Writing to Demonstrate Understanding

With a little time and effort, each one of us could memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. Not so when it comes to writing one.  With a lot more time and effort, we could memorize the periodic table of elements. However, cutting-edge research in chemistry is an altogether different matter. On one highly regarded and widely used classification of knowledge, “Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy,” there are six levels of learning, ranging from remembering to creating. As described in “Action Words for Bloom’s Taxonomy” (© 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), they are:

Remembering, Level 1, Recalling previously learned information

Understanding, Level 2, Explaining ideas or concepts

Applying, Level 3, Applying knowledge to actual situations

Analyzing, Level 4, Breaking information into parts to explore understandings and relationships

Evaluating, Level 5, Justifying a decision or course of action

Creating, Level 6, Generating new ideas, products, or ways of viewing things

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

The Use and Misuse of Quotations

Simply quoting a passage does not demonstrate our understanding of it or the larger work it comes from. In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, it is a level one activity, the lowest level of learning. That does not mean that we should never quote. It does mean that when we quote we should do so sparingly and for a good reason, for example, to explain our interpretation of a text, a level two activity or to provide support for our assessment, a level five activity. (For the proper use of single and double quotation marks and block quotations, The University of Wisconsin Colleges provides a nice summary: http://uwc.edu/students/academic-support/owl/quotation-marks)

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Definitions and Illustrations

Every academic subject has specialized vocabulary and sometimes we will need to offer definitions of these terms.  Trying to paraphrase very brief definitions can result in awkward prose and loss of meaning. In such instances, quoting the definition is our best option. However, if we merely quote we have not shown that we understand the definition. To move beyond Bloom’s level one, we can provide some original examples of the concept defined: a level three activity.

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Summary and Restatement/Descriptive Versus Analytic Writing

Merely summarizing or restating material from assigned readings and/or sources does not take us beyond the second level of understanding in Bloom’s taxonomy.  As such, it does not show that we have a deep understanding of the material we are drawing from.  That does not mean that we should never summarize or restate content from the assigned text and/or our resources. What it does mean is that most of our writing should go beyond summary and restatement. As a rule of thumb, if more than a third of our paper consists of merely summarizing or restating what we have read, we have devoted too much space providing background information.

Some call summarizing and restating descriptive writing and contrast with critical or analytic writing. The University of Leicester’s “What is critical writing” gets at the heart of the distinction between descriptive writing (summary and restatement) and critical writing in the composition of a research paper.

With descriptive writing you are not developing argument; you are merely setting the background within which an argument can be developed.  You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any analysis or discussion. . .

With critical writing you are participating in the academic debate. This is more challenging and risky. You need to weigh up the evidence and arguments of others, and to contribute your own. You will need to:

  • consider the quality of the evidence you have read;
  • identify key positive and negative aspects you can comment upon;
  • assess their relevance and usefulness to the debate that you are engaging in your assignment; and
  • identify how best they can be woven into the argument that you are developing.


For a more detailed comparison of the contrast between descriptive and critical writing, the two-column contrast given at http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/learning-at-university/critical-thinking-and-reflection/whats-the-difference-between-description-and-critical-analysis/  is superb.

Last revised on January 25, 2018.

Acknowledging Sources

Some valuables are tangible: a Martin guitar, a ruby ring, an old engraving.  In the scholarly world, valuables are intangible; they come in the form of ideas: data from research, original insights, especially clear explanations and illustrations of difficult concepts and theories, and the like. On the one hand, no scholar wishes to have their ideas ignored. On the other hand, no academic wishes to have someone use their ideas, without receiving acknowledgement as their source.

Whenever we use—not just an entire sentence or more—but also specific words and/or phrase(s) from an author, we need to put the words in quotation marks and note their source.  Whenever we are relying on the ideas of others—not just the conclusions they have reached—but also their arguments, steps and/or research, we need to acknowledge the source(s) of the ideas we are using.  Plagiarism, the failure to document our sources, is a serious matter and the penalties for it can be quite stiff.

There are different styles of documentation, for example, MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), and Chicago. Before we begin working on our paper, we should check to see what style of documentation our professor requires, so that we can capture sources information in the proper format, while we are doing our research.   The writing centers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Utah Valley State provide information on the difference between various documentation styles and proper formatting in each style,  http://www.writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/Documentation.html  https://www.uvu.edu/library/guides/citations.html

Last revised on January 25, 2018.