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ASC Success Strategies: Critical Reading

Critical Reading

Critical reading generally refers to reading in a scholarly context, with an eye toward identifying a text or author's viewpoints, arguments, evidence, potential biases, and conclusions. Critical reading means evaluating what you have read using your knowledge as a scholar. You may look at the quality of the writing, the quality of the research, and the persuasiveness of the arguments, among other things. Critical reading is an active process by which a scholar rigorously and systematically questions the literature with the goal of assessing credibility and validity.

Whereas reading retention and comprehension involve remembering and understanding the main ideas, critical reading begins the process of taking action. You are not simply absorbing the information; instead, you are interpreting, categorizing, questioning, and weighing the value of that information. In other words, you are engaging in higher-order thinking and the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy. 

Bloom's Taxonomy Pyramid

Critical reading can serve many functions. Sometimes you examine a text critically to analyze it, sometimes to compare it to other texts, and sometimes to evaluate it. As you get more advanced in your studies, you read for all of these simultaneously. In this resource, we have isolated the functions to better explain each one.

Critical Reading for Analysis

To analyze means to break a text down into its parts to better understand it. When you read for analysis, you notice the components of a text and how they work together. As you examine those components, you make inferences and interpret the message of the text (both the overt message and the subtler or hidden message). Ask yourself questions like these while reading:

Audience and Purpose

  • Who is the intended audience? (e.g., scientists, academics, educated laypeople, the general population)
  • What is the author’s purpose? (e.g., to inform, to entertain, to persuade, to share new research)

Argument and Evidence

  • What is the thesis?
  • What are the main points that support the thesis?
  • What evidence is used?

Methods (for Research Studies)

  • How was the study conducted? Is it qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods?

Language and Tone

  • What is the tone the author uses? (e.g., formal, informal, critical, objective)
  • How does the author’s use of language and tone support the audience, purpose, and argument? (e.g., specialized terminology, simple word choice, words with emotional connotations)

 

Critical Reading for Comparison

When analyzing a text, you engage in noticing—noticing what the authors are saying and how they are saying it. Scholars do not take a single article, book, or study as the complete truth on a topic. They read widely on the issue to get a well-rounded understanding.

When you are critically reading for comparison, you widen the view beyond the single source and consider the text in relation to other texts you have read on the same topic. You may also consider what you have learned in previous courses.

This process of comparison is often called synthesis. Ultimately, scholars draw together many sources and articulate unique and insightful conclusions based on that evidence. Synthesis is the hallmark of successful scholarly writing, and it is much easier to do well if you begin as an active and aware reader.

If you are reading multiple sources (such as for a literature review), use an organizational tool like a matrix to keep track of important details and easily compare them. Ask yourself questions like these while reading:

Audience and Purpose

  • Are the authors writing for a similar audience and purpose?

Argument and Evidence

  • Are the authors advocating a similar or opposing position?
  • How does the evidence in each article reinforce, contradict, or complicate the other?

Methods (for Research Studies)

  • How do the studies’ methods compare?

Language and Tone

  • How is the tone communicated in each piece?

Critical Reading for Evaluation

Whereas analysis involves noticing, evaluation requires the reader to make a judgment about the text’s strengths and weaknesses. Many students are not confident in their ability to assess what they are reading. It is important to remember, though, that even though a piece of writing is published, it is not necessarily accurate, scholarly, or free of bias. Readers must look at published writing with a critical eye to gauge its trustworthiness.

Critical reading for evaluation can be considered a three-step process of prereading, reading, and forming the evaluation.

Prereading

Scan the title, abstract, publication information, headings, and reference list to gather your first impressions on the credibility of the text. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Who is the author?

Once you have been reading and studying in your field for a while, you may begin to recognize certain authors or scholars.  The more you read, the better the sense you will have about which scholars are well-known and have immediate credibility in your field.  If you are unfamiliar with an author, you can do a simple Internet search to learn more about their background.  Then use your critical thinking skills to help determine the author's credibility. For example, an article on nuclear energy written by a nuclear scientist will likely be worth more to a researcher than one written by a neurosurgeon. Also consider potential biases between the author and the subject. A piece on gun control written by a former president of the National Rifle Association is likely to come with biases. 

  • Who is the publisher?

Determine the journal or publisher by locating the publication information, usually found in the library database and/or title page of the article. Peer-reviewed sources are preferred (check Ulrich's for details about specific publications). In general, choose scholarly journal articles over other types of sources.  If a source has no specific author or publication date (or is published by a corporation with an obvious bias), regard it skeptically.

  • When was the work published?

Fields develop and change, some more rapidly than others. For fields in which change is rapid, a researcher must rely on the most current sources. Generally, works written within the last 5 years are preferred. 

  • Does the author include a reference list or bibliography?

Examining the references should tell you whether the subject was well researched. If there is no reference list or the references are outdated or nonscholarly, you should question the usefulness and trustworthiness of the material.

During the pre-reading step, you might determine that the text is not worth reading because it is clearly biased or authored by someone who is not credible in your field. If you decide to read it, continue with the next step below.

Reading

Once you have decided to commit to a text, your next step is to read it with a critical eye. During this step, pay close attention to the argument and the evidence used to support that argument. Ask yourself questions like these:

Audience, Purpose, and Language

  • Has the author communicated clearly and organized the text well? (e.g., logical connections between topics, clear sentences, use of headings)
  • Is the author effectively writing to their audience? (e.g., appropriateness of language and tone)

Argument and Evidence

  • Does the evidence support the conclusions that are drawn? In other words, has the author interpreted the evidence correctly? Are there other interpretations that could be made?
  • Does the author present and address a counterargument?
  • Has the author made unreasonable assumptions?
  • Has the author allowed bias to influence their work?

Methods (for Research Studies):

  • Was the research method appropriate, or would another method have been more effective?
  • Was the sample size sufficient? How generalizable are the findings? (In some instances the evidence is strong but applies only to an isolated case, as might occur when research deals with a small sample size or a unique demographic. In such cases, a critical reader must be able to recognize that the case is isolated and the results cannot be generalized to a larger population.)
  • What were the limitations in this study (both the ones disclosed by the author and ones that you see as a critical reader)?
  • Could the evidence be flawed due to how the study was conducted?

David H. Schwartz’s video Not All Scientific Studies are Created Equal provides an excellent example of reviewing sources, considering variables, and discovering potentially flawed causal relationships.

Forming the Evaluation.

The final step is to form your evaluation based on the judgments you made as you were reading. This exercise is a short one that may not always end up in a paper or dissertation chapter, but it is essential.

What is your overall evaluation? Can you articulate it in a few sentences? Consider how you would respond if someone asked, “How was the article?” or “How was that book?” Here is an example:

Although Ramirez’s (2017) study provided compelling evidence for mandatory drug testing of athletes, the researcher was also the principal at the school where she conducted the study. Ramirez did not adequately control for researcher bias. Therefore, more research is needed to determine whether similar results would be achieved without such a relationship.

If you are using a tool like a literature review matrix, now is the time to fill in your evaluation of the source and other notes. If you are writing a course paper, include your evaluation along with a brief source summary in your notes. Be sure to evaluate the source immediately after reading it so that it remains clear in your head.