Document Design and Production



Critical thinking papers

Readings that should help set the context

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.” —Mark Twain

What is critical thinking

Integrating critical thinking

Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Framework

Paper requirements

Start with a single sentence paragraph  that states the core idea that makes this essay interesting.  It’s the single take-away idea on which you built the entire essay. This isn’t necessarily the thesis, but it’s that nice spark you got while staring out the window and contemplating what is really worth saying/reading about this topic.

End with a single sentence paragraph that states the new insight you had that you placed into the essay. What was your original thought?

That final statement I want you add at the end with the core idea should state what is interesting about this essay. Why should I bother to read it? Many of the statements in the past tend to be generic: "color is important". They were true, but didn't say anything new. The statement should make your essay stand out in a list of 150. If only that core idea statement was visible (maybe a long list on a web page), it needs to capture your idea and make the reader want to read your essay rather than the other 149.

400-500 words excluding the first and last single sentence paragraphs and any references. Longer is ok, shorter is highly problematical.

Focused on a single idea or concept that considers that idea at depth

Brings in research sources beyond the class readings

Written as a focused coherent and cohesive whole

Critical thinking paper background

I consider these critical thinking assignments the most important part of the course. Note that they sum up to 25% of the overall grade. I will also warn you that many of will get hammered when I grade the first few papers. You'll get hammered for not going deep enough or writing a paper that jumps from one generality to another.

Each week for most of the semester, you will have to write a short paper or produce a small design project aimed at both increasing your ability for critical thinking and ensuring you think deeper about the concepts for the week.

For a critical thinking paper, if you understand the material, you should be able to easily write 400-500 words (the word limit is to steer you away from writing 100 words, if you feel inclined to write 1000, go for it). If you find yourself saying the same thing over and over, then you need to restart, think about the deeper levels of the question, and put that information onto paper..

Some writing points:

These two paragraphs are talking about over-scheduling corporate meetings, but many of the ideas apply to figuring out what you should be discussing in the critical thinking paper. The important item here is the needing time to think and not just jumping in with the first idea. (back to my comments about spending time looking out the window)

The same can be said of the transition from tactical execution to thinking strategically. There will always be a need to get things done and knock another To Do item off the list. However, as the company grows larger, as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand -- and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate -- you will require more time than ever before to just think: Think about what the company will look like in three to five years; think about the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need; think about how you can widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap, etc.

That thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself. Conversely, if you don't take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it. The resulting situation will inevitably require far more time (and meetings) than thinking strategically would have to begin with.

Go deep. Pick one idea or concept and write about it

Step 1. Stare out the window for a while and contemplate what you really need to say.

Step 2. Write paper with a focus on building the relationships and synthesizing concepts around an idea.

The first time I made the stare out the window comment to a class, I heard well after the fact that my comment about looking at the window before writing confused them.  I was not accusing them of staring out the window instead of writing.  I was telling them to spend time staring out the window before writing.  I’m telling you to spend time contemplating what new insight you have which you’ll use as the core idea for the essay, in turn, is what makes the essay interesting to read. The comment about staring out the window comes because  the new insight is rarely the first that pops into your head when reading the question prompt or when faced with any decision. Instead, you need to take time to examine the problem from multiple angles; staring out the window gives you that time. You don't have to actually stare out the window.....sitting quietly with a cup of coffee and thinking also works. But you need quiet. No texting, "thinking" about it while watching TV, etc.

College writing has taught you to grab the first thought and dump whatever you know about it on the page.  400 words knocked out…..easy.   That isn’t thinking critically about the topic.

So, I know you have the question of how do you gain that insight.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to do that.  The people who flip through the readings multiple times waiting for the answer to appear, so they can copy it down will have trouble finding it.  Any insight isn’t sitting in a single paragraph in a text somewhere; someone else’s insight might, but not yours.  Instead, it’s a summation and integration of all of the readings combined with all of your relevant past experiences and tinted/shadowed by many of the irrelevant past experiences.

That is what staring out the window or just staring into space gains you. It breaks you from trying to push sentences onto a page and gives the important points, the subtle ones that are hiding under the surface a chance to make themselves visible.  Once you see one, then you have a topic for an essay.  A different way of looking at the concept or at how two concepts are connected, a different approach to it, a different ordering for it that makes more sense. 
Comprehension of material arises from understanding the relationships within both that material and how it connects with the rest of the world.  Building a deeper comprehension of the material means finding the deeper, hidden relationships.  The real purpose of these critical thinking essays is not to produce an essay—you are all good at that already—but to figure out how you mentally uncover and build the deeper relationships. 

A difference with these essays from much of the writing you have been doing throughout your academic career is that I’m not looking for you to do a data dump of what you know about a subject. That is what many class papers are really designed to accomplish. If you can dump a bunch of information onto a page about it, then I can assume you understand that material.  The more coherent the dump, the more coherent your knowledge.  At least that is the assumption. In reality, many people can write 1000 words that give broad sweeping statements about a topic and pretty much exhaust their knowledge with those 1000 words.  In other words, they really don’t understand it.

