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Before You Write: Critical Reading Strategies for Academic Writers

Transcripts for the Writing Center's webinars.

Before You Write: Critical Reading Strategies for Academic Writers

Presented September 2019

View the recording

Last updated 4/13/2020



Visual: Slide changes to the following: Housekeeping

  • Recording
    • Will be available online within 24 hours.
  • Interact
    • Polls, files, and links are interactive.
  • Q&A
    • Now: Use the Q&A box.
    • Later: Send to or visit our Live Chat Hours.
  • Help
    • Ask in the Q&A box.
    • Choose “Help” in the upper right-hand corner of the webinar room

Audio: Claire: First, the recording of the session will be available online within 24 hours. Throughout the presentation, this is a bit of an unusual presentation, we have a poll, we have files, links to resources. You will be able to interact with those throughout the presentation. We have a PDF working to download that now or  Kacy will direct you how to do that during the presentation as well. If you have questions during the presentation, let us know in the Q&A box. Myself, Michael or  Kacy will respond in there. If you are watching as a recording or think of a question later, send the questions to or visit during live hours. If you have major issues, go to help in the top right corner of the Adobe connect room, Adobe help service. They have more detailed support for you there if you have major technical issues. With that, I turn it over to the lead presenter today,  Kacy.


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Before You Write: Critical Reading Strategies for Academic Writers

Kacy Walz, Claire Helakoski, and Michael Dusek

Writing Instructors

Walden University Writing Center

Audio:  Kacy: Thanks, Claire. Thank you for joining us for this brand new webinar. I'm excited about it. I'm  Kacy Walz, a writing instructor at the writing center. Claire and Michael will help me out today. We'll have this be more discussion based than other webinars. If you have been to those in the past, this will feel different. We have a chat box open for the majority if not all of the webinar. Post anything you want your colleagues or all of the presenters to see right in the chat box. If you have a personal question or something you think might only pertain to you, and you want to ask privately, that's what the Q&A box is for. Like Claire said, one of the three of us will respond to that as well. Hopefully, you will feel comfortable to share your thoughts and ideas in the larger chat box. So -- with that, we'll just get started.


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Learning Objectives
After this session, you will:

  • Have a clear understanding of the difference between critical reading and reading for pleasure
  • Be familiar with different strategies for approaching a text
  • Understand how to use information gained through critical reading in an argument of your own


Audio: We have some learning objectives for this webinar. Afterwards, we hope you will have a clear understanding of differences between critical reading and reading for pleasure. You will have strategies to approach a text you need to read critically, and you will have an understanding of how to produce arguments of your own in your own writing.


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Different types of reading:

Reading for Pleasure:

  • Usually much faster pace of reading
  • Not necessary to retain every detail
  • Leisure activity
  • Objective: entertainment
  • Important info:
    • Characters
    • Action
    • Timelines

Critical Reading:

  • Generally takes much longer than reading for pleasure
  • Details are important
  • Objective: obtain information
  • Important info:
    • Arguments
    • Author/researcher’s objectives
    • Relevance for further research
    • Connections to other studies

Audio: There are probably other types of reading than these two. For simplicity sake, I'm going over the differences for reading for pleasure and critical reading. Reading for pleasure, you are often able to read at a faster pace. Sometimes, you can even skim over things if you have a pretty good sense of what's going to happen. There is not as much importance of paying attention to every specific detail when reading for pleasure. As a side note, I tried reading the Game of Thrones books, and I couldn't do it. Usually reading for pleasure, you don't need to retain everything happening. It's often leisure or something people are doing for entertainment. You can read at a faster pace or think about if every detail is in your memory. Critical reading usually takes longer than reading for pleasure. I have done recording for my own pleasure. I can usually read twice as fast

Critical reading is generally the argument of whatever you are reading, the objectives or author of the researchers presenting the writing. You will be looking for relevance and connections to studies of other things you have read. Rather than a story line and a rising and falling plot, these are the things you want to focus on reading critically.


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Critical Reading Strategies

  • Read the abstract, the first sentence of each paragraph, and the conclusion before reading the entire text
  • Write on the document as you read
  • Pretend you’re having a conversation with the author(s)
  • Consider your immediate reactions and ask yourself why you feel that way

Audio: It looks like we don't have a chat box. I apologize for confusing people with that.

