How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Being human – Part 1

Posted on | November 22, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Use theories to explain facts

We are pattern-seeking animals.

A few weeks after we are born we recognise that a certain pattern of lines and shapes is our mother’s face.

We look at the stars and see animals or figures outlined in them.

We look at events in history or business or geology or medicine or any field and find patterns of cause and effect or some other relationship. We try to, anyway. Because we are human and humans love patterns. We want order and reason in our world instead of randomness.

And the people who love finding patterns more than any others are probably academics. In that sense, academics, those people who can spend so much time and effort on the most obscure details of their obscure subject (I’m looking at you, Linguists), may actually be the most human kind of human. (I know; hard to believe, isn’t it?)

Academic patterns

The word that academics use for pattern is theory. A theory is an attempt to explain parts of the world. They are like glasses to help you see the world more clearly.

Theories come, and then go when a new theory explains the world better. Two, three or more theories can compete at the same time until one pulls ahead for awhile. And what they compete in is explanatory power, the power to explain the facts being studied and to be used to explain other similar facts.

In more applied fields such as engineering or accounting or dentistry, theories may be called best practice but best practices come and go and compete with other practices too.

Theories and you

Theories, in case you missed my point, are very, very important in academia. So they are very, very important for you.

When you are writing an essay, your lecturer doesn’t just want to know if you know the facts, or even what facts may cause other facts. Your lecturer wants to know if you can use a theory to explain why certain facts may cause other facts. It’s even better if you can find more than one theory and compare how well they explain the facts; compare their explanatory power.

I’m going to give you two essay introductions* and let you decide which looks more academic. Which essay looks like it will use theories to explain the facts being studied. The field is history and the question is Why did Japan and Germany become allies in peace and war?

Introduction 1

Japan’s foreign policy from the beginning of the 20th Century until the early 1920’s was principally based on its alliance with Great Britain. Although a partner of allied powers in the Great War, its role was not appreciated at Versailles. The Japanese were denied rights to migrate to the USA and Australia, their exports abroad were restricted and in 1921 Britain broke its alliance with Japan. These facts coupled with the decision of the Washington conference to reduce the Japanese Navy to 60% of American and British fleets developed not only bitterness in Japan but also a feeling of isolation. These were some of the underlying reasons why they chose to enter into an alliance with the Germans.

Introduction 2

Was Japan’s alliance with Germany inevitable? On this question, historians have offered very divergent interpretations. Some have argued that the ideological developments in the two countries in the 1930’s naturally brought the two countries together to form a powerful and aggressive alliance. Other accounts, however, have viewed the creation of the axis as the consequence of the failure of Western diplomacy, particularly of Britain and the US. In this essay, I will analyse the events leading to the formation of the alliance and will argue that it was principally the West’s disregard of the interests of an emergent Japan that more than anything else led to its fatal joining with Nazi Germany with all the tragic consequences this would subsequently have for the world.

What do you think?

In Part 2, I will look at these two paragraphs again and pick out a couple of interesting points. But if you look at them closely yourself maybe you will see some patterns in them first, without my help. Why not have a go! You’re human, after all. It’s what you do.

See you in Part 2!

* Taken from Moore, T. (2007). The ‘processes’ of learning: On the use of Halliday’s transitivity in academic skills advising. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 6 (50) p50-73.



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