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:
Dhruv (Human, Social, and Political Sciences)
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.
Once you know what you want from a reading session, your strategic approach to reading should ideally include the following steps:
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.
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.
You don’t have time to read everything, nor do you need to. Take a structured approach to target your reading:
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.
Once you have established what an individual thinks, you’ll need to link it to the bigger picture. Think about:
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:
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.
It is good practice to take a moment after reading to see if you can do the following by way of a summary:
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this work is licenced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 4.0 licence by Cambridge University Libraries.