Interestingly, if you spend almost the entire data dump paper only talking about one of the five things you should have been discussing, then the instructor assumes you don’t know much about the other four.  But that mostly comes about because the writing is still sweeping statements, but only focused on one area.  Those essays often amount to a few general sentences that you keep repeating over and over. And then saying the same thing in different ways.
These critical thinking papers break with that mindset. Instead, I want a deep reflective essay about a quarter of one of those five points. You can’t do an essay about a quarter of one of those five that goes on for several hundred words and not understand it.  You will either have to write a coherent essay or will make statements which revel misunderstandings, because you’ll be writing about specifics and connecting those specifics together.  You are building relationships. You will not be making broad sweeping statements.

Grading data dump papers is a good cure for insomnia.  Remember that these essays are supposed to be interesting to me, definitely not insomnia producing prose. They are working to elevate your thinking processes from dumping information that proves you understand a topic to moving toward taking existing ideas and reassembling them into new ideas and toward creating new ideas. If you want high level statements, the previous sentence just described what graduate school is supposed to be about.

Example snippets

What have seen in the past when I read these papers.  The writing was good, but the content and reflective thought was lacking. Many of the essays were a basic description of the prompt which didn’t say anything new to someone who had more than a novice level knowledge. Mostly statements about how design was important, description of the design process, some of the ways of doing design, and narratives about how you do reviews in your workplace.  Broad sweeping statements that never went below the level of  “design is important.”  Missing were any specifics.

These are not entire papers, but give some guidance of what works and what doesn't work.

Example 1

Collection of true statements, but nothing is connected. The entire paper should be focused on any one of the sentences in the first paragraph. It doesn't matter which one, but it must stay focused on one.

Using the term “prettying up” is certainly an overly simplistic way of thinking when creating and designing a document.  To accurately arrange a document, it is necessary to understand all the pieces, as well as, how it cohesively works as a whole.  A writer must be able to understand (only as much as necessary) the content and know the best the way to communicate this information to reader to create a successful document.

Getting written text from a writer and arranging it is only the beginning.  Is the content/text accurate?  Or how do you know it’s accurate?  Some instances you may need to trust the writer has given you accurate information.  Not everyone is a writer, or responsible for the content.  It was suggested in the readings that people have strengths.  Some are better at writing.  Some are better at designing and graphics.  Use people for their strengths.  You will have a strong, more effective document for it.  Other times, it may be necessary to “test” the text and perform the actions.  Verify that the information is true.  Doing this will also allow the designer to understand the content.  Understanding the content in this situation will ensure a more effective arrangement of the information.

Example 2

From the middle of a paper

Are there risks involved? How much information is too much information on the subject, for the general public? I was struck by how many decisions would need to be made just to decide which information to include in this form of communication.  << keep going.  More details and  just a “many decisions are needed”  Which drives that decision process?  You have asked a series of questions, but are not going into how the answers will be transformed into design decisions. Nor are you answering the questions.  The author of the content and the technical writer would have to collaborate on which information to cover on a continuum that would not leave out important information or include any scientific information that would be too intimidating for the average audience member. Too generic of a statement. How will they collaborate? How will they ensure imporant information is included?

Example 3

Too much description of Disney and not enough analysis of why the reader should care. What does it mean to design and how can those principles apply to other situations. Be careful of spending most of the paper describing an example, rather than analyzing it.

Let’s take an example from Walt Disney World. The resort is comprised of four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Upon entering each park, guests typically pick up a map specifically related to that park. On this map are explanations and warnings regarding each attraction. It could include a short description, height/weight requirements, show times, medical warnings, etc. Now, if the height requirement is 40 inches, but a child in the party is 36 inches tall, the guest knows that they should opt out of this attraction, and the map has conveyed the appropriate objective information.

However, say that the warning for two separate attractions is “loud noises.” That’s a subjective warning. Who defines what is loud? Most guests would then proceed to that attraction to see or “hear” these sound effects and make a more informed decision.  Upon arrival to the first attraction, the guest hears above-average sounds, but these noises are coming from large props set up on the outside of the attraction. The guest may then ask “Are there ‘loud noises’ inside the attraction? Or is the map referring to these sounds projecting on the outside?” As with all Disney attractions, there are signs posted outside of each ride with more details. Upon reading the signage, the guest then learns that this ride is a simulation and contains galactic battle scenes, but the sound is not more than an average movie watched in a theater.


Comments from the first assignment (from a previous class)

  1. There is no grade on the individual papers.  I’ll be looking at them as a whole at the end of the semester and seeing what type of progression you made in your ability to develop the paper.  Collecting B or C grades on early papers can be very depressing and lead to your stopping improving.
  2. Address the prompt.  I saw several essays that didn’t consider the concepts of understanding a situation or mentally integrating multiple pieces of information.
  3. Avoid the long descriptive paragraphs.  The essay needs to delve deep into the how and why.  It should not be a description of what is followed by a few generic comments about how designers need to consider this.  You need to explain what the designers need to consider and how they should address it.  I know you don’t have the knowledge for a full answer yet, but I also see many people falling back onto general statements and never trying to develop that full knowledge.
  4. Remember to go deep.  The comments on expand or needs transition tends to come from you trying to cover several different topics.  Pick one.

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