How to Strengthen Students' Analytical Skills Outside of a Writing Assignment

How to Strengthen Students' Analytical Skills Outside of a Writing Assignment
Caitrin Blake March 23, 2017

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Most students struggle with analysis — observing a set of facts and interpreting what they mean. Given that almost any writing assignment, from a middle school book report to a doctoral dissertation, requires analysis, it’s incumbent on teachers to help students improve their analytical skills.

Students often do a fairly decent job of identifying facts to analyze, but they fall short of generating a complete analysis that draws a persuasive conclusion from those facts. The key to closing this gap is to teach the fundamentals of analysis outside a writing assignment. Here’s how I recommend doing it:

Teach the skill separately

All too often, teachers assume students can complete a task like “analyze” even though they haven’t been taught how to do it.

Pointing out where the skill is missing in a paper is the easy part. What really matters is  teaching the skill to students outside of an assignment so that they understand it. Learning the skill in a separate setting helps them see how to apply it, then truly master it.

Practice first

Before assigning an essay that requires analysis, teachers should do an analysis activity in class where they ask students to analyze a general topic where opinions are likely to vary. Visual pieces are quickly consumed and often enable students to generate thoughtful analysis quite easily.

Teachers should first select a piece for analysis and then ask students to interpret the piece in the classroom. Before starting an analysis as a class, ask students to write their interpretations down independently.

Example: analyzing an advertisement

For example, your students could analyze the intent of an advertisement. If students believe the ad argues it will make someone appear more youthful, get them to state that.

Next, ask the students to determine what the ad does to make them think that. For instance, is it the text, the use of color, etc.?

Get them to identify the element that pushes this argument. After they have successfully determined the element, ask them to determine why. If, for instance, they think the ad uses bright colors to make consumers think the product is youthful, get them to say why.

Are bright colors associated with fun or youth? Will it make the viewer think the product is fun and youthful? Why? Get them to push their justification as far as they can — so they can see just how deep analysis can and should go.

Pushing for evidence to support conclusions

Getting students to dig into the reasons why their evidence proves their arguments helps them see the level of analysis they need to fully develop a point.  Teachers should explain to students that pointing out their reasons for reaching a conclusion may feel obvious, but it is this step that shows how all the evidence relates — and it varies by person because each of us interprets facts differently.

Reviewing analysis in writing

After students understand what true analysis looks like and they have completed their written assignments, have them bring drafts into class to review with peers. In the workshop, ask students to identify each piece of evidence they see in their partner’s writing.

Next, ask them to go through and find the point of analysis for all the evidence that connects it back to their argument. If it doesn’t exist, then the analysis isn’t present or complete. This process allows them to see where they can expand their analysis to better connect their ideas to the thesis or central point.

Analysis goes back to the fundamentals

Ultimately, analysis is a difficult concept for students to master because they often think that identifying evidence is analysis. However, once students have been shown an easy way to dissect evidence and connect it back to a central point, they can apply this skill in more complicated arguments and texts. This process will help make their writing more complete and interesting, and it will develop a fundamental skill they will need throughout their academic careers.

Caitrin Blake has a BA. in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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