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Jesus College: Critical reading


Woman sitting reading on a rock in front of a canyonIn academic terms, being critical is not about finding fault. Instead, it is the process of weighing up evidence and arguments to make a judgement. Taking a critical approach to your studies involves constantly asking questions and keeping an open mind.

Top tips

1. Your reading should be just as structured as your essay. Before beginning, you need to plan. Create a list or mind map to analyse your question and help identify what you do and don’t know. Draw out themes you are comfortable with and those which will need more research. This is where to focus your reading

2. Then ask yourself: Why I am reading this? What questions do I want it to answer? This will depend on whether you are looking for information, to improve your understanding or to analyse a text. You may ony want an additional citation to strengthen your argument.

3. Once you know what you want from a reading session, your strategic approach to reading should ideally include the following steps:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recall
  • Review

4. Do not accept what you read at face value, always question the information, ideas and arguments you come across. Use evidence to help you form your own opinions, arguments, theories and ideas.

5. Critical reading is only effective if you take critical notes. Your notes to need to interpret the overall meaning of what you have read within the wider context of what you know from other sources and your argument. If you write your notes in a critical way, you should be able to drop them into your essay without much editing.


Unless otherwise stated, this work is licenced under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence by Jesus College Cambridge.

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This video introduces the idea of critical reading

Find out more

  • An introduction to Critical Reading - breaking it down - This is a self-paced course on Moodle, created by Cambridge librarians. It should take around 45 minutes to complete.The course is an opportunity to sharpen your techniques for reading scholarly literature effectively. It  outlines techniques to read productively, and introduce a question-based method to help with being critical. The course allows you to reflect on your current way of working and also includes a practical exercise to consolidate the skills which have been taught. 

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