What does it mean to critically evaluate something or to provide a critical review? We won’t lie – these terms are complicated. But the following paragraph, and the rest of this blog post below, may help your understanding:

Typically, the word “critical” has a negative connotation. Think of words like “critique” and “criticise” and you see why. However, with essay writing, being asked to write “critically” does not necessarily mean you need to be negative. Instead, you are voicing your opinion in a logical and coherent way that is based upon evidence and evaluation.

When faced with the task to “critically evaluate” or to provide a “critical review”, it is important to remember that there is going to be some element of description. But you need to be able to build on that description to further justify your point. Let’s go through some examples.

Descriptive writing

Descriptive writing really focuses on answering the four ‘w’ questions – what, where, who, when. In descriptive writing you are going to need to focus on the following:

Who What Where When
Who is the author? What is this about? Where does this take place? When does this occur?
Who is affected? What is the context?
Who is involved? What is the main point?

As you can see from the table above, all of the ‘w’ questions are really important and are essential components to writing a good essay. The purpose of these components is to let the reader get the essential information they need to understand the main idea. Yet if you stop here, you only end up with a descriptive essay, which does not meet the requirements of criticality that are requested by the professor or TA.

Critical writing

Critical writing gives you the opportunity to go beyond the descriptive, so when you critically evaluate or critically review something, you are moving toward analysis and evaluation. This type of critical writing asks you to assess the how, why, what if, so what and what next questions. As you will begin to notice, these questions require much more explanation that the ‘w’ questions (each of which you could likely answer in 10 words or less). Let’s look at some of these questions below:

How Why What if So what What next
How does this occur? Why did this occur? What if we are wrong? What does this mean? Is it transferable?
How does it work? Why was that done? What if there was a problem? Why is this significant? What can we learn from it?
How do the parts fit into the whole? Why this argument / solution? What if a certain factors were changed/ altered/ removed? Is this convincing? Why? Why not? What needs doing now?

Managing the descriptive and critical

Anyone who has done a lot of writing or who has seen many students’ writing will tell you that there are plenty of ways to write an essay. Yet while there are many strategies, when writing in English, there are certain expectations that the reader has when working through a paragraph or larger piece of writing. Therefore, in order to satisfy the reader that you have successfully completed a critical review or evaluation, you need to make sure that the reader gets what they are expecting.

The first step is to carefully read the article/piece of work that you are going to be critically assessing. Often, students feel like, just because something has been published in an academic journal, that it is an excellent piece of writing that cannot be questioned. But this isn’t necessarily true. The author of that article made certain decisions during the research and writing processes. It is your job to evaluate and analyse what they have done and whether the author has presented any evidence that you can draw conclusions from or make links between areas of knowledge.

In an academic journal article, there are often two places where you will be able to find the easiest opportunities to critically evaluate the work: the methodology and the discussion. In the methodology, the author has made certain decisions about how they are going to answer the research question presented. They have usually (in empirical research) identified a sample, context, and certain instruments (e.g. questionnaire, interviews, observations, etc.). Perhaps one of the easiest ways you can critically evaluate this information is to determine whether or not the sample size is big enough or whether the context applies globally or only to the region where the research took place. For example, a sample of 250 undergraduate students might seem like a lot, but if they are all from a remote area of Pakistan, their situation may not be applicable to undergraduate students who are studying in the UK. Highlighting this issue is one of the more basic forms of criticality because you are applying your own judgements to a situation.

Another area where you might be able to critically evaluate a paper is in the discussion section. It’s in this section where the author expresses their point of view and how their findings relate to other aspects of research. In some articles, you might find that the author has made claims. So if we consider the same group of 250 undergraduate students in Pakistan, the author might find that of the 250 students 225 felt that learning English was important for job security in the future. Therefore, the author might claim that students should learn English if they want to secure a good job in the future. With this argument you could evaluate whether this statement is actually true. We already know that 250 is not representative globally, but we can also assume that students in a remote area of Pakistan may not have access to the same opportunities as students in Beijing. These students may come to a different conclusion about English (potentially).

The point of a critical evaluation is to demonstrate that you can think beyond what you are being told. By taking steps to question what is being written and presented to you, you may be better able to write a critical review and to reflect on how and why the author took the position they did. No research study is perfect and it is your job to determine what could have been modified or changed to fit a different situation.

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