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In academic terms, being critical is not about finding fault. Instead, it is the process of weighing up evidence and arguments to make a judgment. Taking a critical approach to your studies involves constantly asking questions and keeping an open mind.
Your reading should be just as structured as your essay. Before beginning, you need to plan. 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.
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. You should continue to work on this document, listing sources which reflect on particular themes so that you see the spread of reading and whether you are lacking resources in a particular area. Add new themes to the document as you read about them, remembering to reference them clearly.
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.
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.
Once you have established what an individual thinks, you’ll need to link it to the bigger picture. Develop a checklist to evaluate what you read:
- 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?
Download this as a separate checklist
Again, speaking as we read is something associated with childhood. While reading silently can speed up the rate at which we digest text, it sometimes hinders clarity of thought. If passage is difficult or you are finding it hard to concentrate, reading aloud can focus your mind and improve comprehension. Speak into the digital recorder on your phone to listen to it again if you are struggling to understand passages or need to revise them.
This is something we do when learning to read as a child but has huge value for advanced readers too. It is best employed when you don’t need to read every word. Run your finger across the text or, as you get more experienced, in a zigzag fashion down the centre of the page. You will still be able to take in the gist of argument despite not reading every word. It will help identify repeated keywords and arguments.
Download our Academic Skills Critical Reading Guide (pdf)
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:
- 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 assignment. It is therefore important not to simply describe what you have read but to analyse it too. That way you will writing critically; comparing, contrasting and synthesising information while clarifying the importance of some authors, arguments and sources overs others.