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06/01/2012

The Basics of Academic Writing, Part Three

We know you’ve been on the absolute edge of your seat waiting for the next installment of our academic writing series. Well, here it is! We’ll discuss evaluation today, and explain its importance in critical thinking and writing.

The basic concept of evaluation is clear enough, as it’s something we do every day. You evaluate when you decide whether there’s enough money in the bank to stop at your favorite place for lunch, whether it’s warm enough to wear your new t-shirt, whether you want to spend $10 and two hours at the movie theater, whether your significant other will be irreparably angry if you skip that family dinner, and so on. Thus, evaluation is the process of examining something, developing an opinion, and coming to a conclusion.

You arrive at your judgment based on a set of criteria. If you are debating between buying a new book in hardcover or waiting for the paperback, you’re basing this decision on a set of criteria you’ve established. One criterion might be how much you have enjoyed this author’s writing in the past. If you’ve read and loved everything she’s every written, you are more likely to purchase the book. If you’ve never heard of the author before, you are probably less likely. What are some other criteria you might use in this evaluation? Things like your total disposable income, whether you have a library card, amount of free time available for reading, reviews by literary critics, internet buzz, and recommendations from friends are all things you might consider.

You will be asked to employ evaluation regularly in your college writing. You may be required to write a critical review or an analytical response to a book, article, short story, film, class discussion, or guest lecture, for example. For this, you would need to first establish a set of criteria on which you’re basing your opinion. You’ll need to think about these criteria carefully. The action movie “The Expendables” may not be deemed particularly valuable if your criteria include strong writing and acting. However, if your discussion is on American pop culture and its influence on the movie-going public, you may come to a different conclusion about this movie. Similarly, if your guest lecturer spoke in a monotone and never looked up from his notes, he would not be evaluated very highly on the basis of entertaining and engaging the audience. But if the content he delivered shed new light on an old problem, or proposed an exciting new theory, he could be evaluated positively on the whole, based on criteria that concern the speaker’s contribution to his field.

You’ll also use evaluation in straightforward argumentative writing. If you’re arguing a claim such as “The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to bear arms,” you’ll need to evaluate the arguments for and against this issue, and choose the strongest to support your claim. You’ll need to further evaluate the sources you’re using, to make sure the arguments are solid and that the writers are credible. That process is a whole ‘nother discussion we’ll cover later.

To help you with academic evaluation, you might want to start consciously thinking of the criteria you use in your day-to-day, ordinary evaluations. Ask yourself, “What is my basis for choosing jeans over a suit today?” The answers should be pretty easy to figure out, so no brain stretching there. But developing a habit of paying attention to evaluative criteria will help you when you’re called on to think and write critically.

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