Cracking academic thinking and writing

3 December 2020

Cracking academic thinking and writing early on will help you immensely throughout your years at UCL. Today's article is full of great advice to get you started!

academic thinking

Different disciplines have different languages and methods of inquiry, but have much in common too. What is valued in UK Higher Education is being able to think for yourself and to express your thinking in a clear and structured way, especially in writing.

If English is not your first language, we realise that this might be more challenging, but how you put ideas together to form a logical argument is generally more important than technicalities of English spelling or grammar. These will come in time, so have patience with yourself. You might be surprised to learn that native English speakers can find academic writing just as challenging. The formal written word is almost a different language from that used in casual conversation.

Clarify the purpose

Whatever your discipline, it will have its own specialist language and it is important that you become conversant in those terms and concepts. But in exploring any topic area, what is important is firstly that you clarify the purpose of your essay, assignment, or other written piece of work. Often this has already been indicated by the assignment question or problem that you have been asked to address, but it is worth a bit of thought and perhaps a few of your own words to state clearly what you intend to investigate.

Justify any assumptions you make

Then if you are making any assumptions, for instance that certain influence(s) are relatively insignificant, you should state them and briefly justify them - for instance that these forces are remote from the matter of interest. It might be helpful to mention comparable circumstances where similar assumptions have been made by other published writers, citing the source in the way that is considered normal in your field. 

Citation citation citation 

This matter of citation of sources is perhaps unfamiliar in your prior experience, but it is vitally important for the integrity of academic discourse. You need to indicate clearly what parts of the data and interpretation are your own and what have been derived from someone else's work. Citation of sources, using inline annotation, such as (Jones 2005) or [1]) and a reference list at the end of the piece, is the normal convention for acknowledging an external source of information. This positions your work in a wider body of conversation, and offers a reader the opportunity to retrace your steps should they wish to. Not acknowledging such sources presents someone else's work as if it were your own, a form of fraudulent deception considered unacceptable in academic communities and elsewhere. Whether deliberate or unintentional, not acknowledging the work as that of others is considered to be plagiarism, and the consequences are severe, in both professional academic practice and at all levels of higher education.

Bringing it all together

Like I said at the beginning, what is valued here is thinking for yourself, and the sanctions on plagiarism are a reflection of that. In similar spirit, it is not enough to simply repeat what your teacher(s) have told you or what is written elsewhere. You need to develop and present an authentic argument leading to a conclusion, drawing on evidence from your own observations or the acknowledged work of others. It's the process of exploring a subject systematically, as much as the specific topic being addressed, that is important in most academic writing.

If you are not sure, you could ask your tutors or lecturers for examples of good academic writing in the relevant field, looking for how these articles show the qualities discussed here, as well as other aspects of good academic practice.

UCL Arena Centre for Research-Based Education