Face to face support
Reading for academic purposes
When you are reading for the purposes of assignment or thesis writing you may be interested in developing strategies for reading efficiently and critically.
a. Is it important to read critically?
- First, what does it mean to read critically?
- To read critically means that you identify strengths and weaknesses of a text – on a great number of levels (see section B below). Think of a critic writing in a newspaper. Their task is to give the reader a good sense of a book, play, concert or whatever s/he is writing about, and the critic does this by showing the strengths and weaknesses of the book/play etc.
- Why read critically?
- Do you read critically only because it is expected of you? Or is it necessary to understand a text well?
- How does critical reading/thinking improve your understanding of what you read and study? (eg think how comparing different texts on the same issues advances your understanding; think how analysing the reasoning the text uses to establish its conclusions helps you understand more clearly how they reach those conclusions, but also helps you evaluate how successful they are in justifying their conclusions).
- How can critical reflection be necessary to carry out the tasks you are set? (eg consider what is involved in establishing your research topic; consider how you need to evaluate ideas you read about as you develop a position of your own and reach your conclusions on a topic in any of your assignments.)
- What is your authority to think and read critically?
- It is important to recognise that you think critically anyway! (eg think about how you support or resist claims people make. Do you support or resist opinions because of the authority of the person speaking [eg do you always accept what your leading politicians say?], or do you form opinions of your own? If so, on what basis? What is the basis of the evaluation you make of what is said? What reasons would you give for supporting or opposing what is said?)
- On what grounds can you critique an expert or authoritative text? (Refer to point 2 above.) What is the difference between you and an expert authority? While the expert has wider experience in the subject and greater familiarity and therefore a deeper understanding of the issues in the field, the development of his/her understanding follows the same path as yours. While s/he may possess more knowledge, the process of understanding – questioning unclear texts, comparing texts, judging texts on the basis of values, importance, sound reasoning etc – is the same for him/her as for you. Much critical thinking is carried out as part of the process of understanding. Critical evaluation of a text does not only involve drawing on expert knowledge in the field to critique the methodology or the knowledge the writer claims to establish.
- It is very important however that you can justify critical comments you make! For example, you must show where you think the argument is unclear, or certain values are assumed that you do not agree with.
- How do you go about reading critically?
- Does everything you read need to be subjected to critical scrutiny? When are you more likely to place greater emphasis on critical evaluation?
- How does your assignment task shape your critical focus? What aspects of your reading do you need to subject to greater critical scrutiny, and what parts of your writing will need to include more critical thinking? Why?
- What kind of critical discussion do you think is likely to be called for [if any] in different sections of your thesis or research projects?
- Literature review
- Methodology chapter
b. Levels on which we can read critically.
- We can critically evaluate aspects intrinsic to the text itself.
- Is the data/information drawn on comprehensive enough for the case the author wants to make?
- Is the data adequately and systematically analysed and otherwise dealt with?
- Are the arguments well developed?
- Are the arguments consistent? Can you spot inconsistencies?
- Is the methodology used appropriate? Could the study be approached in other ways?
- Are claims that are made sufficiently supported by the evidence?
- Are the ideas presented relevant to the issue under discussion?
- Are the ideas presented clearly?
- Are there practical uses for the ideas, or are they too theoretical?
- Is the complexity of the issues under discussion adequately dealt with, or has the writer over-simplified them?
- Are the conclusions drawn clearly and based on the findings/discussion?
- The wider context that gives rise to the text.
- What is the writer’s purpose? (Does it prejudice his/her collection and interpretation of data in obvious ways? Should we be extra cautious of his/her use of evidence, conclusions drawn and so on?)
- How do the issues raised fit into wider debates in the discipline? Why has the author focused on these issues? Does the author have a political agenda of some sort?
- Is the methodology the author adopts a universally accepted one in studies dealing with these issues? Could an alternative approach be used? Why? What difference might a different methodology make? Why is this important to note?
- How do his/her conclusions compare with other related texts/studies? What grounds can you use for evaluating them?
- What values underlie the approach or motivate the objectives of the study? Are there moral, socio-cultural or political reasons for questioning those values?
- What social, political, moral, educational or other purposes are these findings/arguments likely to support?
- Your own perspective that you bring from your wider world of experience (cultural values and beliefs, political and ideological outlook, and so on)
- Are the ideas in the text relevant to your task/concerns?
- Do the claims made contradict your own experience, understanding or sense of values? If so, can you justify challenging this study, or do you need to change your views?
- Do the ideas and arguments in the study justify or implicitly support certain social relationships? Are they desirable? (Do they justify certain forms of teacher/student, gender, racial, social relationships [eg egalitarian/hierarchical; inferior/superior and so on.])
- Are the issues dealt with important in your view?
- To what social, cultural or political purposes could the findings and conclusions of this study be put? Would you support these findings being used for such purposes? Why/why not?