For many students, the terms ‘critical’ and ‘argument’ sound a bit negative. You are probably used to thinking of an ‘argument’ as a disagreement or a row – not a very pleasant thing to experience. But the word ‘argument’ has a different meaning in an academic context.

At university, an argument means a statement that is backed up with some kind of objective evidence. You may be trying to identify the arguments of others, or you may be trying to build your own arguments; for example, while writing an academic essay or report.

Often, there is an ‘overarching argument’ or thesis (for example: there is a strong case for the government increasing student fees and introducing a student loan system) supported by a number of ‘contributing arguments’ (for example: current funding mechanisms are unsustainable and inequitable, such a system can be tweaked so that repayments are linked to income after graduation, and so on). Each contributing argument needs to be backed up with evidence.

Of course, for most arguments, there are also ‘counter-arguments’ – that is, opposing arguments – and these must be fully considered as well (for example, if we stay with the student fees and loans example: there are other options for funding higher education in a sustainable and equitable way, linking repayments to income after graduation can be problematic, and so on). Counter-arguments also need to be evidence-based.

When reading and researching for your course, it is really important to be able to, firstly, identify arguments, and then to analyse and evaluate them. Generally a statement is an ‘argument’ if it:

  • Presents a particular point of view
  • Bases that view on objective evidence

If you come across an assertion that is not based on evidence that can reasonably be considered objective, it is just that – an assertion, not an argument. Also, a statement of fact is not an argument, although it might be evidence that could be used in support of an argument.

When evaluating an argument, here are some things that you might consider:

  • Who is making the argument?
  • What gives them authority to make the argument?
  • What evidence is given in support of the argument? Has this evidence been tested elsewhere? Could alternative approaches have been used?
  • Does the evidence upon which the argument is based come from a reliable and independent source? How do you know? Who funded the research that produced the evidence?
  • Are there alternative perspectives or counter-arguments? You should evaluate any counter-arguments in just the same way.
  • What are the implications of the argument, for example, for policy or for practice?

See our guide to ‘Arguments, non-arguments and evidence for more.

You might also find the Reading and Research Skills section of the Academic Skills Hub useful.