Before moving to the article, I want to go over a few critical strategies. You can try one or two out during the reading time. My first strategy for you is to read the abstract, the first sentence of each paragraph and the conclusion. You will be reading a lot of the article, looking for topic sentences and trying to get the main idea. This is a helpful technique if you are gathering information. You have done a search, pulled up articles. That would take an insane amount of time. It's not applicable to every project. This is a way to weed out resources. It's helpful if you know for a fact that this is a resource useful for you. It gives you the idea of where the writer is going. You have a sense of all of the information that's going to be provided because you have a quick snapshot. When something comes up, you have a pretty good sense of, I remember they'll talk more about that later on in the paper. If it's still confusing to you, it's a good sign you have to do in-depth research. Having that as a first step can be helpful either way, if you are trying to determine if the source is helpful or if you are trying to get a sense of things before you start reading.

I always recommend that my students write on documents as they are reading. I know a lot of you are online students. Probably are going to be reading on your computer. There are ways you can make notes on the computer as well. In the files pod, we have an example that Claire put together where she used the computer to make notes on the text. You can download that.

On that note, there are a lot of helpful files, and more files in this webinar than usual. I highly recommend you download those. Those are example two with notes from the computer. For me, I have to write on a physical document. It doesn't connect in my brain if I read on the computer. Example one is my own copy, handwritten notes and highlighting. It's not going to look as neat as Claire's does, but it gives you a way of annotating as you read. 

This is a time saver because you don't want to look through the article looking for one specific argument when you go to write that paper. Having these notes and having an easy way to find exactly what you found important during your reading is going to be immensely helpful. Pretend you are having a conversation with the author or authors. When you are critically reading, you are engaging with the text. It's not a passive activity. You are allowing the story to take you wherever the author wants to go, right? With critical reading, you are working within the paper to see what kinds of questions do you feel are unanswered? What would you want to know more about that maybe the authors haven't taken into consideration yet? What arguments do you have with what they are saying? These are good things to keep in mind because they lead you to an idea or arguments so important as you continue with your scholarly career.

The final strategy I'm going over today--before we start, anyway--is to consider your immediate reactions and ask yourself why you feel that way. Academic writing, feelings and emotions get a bad rap. We are told, I don't care what you feel. Give me facts. Back up your arguments. When you are critically reading, that kind of gut sense can be helpful. If you are reading something and gosh, this is boring, that's not a great argument in terms of engaging with the text itself. You might ask yourself, what about this is boring me? Is it because the test didn't go far enough to generate interesting results? Maybe you could consider how you could make it more interesting. At the very least, it can give you a sense of writing that you don't want to emulate. You don't want to write boring papers. If you are confused, think about what's confusing you. That's a great way to lead to the questions you should ask. Are you persuaded? Should you jump onboard to agree with what the writer's saying? What's making you so sure of the arguments. Those are good building blocks when you go to make your own.


Visual: The screen changes to show a PDF of the journal article “Distracted Students: A Comparison of Multiple Types of Distractions on Learning in Online Lectures.”

Audio: So, you were sent a copy to download from the files pad. The article, “Distracted Students: A Comparison of Multiple Types of Distractions on Learning in Online Lectures” is one you can scroll through yourself. You can use that -- the side bar and scroll through and read. I'm going to go on silent and give you about 15 minutes to read through this.

Sorry, I have the wrong layout up. There is a poll here. You can check. I'm going to go on mute. I have about 15 minutes. You can let me know when you are done reading. If you are already done, you can take a little break.

[silence as students read]

All right, so, since it seems like a lot of people have skimmed through or read the article, which is awesome, you guys are just ahead of the game. The chat section is a little larger. We hope you will share thoughts as we talk through this.

The first thing I ask myself doing critical reading is the last question on the slide. What is my initial reaction? I want to open it up to Michael and Claire since I have been talking the entire webinar so far. Do one of you want to jump in and give your reactions to the general article? Please do put your own reactions in the chat box so we can see.

Michael: I'll jump in here. My initial reaction to the article was surprise. I'm a person when studying, when working, I have music on in the background, or the article would call them distractions, a part of my surroundings. It was interesting and surprising to me to hear that these things were taking away from my productivity instead of making a comfortable work environment.

Claire: I had a similar feeling, Michael. I can't have too much going on while I'm focusing, because I get distracted easily. For example, they talked about folding laundry while listening to a lecture. I definitely have done that. They have found that it was surprisingly distracting. That really stuck out to me because that's something personally that I have done, assuming that it was, you know, not distracting because it's totally separate. I'm not looking at something else or listening to something else. I'm doing a physical action.

