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Genre guide to academic essays and critiques

What are academic essays and critiques, and why are they assigned?

The genre families of academic essays and critiques share the central function of ‘developing powers of independent reasoning’ (Nesi & Gardner, 2012, p. 36-39). In critiques, students are expected to develop an understanding of the area of study, and demonstrate the ability to evaluate and/or assess the significance of the area of the study. In essays, students are expected to develop ideas, and demonstrate the ability to make coherent connections between arguments and evidence and to develop a personal proposition by employing critical thinking skills (p. 38).

In the context of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), writing assignments are distinguished in various ways across disciplines (p. 26) and subjects. For instance, the ‘academic essay’ required in the Cluster Area Requirement (CAR) subject, BME1D02 Wearable Healthcare and Fitness Devices for Everyone, which is a general education subject in the Biomedical Engineering discipline, can be categorised specifically as a Product Evaluation in the Critique genre family; while the ‘academic essay’ required in the CAR subject, LSGI1B02 Climate Change and Society, by the Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics discipline is considered as a member of the Essay genre family. Table 1.1 below shows the genre members of the Critique and Essay families found in the undergraduate assignments of three disciplines by Nesi and Gardner (2012).

 

Both Critiques and Essays, particularly at the junior undergraduate levels in the PolyU, aim to encourage students to interpret central phenomena and claims in the related subjects and disciplines, which is similar to the situation in British universities (p. 37). Skills such as research, summarising, paraphrasing, evaluative, argumentative, and disciplinary and academic English writing skills are expected in both assignment genres. Yet, the structures of these assignment genres largely depend on the assessment focus and subject requirements. Therefore, it is important for students to strictly follow the conventions for the structure, style and content of academic essays and critiques in different disciplines, subjects and at different academic levels. For reference, Table 1.2 below summarises the characteristics of Critique and Essay suggested by Nesi and Gardner (2012). 

 

 

 

What are the benefits of writing academic essays or critiques?

Writing academic essays, critiques or other writing assignments can benefit you in the following ways (McMillan & Weyers, 2007, p. 3-9). They:

  1. help you respond to a particular task by drawing together all related knowledge and understanding of a topic;
  2. train your ability in the use of language and effective communication skills;
  3. develop your critical thinking skills which will facilitate your post-university professional life.

 

How do you tackle writing academic essays or critiques?

  • You should go through the following stages when planning your writing task (McMillan & Weyers, 2007, p. 29-36):
  • Make a realistic writing plan to distribute your writing workload within a timeframe. You need to consider things you have to do for other subjects, lessons and work commitments, while working out the amount of time needed for each aspect of the task (p. 30); 
  • Analyse an assignment by breaking the writing task down into component parts: the instruction (i.e. the word or a command that introduces the assignment), the topic (i.e. the context of the discussion to be constructed), the aspect (i.e. the specific focus within the wider context of the topic), and the restriction (i.e. the limitation of the scope of discussion) (p. 31-32), for example below:

  • For reference, a list of instruction words adapted from McMillan and Weyers (2007, p. 33, Table 3.2) is provided in Table 7.1 of the Appendix in this genre guide.
  • Explore the topic in detail by creating a concept ‘map’ (p. 32) of as many related aspects as possible, reconsidering the instruction and planning your initial response to the writing task. This requires the use of your own critical thinking skills before being influenced by any literature. You have to analyse your own thoughts on what is important in this subject or topic (p. 32-33).
  • Search for and select relevant material for reading. Take notes and read with discrimination, as you begin the necessary reading. Your understanding of the topic will be deepened when you read from basic texts to more specialised literature, which contains detailed information and analyses (p. 34-35).
  • Adopt a structural approach. You could possibly map out your response to the writing task by adopting one of the following approaches in Table 3.1. It is sometimes possible to use one of these approaches within another.

 

As mentioned in Table 3.1, an analytical approach is usually adopted in essays or critiques. You then have to filter the information and focus on what is important to your topic by considering the following points (p. 36):

  • the key actors in a sequence of events;
  • the important or necessary factors that explain particular situations;
  • the explanations that support a particular view;
  • the patterns identified, such as short-, medium- and long-term factors.

You have to be able to construct an argument, support your argument with evidence, and strengthen your position by drawing on the useful and relevant information from the literature you have read. Counter-arguments may be required depending on the topic, subject and discipline. It is important to present a well-argued case to support the view that you favour and finally express in your writing. Once your response to the writing task has been developed, you have to present it within a well-structured, logical and evidential framework (p. 36).

                        

 

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