘thicker’ descriptions and ‘thicker’ explanations of knowledge practices which also contributes theoretically to writing literature. The utility of Legitimation Code Theory Semantics to see and to analyse knowledge as meanings in texts, along with Systemic Functional Linguistics genre based theory as an organising principle, also makes a unique methodological contribution.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: McLean, Monica
Jones, Martha
Keywords: assessment, critical thinking, academic writing, knowledge,
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher education
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Education
Item ID: 41236
Depositing User: Roach, Gina
Date Deposited: 30 Aug 2017 10:26
Last Modified: 08 Feb 2019 10:32
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/41236

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