Kacy: Yeah, I agree, Claire. That was something that really surprised me. It actually led me to one of my questions I had for the authors. If you download my example, we'll go back to the other pod with the files you can download in it. You will see that I ask questions in the margin. There, I noticed that the authors are really, really specific about exactly what each individual was holding, like the number of shirts and the size of the shirts, and they mentioned something interesting, that this wasn't necessarily a familiar task for these individuals, for the participants in the test. It made me wonder if that has something to do with it as well. If you are doing a task that maybe you have done a million times before and can do it easily without thinking versus trying to do something that maybe takes more concentration. We didn't get into that with the participants, but I would have liked to know if they said, I fold laundry every week, or I never fold my own laundry, that would definitely have some effect.

Michael: Yeah, that's an interesting point. I would take this in a more of a cultural vein here, cultural direction in thinking about a critique and having a conversation with the article. I think perhaps different cultures have different tolerances when it comes to distraction, right? I think certain cultures may be more distracted by something like folding laundry as others are used to multitasking. That is one question I had when I finished the piece, is how general are the findings, and perhaps, different cultural context could have an effect on the amount of distraction that a student experiences in this case.

Claire: That's an interesting point, Michael. I was thinking and students in the chat are pointing out that I need music, or I need background stimulation. It helps me focus. I would be curious to--they talked a little bit about the participant's perception about how much things distract them. Potentially, are you the kind of person that focuses best in an environment with background things going on. Some people do. I am not one of them. I'm easily distracted. I know that about myself. I think the people in the study's perception of can you focus with distractions kind of in general might have been helpful going into the study.

Kacy: Yeah, and I think--I really like that idea, Michael. I feel like it could be another test or another study. You could do different--the same kind of experiment, but with people from different cultures or who grew up--maybe in different parts of the same country, but wondering how that affects these kind of results. I am also a person who needs at least white noise in the background. As Claire was saying, she doesn't like having music on because she gets distracted. Part of this argument is about knowing yourself and knowing when you learn best or how you learn. That was something that stuck out with me. At first, I couldn't figure out why they were talking about judgment of learning. Why does this matter? They are talking about distractions and grade letters. That stood out to me that they were scoring so much lower as to actually receiving a lower letter grade when they were distracted. I couldn't figure out why they kept talking about the judgment of learning. I think part of it is, they are saying: We think we can do other things, fold laundry and take in everything going on in the lecture, but what is being illustrated here, questions aside, is that, that's not true and we misrepresent or misconstrue what's going on.

Claire: I found that interesting too. I saw some students asking, isn't this critical reading? I thought we could talk about the processes. That shows you are able and have done the deeper reading. You were just skimming. You probably need to do the deeper read. It's a self-test. Can you chat about what you read afterwards? That's a good mark of critical reading. I know what I'm in for. To know whether it's relevant or whatever I'm hoping to work on. This study about distractions and online learning, they found that distractions are distractions and have negative impact on people's abilities while trying to study at the same time. I'll go over the first page on my own, focus on what the main intention of the study is. I want to come back to the working up establishing why the study is relevant. If I'm just here for the take aways, then I might sort of skim through that and focus on the thesis.

Michael: I would approach this a similar way to Claire by reading the abstract. The goal is to be sure it's suitable for what I need it for. In doing so, you gather a lot of research. Part of initially approaching a piece is determining whether or not it's going to be useful to you. It turns out they are approaching from a different perspective, these elements make it less applicable than the work you are doing. Saying this piece is not useful for me and discarding it saves you a ton of time. I approach a piece of reading and start to read critically. I start with the abstract and go to the introduction. I would see what they actually found. If all of that sounds good, I would then go read the whole piece.

Kacy: Thank you, Claire. I'm excited about this webinar and article. Someone is mentioning all of the numbers and detail. I did mention when you are reading critically that detail is very important. I don't have specific numbers, so those make me frightened of what is going on in the paper and I feel like I don't understand. To make it less frightening to me, to highlight it. This is a specific number. Then again, Claire mentioned in the chat as well, depending on the argument, I want to make the specific numbers really important. I think Claire has something to say before I change the subject.

Claire: Yeah, what I was talking about that the numbers might be important, I have seen that you need to write about a particular type of study. If you need to write a statistics course, for example, that numerical data is going to be important. The assignment might be asking for that, or a literature review for the project, then you might want to pay more attention to the type of data being produced here. You want to save this one because it has nice quantitative data for you.

Kacy: Thanks for adding that, Claire. Michael, go ahead.

Michael: I was going to piggyback off of what you said,  Kacy. It's the minutia of the data. When I see in the abstract, 60%, all of that, I kind of turn off my brain there. The larger study, the larger findings here.

