As instructional designer Jason Lancaster wrote in “Designing a Framework for Critical Thinking,” a previous post at the Engaging Minds blog, “A common goal in the education field is to get students to think critically about what they’re studying.” One way for students to strengthen their critical-thinking skills involves learning how to ask the kinds of questions that help them evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, truths, and falsehoods within an individual’s argument. They may come across various arguments as they read a book, website, or magazine; or, they may find themselves listening to an argument in the form of a political speech, a television news program, or a lecture by a public figure. In fact, the opportunity to hone one’s critical-thinking skills, and the ability to be critical can arise at many points throughout the day, whenever one encounters material that is designed to inform… and especially when that material is designed to persuade.

Of course, just as an argument isn’t necessarily a fight, “being critical” doesn’t mean one is being exclusively negative or mercilessly attacking another’s point of view. Being critical in a constructive and effective manner—one that elucidates an argument—takes practice, skill, and insight. In their book The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, Fifth Edition, authors Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Susan Schultz Huxman, and Thomas A. Burkholder describe criticism as “…specialized feedback, a process that occurs in stages: description, interpretation, and evaluation” (25). In descriptive analysis, the first stage of the process, the “critic” reads or listens with a mind towards identifying how the writer or speaker has crafted the argument in order to persuade other people (27). This plays a large role in the ability to step away from taking an argument at face value and towards seeing it for what it’s truly worth.

The authors list seven general categories of descriptive analysis, which we have framed below as questions that readers can use in the process of listening and reading. As the authors mention, these are also points that writers and speakers should keep in mind as they prepare their work, because they help one craft and organize an argument in a meaningful, cohesive, and effective manner.

1. Purpose: Towards what conclusion does the writer or speaker hope to direct the audience? What response does he or she want from the audience?

2. Audience: Who are the intended recipients of this message? Who is most likely to be influenced by the argument presented in the presentation?

3. Persona: What role is the writer or speaker adopting while making this argument? (A reporter delivering news? A teacher hoping to convey knowledge? A mediator advocating for compromise among various parties?)

4. Tone: What is the writer or speaker’s attitude towards both the subject of the message and the intended audience?

5. Evidence: What kinds of material does the speaker or writer provide in support of his or her claims?

6. Structure: How is the material organized? Is the organizational format more or less formal? More obvious, or more subtle?

7. Strategies: How is the writer or speaker using language, appeals, argument, and any of the points listed above to persuade the audience and overcome any challenges he or she may encounter while doing so? (27-28)

Though there’s much more to the rhetorical process than identifying those seven elements of a written or spoken work, thoughtful consideration of these points can help students think more critically of the arguments that they encounter on a regular basis… including the things they read and listen to as part of their coursework.

Helping Students Apply their Analytical Skills

The following exercise from The Rhetorical Act can help students think critically and develop their ability to listen and read analytically:

Arrange for the class to attend a speech, perhaps a chapel or convocation speaker or a lecturer brought to campus or a special event. Spend the next class period describing that event analytically. What does such an analysis reveal that wasn’t immediately apparent while you were listening to the speech? (40)


What exercises and activities do you use to spur on your students’ critical-thinking skills? Leave your comments below!

Reference: Kohrs Campbell, Karlyn, Susan Schultz Huxman, and Thomas A. Burkholder. 2015. The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 5th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.