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.
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:
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.
This video introduces the idea of critical reading but it also helpful to look at in conjunction with our notemaking resources.
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. Develop a checklist to evaluate what you read:
Speaking as we read is something associated with childhood. Whilst 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.
Note down words or concepts you are struggling with and then follow them up on another occasion. Don't get distracted whilst reading the passage.
Again, 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.
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 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.