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Crucial factor for analytical thinking in students

Tuesday, 27th April 2021 – Kuala Lumpur

Associate Prof. Dr. Hafriza Burhanudeen

The writer is an academic associate at the School of Education and Humanities, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak.

LETTERS: One of the most challenging aspects of lecturing in linguistics is the transmission of essential language theories to students who do not have sufficient time to read and digest the academic material.

Worse still, they must apply said theories to given language data in order to pass the course. In linguistics programmes, students are educated on the existence of macro and micro theories.

The former covers a range of phenomena, whereas micro theory focuses on specific factors that influence an explicit feature, for example, the past or the present tense forms of the foreign language one wants to acquire.

The challenging part for most students is to achieve what we call explanatory adequacy, combining aspects of macro and micro theory to offer explanations as to “why” a certain phenomenon occurs, as well as the “so what”.

Equally daunting is the requirement to recognise the salient points and to organise them in a structured manner that reflects their comprehension of the materials at hand.

Much has been written about the lack of English and analytical thinking skills among our students. Both have an adverse effect on the understanding and use of relevant theories presented in class. And both are cited as the main culprits in the “poor” quality of our graduates.

There is, however, another issue affecting their performance, one that works in collaboration with low proficiency and inadequate analytical skills, or reading comprehension skills.

In the process of understanding a text, comprehension skills are vital for the successful application of theories to real-life data. The famous educator Edward Thorndike, summed it up aptly: “Understanding a paragraph is like solving a problem in mathematics. It consists in selecting the right elements of the situation, putting them together in the right relations, and also with the right amount of weight or influence or force for each.

“The mind is assailed as it were, by every word in the paragraph. It must select, repress, soften, emphasise, correlate and organise, all under the influence of the right mental set of purpose or demand.”

The difficulty many students face in the initial process of identifying themes and inferences presents an obstacle that should have been tackled in primary and secondary school. Indeed, there are students who have a good proficiency in English, but are still hampered by their lack of comprehension skills.

And, conversely, there are students with lower proficiency skills, who, because of their better reading comprehension skills, are able to reflect their understanding of the text in written work. There is a body of literature suggesting that the task of improving such skills requires a change in the curriculum.

The four essential competencies — reading, listening speaking and writing — need due emphasis as separate components in the syllabus to give students the opportunity to develop each skill in a thorough manner. In-class exercises to develop analytical thinking must be encouraged at the same time.

But saying all this is easy. Sometimes, the answers are apparent to those in education, but unless it is possible to increase the number of trained teachers, to heighten parental involvement and to improve infrastructure, we will just have to do the best we can in our present condition. This seems to be the reality.