Claire: And, what is nice is, as I scroll us through a bit, there are different sections that tell us what they are telling us about, right. I would probably skim this section, and focus in on the discussion and the results so I can understand the numbers. And also, that’s what I’m probably going to want to paraphrase more, that discussion of the information—we’re talking about all distractions and learning. That's an important thing I want to focus in on. This is dependent on what I'm using it for. I pull out to be sure I'm understanding things correctly. Statistics isn't my strong suit. I stop on the results to make sure I understand what the take aways were.

 Kacy: Exactly. That's a great example of what I wanted to move into. People were bringing up in the chat, how do you use the critical writing skills because they are closely tied together? The comments you have been making in the chat box and the kind of questions Claire and Michael have been raising are what's going to lead you to the writing. Somebody in the chat had mentioned something about the age group of the participants and how that might factor in similarly to the question of culture, how does your familiarity with the electronics or different modes of communication--like I know people that can text without looking at the actual keyboard. I can't do that. I know people skilled enough to look at something else and text. How much does that affect these kinds of results? That might be your argument, right? That might be something you talk about in your paper. Everything you are doing already is leading to that point.

I love the comment, aren't we multitasking reading and presenting at the same time? Yes, that's true. I considered putting the music back on during the reading portion, but the presenters and I talked about how that is directly in contrast with the article we are reading. Like Claire said, the purpose here is to discuss the article as a group. If you think about being in a classroom, you probably have your reading out on the desks a you are having a conversation. It's a little bit tricky. We are online here, but that's kind of the idea we are going for. That's a great point.

I want to mention that we are clearing the chat history not because we want to hide things you are saying, but it's the way the Adobe room is set up, the chat fills up. Michael, you wanted to add something?

Michael: You mentioned being critical about the article. This is a critical reading webinar. I think the idea of scrutinizing the article or critiquing the article is really important, right? As scholars, it's not enough that we passively ingest information from an article. We need to actively participate in this discussion. Whether it be in our minds or later on as you suggested by adding perspective to the scholarship. When you approach academic articles and academic writing, I think it's important to question the elements of the studies and think about how it could be done better. You mentioned the age of the population studied, the familiarity with technology. I would add other criticisms like the population size they are studying here. If I remember correctly, it was like 45 students or something, the variable for the control, something like this. That's only 90 students, right? It's not a lot of people. The point I'm trying to make here is scrutinizing the article is a form of being critical, right? You are then thinking about how this study was set up. This is what critical reading and writing is all about, right? It's not just accepting the data you are being told as true, it's thinking about how the study is set up and how it could be done better to produce data more accurate or generalizable or more indicative of the phenomenon being studied.

Claire: Those are good points, Michael. On a similar point, I saw a critical note about the background or literature review in this article, which is kind of just the first section here. So they are talking about other ways that--research on distractions, research on distractions in the classroom. You might read this and think, they are not really providing a lot of support for what they are talking about. That's a great critical thought. If you are researching the topic already, then you might read something in here and think, oh, you know, that might be a source that I want to go ahead and read after I'm done reading this. I often do that where I'll flag something, and you can see it in my notes document, or I flag something that seems relevant as paraphrased in the current article and make a note to read that article next. That's a great way to build on your research, especially doing a literature review or deeply researching a topic. Pay attention to what source the source you are reading is quoting and paraphrasing. You have the reference list at the end. You can find that article and read that too.

Kacy: That's another great tip. I do a similar thing in my notes. If you download the example one where, as I'm reading, I will circle different names of authors of sources I think are going to be important. Then I highlight the names in my reference list at the end. I look at the reference list as a whole to see what titles look helpful to me. This is where you employ the strategies Michael and I were talking about reading the abstract and checking to see if this is going to be useful as the title sounds or seems like as you were reading through the article. These scholars have done a lot of work compiling the resources for you. Why not take advantage of that, right? That's definitely something to help you in the long run compiling larger projects that require so much in-depth research. These pieces have been discovered for you. Now you can look and see if they are going to be helpful. I also really appreciate you chiming into the chat and having conversations with each other and us as we are going. It's corny to say this, but you are critically reading, right? When you are having the conversations. That's just great practice for your coursework and going beyond. Michael or Claire, do you have anything you want to add before we go to the handout and finish out the slides?

Claire: Just to find the reading strategies that work well for you. I personally am a big fan of highlighting and taking sort of notes in the document and then I usually have a separate word document where after I read through something, like say three articles on a topic, and then I will go back through them and pull out the really relevant paragraphs or quotes. I cite them in a separate word document and take general notes. I work from that instead of going to the original source over and over. After I critically read it once, I pull out what is useful with my salutations, excite it while working on it so you don't forget. That's helpful for me. Figure out what works best for you to create the writing piece.

