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UG CamGuides: What skills will I develop as an undergraduate?

Generic academic skills useful to all students

Being critical

In 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.

Quite often we associate the idea of critical reading with non-academic resources: newspaper articles, websites, pamphlets, film and reports. However, just because something is 'academic' doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue to question its validity and authority. To learn more, look at the 'What makes a resource academic?' page.

If you find that you do a lot of reading online then follow this link to a really useful guide with advice about reading on screens 

 

With thanks to:

Zadie (Classics)

Dhruv (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)

Vamsi (Economics)

Plan

Your reading should be just as structured as your essay writing. Before beginning, you need to plan. Ask yourself: Why am I 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.

Man reading a book outside

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

Throughout the process 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.

lightbulb iconThink of a topic

This could be something in your subject area that you studied at school/college, a new topic you will be studying at Cambridge or perhaps a forthcoming event such as coming to university.

Create a list or mind map to analyse it, generating questions as you go. This will help to identify what you do and don’t know. Draw out themes you are comfortable with and those which will need more research. List the sources you plan to use.

You should continue to work on this document. Add new themes to the document as you read about them. If you are dealing with academic work, list your sources to see the spread of your reading and remember to reference them clearly.

Survey the text - click on the box title to find out more

You don’t have time to read everything, nor do you need to. Take a structured approach to target your reading:

 

  • If it is a book, look at the contents page and index. If the information you are looking for isn’t mentioned here, you probably don’t need to read any further.
  • If it is a chapter or journal article, use the structure of headings and subheadings to give you an idea about the content.
  • Do you recognise anything in the reference list? Is it linked to material you have been reading? Do they support or refute one another?
  • Quickly look at the text to identify keywords or phrases.
  • Figures, data and images are much easier to digest at speed than words.
  • Evaluate the relevance and usefulness of the resource and decide if you need to read more.

 

 

  • Note key points made in the summary or abstract.
  • Read the first and last paragraphs or sections to identify the main argument. Then decide if you need more specific information from the body of text.
  • This is the case for paragraphs too.  A good writer should introduce an argument in the first sentence and  summarise it in the last.
  • Look for repetition of arguments, phrases or words to give clues to the author’s intentions.
  • What do they consider crucial? Does this match what you think is crucial?

 

Then, and only then, should you decide if you need to read further and take in-depth notes. If not, move on the next text.

Ask questions

Once you have established what an individual thinks, you’ll need to link it to the bigger picture. Think about:

  • Purpose - Why has this been written? Why I am reading this?
  • Identity - What is the author's main idea? What is unique about this argument?
  • Context - What connects this to the work of others? What is the impact of this argument?
  • Analysis - What is my opinion on the main idea(s)? Do you agree with them?

When reading critically you need to interrogate your source systematically. Click on the words below to uncover the sorts of additional questions that will help you form answers to these:

  • Can you tell who wrote it? If the author is not identified who is the sponsor, publisher, or organisation behind the information?
  • Are the author’s credentials or organisational affiliations listed?
  • Is the source reputable?
  • What is the purpose of the information? To inform, sell or entertain?
  • Does the point of view appear objective or can you determine bias? Is this clearly stated or apparent through a close reading?
  • Does the text/site provide information or is it a critical evaluation of other information?
  • When was the information published/posted? Does this matter in your field?
  • When was it last revised? Have there been new studies or developments in theory since then?
  • If reviewing a web source, are the links current or broken?
  • Where does the information presented come from? Are the sources listed?
  • Can you verify the information in other sources or from your own knowledge?
  • What is the depth of coverage?
  • Is the information central to your topic or does the source only touch on it?
  • Is it unique? Is better quality information available from another source?
  • Who is the intended audience?
lightbulb icon

Test a webpage

Download the questions checklist below. Search the web for a topic that you are interested in. Pick a website, spend some time looking through and ask yourself the questions in the checklist. Based on your answers, would you use this site in academic work? You can of course use something even if you think it is flawed, as an example of poor scientific research or biased media coverage.

 

Recall and Review

It is good practice to take a moment after reading to see if you can do the following by way of a summary: arm in grey jumper writing

  • Restate: reiterate the same topics and facts. What is it about?
  • Describe: discuss the topics and facts within the context of the author’s argument. What do they think?
  • Interpret: apply meaning within the wider context of your prior knowledge and values. Is this what you think? What are the implications of your analysis?

If you are struggling to do this, you may need to re-read sections before moving on to another text.

If you make effective notes in this way, you can then lift chunks directly into your essay or report. It is therefore important not to simply describe what you have read but to analyse it too. That way you will write critically: comparing, contrasting and synthesising information while clarifying the importance of some authors, arguments and sources over others.

Image credits

CC0 by Tamarcus Brown via Unsplash, CC0 by Green Chameleon via Unsplash

Film credits

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