Switching the Spotlight: An Approach to Teaching Critical Analysis in Conceptual and Applied Learning

Here, a relatively simple approach to teaching and checking for student criticality is explained, where conceptual, alongside applied learning, is pervasive. It revolves around a two-directional spotlight approach of scrutinizing practice in the light of theory and scrutinizing theory in the light of experience.

The ability to critically analyze and evaluate is essential for student progression through degree courses. It is a key element in the higher levels of cognitive taxonomy and is reflected as such for sector quality (e,g. in the UK’s Framework for Higher Education Qualifications, QAA, 2014) and for specific course design (e.g. in the language of learning outcomes for the later stage modules of programs). It is also depicted as a crucial graduate attribute both in terms of being effective citizens in democracy and being effective employees and leaders in modern organizations (Garcia, 2009), especially in the context of corporate social responsibility. Having said this, there are a range of studies (e.g. Ivory, 2022) noting that while defining critical analysis can readily be achieved in class, turning that into student clarity as to what is involved, and thereafter student ability to deploy critical analysis in many contexts, is much less straightforward. There is also the issue of student recognition of whether and when the critical capacity has been acquired.

The spotlight switching approach put forward here has two main elements, both of which should have presence in courses where theory and concepts, and application and evidence have an interactive aspect in study and assessment. The overall aspect relates to throwing a spotlight on content and seeing how it ‘fairs,’ ‘performs,’ or ‘stands up’ under that spotlight.

The first spotlight critical focus can here be termed: Practice. This is where real life practices, policies, and actions, be they related to governments, organizations, or individuals (self/others), are scrutinized in the light of relevant concepts and theories. Against the conceptual or theory stylization, the applied practice aspect can be critically assessed in terms of fit – whether it is matching, exceeding, falling short, or departing from what the concept or theory would stipulate. Many concepts may themselves be evaluative tools or sets of good practice/idealized criteria. It is noted here that critical analysis practice may be more prevalent in vocational or professional aspects of degree courses where concepts may be used to critique activities and lead to points for constructive improvement.

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Examples in tasks/assessment, here related to business, economics and teacher education, could include:

  • Using the concept/tool SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis to conduct the performance of Tesco in recent years
  • Discuss how Keynesian economists might appraise the fiscal policies of the Conservative-led governments since 2010
  • Apply the Gibbs model of reflection to assess your experience in a recently observed teaching session
  • During your work shadowing/mentor accounts of crisis events, assess the extent of the application of the crisis intervention model on the part of the practitioner(s)

The other spotlight critical focus can here be termed: Examination. This is where theories and concepts themselves are scrutinized in the light of experience, practice, or evidence. Specific criteria of scrutiny, once again in terms of fit and matching, could relate to predictive accuracy, correspondence with evidence, examples or experience, plausibility of assumptions, relevance to practice, and fitness for purpose. It is noted here that critical analysis examination may be somewhat more prevalent in academic components of degree courses where there is challenge and debate about concepts against evidence-based studies which themselves may come from literature.

Examples, in the same fields as before, could include:

  • How useful is Porters 5 Forces model in making sense of merger activity in the banking sector in recent years?
  • Assess the validity of Comparative Advantage trade theory in context of trade volumes and patterns in the EU since 2004
  • Compare the relevance of the threshold concepts paradigm and the experiential learning cycle in the construction of your schemes of work through this semester
  • Based on your practice placement this semester, assess the usefulness of the narrative therapy model with regard to clients

For both approaches, in class tasks could be scaffolded with work prior to the critical aspect, such as first defining the central concept or setting out the key assertions of a model/theory.

It should be noted that these critical analysis approaches of practice and examination have emerged from earlier work on applying the spiral curriculum to higher education (Woodward, 2019), whereby, concepts initially engaged perhaps quite descriptively, are revisited in a more rigorous way later in a program.

While the emphasis may differ depending on the program, it is argued here that for real depth of engagement within a degree course, both forms of critical analysis must be present, and indeed, the conclusions in one may underpin, or undermine, conclusions in the other. They are certainly not mutually exclusive. We should also recognize that both forms of critical analysis can be deployed in a strictly cognitive way but can also extend to the critique of values and attitudes related to concepts and experience. In view of the above points, these forms of critical analysis have relevance wherever theory and practice undergo interaction, and thus in most degree course curriculum areas (e.g. social science, health care, media and law).

The value of this classification extends to checking on the prevalence of critical analysis and its forms on different courses and modules. Primary research in the form of student questionnaires could contain scale response questions pertaining to statements like:

  • We use theories and concepts to assess practice and activities in this module.
  • We assess theories in the context of real-world evidence and examples in this module.

While this piece is surely not the final word on critical analysis in higher education, the approach here does have a level of clarity such that the gap between explanation of the central idea and directions for carrying it out can be significantly reduced in teaching and learning.

Russ Woodward has degrees in economics from the UK Universities of Cambridge and Exeter. Since 2002, he has taught on the business degrees at University Centre, Grimsby: The TEC Partnership, UK. He has written a number of papers on teaching business in higher education for UK, USA, and Australian periodicals.

Tim Veal has a degree in business and economics from the University of Hull, UK. Since 2015, he has been working at University Centre, Grimsby: The TEC Partnership. He is now program leader for the business degree delivered at UCG. He has written a number of papers on teaching and assessing on business degrees and higher education.


Garcia, Eric Jean. Raising Leadership Criticality in MBAs. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 58, No 1 (2009): 113-130

Ivory, Sarah. How to Teach Critical Thinking to Beginners. Times Higher Education THE Campus. (16/2/2022). Available at: How to teach critical thinking to beginners | THE Campus Learn, Share, Connect (timeshighereducation.com) Last accessed 27/10/2022

QAA. Framework for Higher Education Qualifications. Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. UK. (2014)

Woodward, Russell. The Spiral Curriculum in Higher Education: Analysis in Pedagogic Context and a Business Studies Application. E-Journal of Business Education and Scholarship of Teaching, 13 No 3 (2019): 14-26

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