From IELTS to University: Introduction to critical thinking for international students

Critical thinking is a standard feature of Western university assessment. It is referred to by lecturers from time to time but is rarely explained fully to students. Also, understanding critical thinking in relation to essay or report writing, as well as individual or group presentations, is fundamental to achieving the highest grades. The purpose of this blogpost is to unpack critical thinking in general, provide some background context about its centrality to Western higher education, and then explore common student errors in relation to critical thinking.

Critical Thinking at first glance

One of my favourite introductions to critical thinking is this representation of a carbon atom.

For many students it is a familiar image from high school, and I start by asking in what ways it is inaccurate.  A few students usually know that the ratios of space between the central cluster and the surrounding electrons are very different in reality, and that the particles don’t have the solid properties the representation suggests. The discussion then broadens into the advantages of this representation (a necessary simplification) as well as the reasons for its widespread use (indicates the size difference between electrons and protons, is one-dimensional so easily reproduced in teaching).  The crucial point is that it misrepresents reality whilst remaining credible. Therefore, it is very similar to many of the arguments which students encounter in their research; arguments which they must analyse and critique in order to score highly. In other words, academic research requires students to detect the simplifications and shortcuts in the reasoning of others.

Critical thinking in western higher education

Typically, university mark schemes are based on a hierarchy of grades of thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy, shown below in this graphic produced by the Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching, is one of the educational theories which underlies this approach.


International students often come from educational backgrounds which prioritise the ‘understand’ and ‘remember’ conceptual levels. Chinese high school, for example, is well-known for requiring pupils to memorise substantial quantities of information. Equally, many other high school senior courses, as well as academic IELTS, tend to focus more on the ‘apply’ and ‘analyze’ levels of conceptual thought. This means that students can arrive at university without much idea how to apply the ‘evaluate’ and ‘create’ levels to their research questions. The result is that first-year student coursework often scores lower than students expect, as answers which would have scored A or B grades in the senior years of high school produce a 2:2 grade at university. Understandably, students can find this demoralizing, and many are into their second year before they develop enough insight into university marking to improve their grades.

International student errors with critical thinking

It’s important to remember that everybody uses critical thinking every day. We constantly make decisions based on evidence which we critically evaluate, whether choosing groceries, or planning a trip, or organizing our daily tasks; weighing lines of reasoning against one another and selecting the most apt is a constant human activity. The crucial point is to understand how to recreate this in the university context.

When first-year students struggle with incorporating critical thinking into their written assignments, it’s frequently because they overuse the ‘understand’ and ‘analyse’ conceptual levels. These students waste 200-400 words describing and explaining a theory, as well as outlining how it relates or compares to other theories, which can result in them exceeding the word limit for the assignment. Whilst this approach is appropriate for the final years of high school, it is misapplied at university. Here, what students need to do is apply some of the ‘evaluate’ characteristics listed in the triangular diagram above. Below is an example:


Understand Analyse



Bloom’s Taxonomy is an educational theory which presents a ranked hierarchy of six levels of conceptual thought. It is a key theory in the development of western higher education in the twentieth century, partly explaining the relatively low priority of memory-based learning.






Although Bloom’s Taxonomy may support the idea that memory-based learning is of limited importance in Western higher education, it can’t be applied equally to all forms of study. For example, first year medical students are required to memorise the anatomy of the body.




The crucial difference is that the university writer shows understanding of the theory by identifying its strengths or weaknesses, rather than by describing its core features and significance. In a university essay, the appropriate place for the first example passage would be in the background information section of the essay introduction.

Another assessment area where international students struggle is presentations. This is particularly true when students are presenting data collected in surveys. Here, students often overuse the ‘apply’ and ‘analyze’ levels of conceptual thought, as their infographics only present the collected results in their simplest form. One way of showing critical thinking is through a further layer of analysis. For example, in a survey about food shopping habits, showing the differences in weekly spend between men and women would score lower than showing the differences in weekly spend between men and women in terms of age and income. For this reason, I generally advise students to start surveys with 4-6 establishing questions to generate data to analyse the responses to the core questions.








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