Michael: Those are great points, Claire. I couldn't agree more, finding out what works for you in your writing process is really, important. I want to make one more point here. To me, critical reading is argumentation. I have gotten to the point already, but I would like to drive it home briefly here. I think students have a tendency to read scholarship and take that as chiseled in stone fact that this is now a proven fact. Really, when you encounter scholarship, in all cases, this is a certain study built around parameters, right? The person set up the study that had limitations. From this is produced a set of data that can suggest a number of conclusions. There is room for academic scholarship for disagreement and argumentation that I think is initially observed or assumed. As you are reading scholarship, be critical of the scholarship. This is what produces, you know, the argumentation within academic communities, which is really the valuable piece. Don't just buy everything you read. Be critical. Evaluate the sources that you are working with and have a conversation with them in general. I'm done.

Kacy: That's so important. Thank you for reminding us of that, Michael, especially today when we are inundated with news and writing. It's important to have that critical eye and not passively absorb everything you read. Thank you all so much for participating. This has been honestly, so much fun more me to read this discussion and seeing all of your comments in the chat. I want to move quickly to--you will now see that all of the files are available. Sorry for the confusing filed pod switch.


Visual: Slide changes to show the critical reading handout.

Audio: This is a handout I have created. You can download in the files pod as well. This can help you set up for writing. It probably looks intimidating. There are nine steps with sub steps. Even the sub steps have sub steps, but this is a skill that you will become faster and better at. It will become something that you can do without looking at the specific steps going through one by one. These are things that can help you get started.

I have that read the abstract first paragraph and conclusion, the tip we were giving earlier. If the article seems applicable to your project, we keep going. I have included different questions you can ask. These are questions we talked about in the beginning of the presentation. Here we have them in one place. Hopefully, that makes it easier. I recommend that even before you fully read the text, you might notice that step four, there are questions there before you have read the full text, and that can also be really helpful to think about what are you expecting from the text, and considering, does it actually meet the expectations? If it doesn't, that might be a place to start interrogating. That might be a place you as a scholar can enter the conversation. I recommend asking those kind of prereading or in-depth reading questions before you read the entire document, just to get that kind of insight.

Let's see. You should be able to--if you go to the files pad and highlight the different pieces, the download files button grayed out for you right now should pop up. If that--still not working, e-mail writing support. We can hopefully help you out there. That's how you would download the files.

These are different steps you can take. Like Claire and Michael said, these steps may not work for you. You might need to adapt them or change them. I recommend if you are feeling confused about the critical reading process to give it a try and see. At the least, you will find out that it doesn't work for you. You will find a better sense of what will and how you can approach this.


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Additional Resources

Audio: Moving back to our slides, you can also download the slides in the files pod. I wanted to give you additional resources before we close out. We have WriteCast episodes, one of the first, called "Five Strategies for Critical Reading." You can listen to that or read the transcript of it. If you like the different ideas about how to go about this, check that out for more ideas. ASC has interactive reading tutorials that I think are so fun. They read to understand, read to evaluate, reading textbooks and reading research articles. You got a crash course on the research articles with this webinar. Check out the tutorials as well. They definitely have more information there. With that, I am going to hand things over to Claire. Do you think there are questions to go over with the last five minutes, Claire?


Visual: Slide changes to the following: Questions: Ask Now or Later

Audio: Claire: I'll give everyone a moment. If you have additional questions, pop them into the questions and answers pod here. I saw requests for e-mailing out the materials. We'll check in with our webinar manager to see if it's a possibility. If you really want them and want to be sure to get them, go ahead and e-mail Let them know you are looking for the materials. We should be able to work it out that way. This session was recorded. The recording will be up within 24 hours. If you missed part of it or want to look at it another time, check it out in our recording archive. If you do have questions, now you can e-mail us, if you are listening to this as a recording.

Let me see. I'm seeing if there are any questions that seem relevant. I had a question that I saw in the chat before, reiterated here. If you find you read an article and you don't really trust it and you feel like it's not maybe doing the best job or having the highest quality research in the field, that can still be valuable to you. You are able to make that distinction amend that shows you are critically reading. You might end up using it to show a gap in the field or facilitate a strong counter point argument in your work. Just because you end up disagrees with something or feel it's not as in-depth as it should be doesn't mean it won't have anything valuable to support your claims. It depends on what you are working on. All right. There are other questions, but I'm not seeing any that I think are relevant to everyone.

We have a really great webinar on reviewing literature and incorporating previous research as well as demonstrating critical thinking and research that pair nicely with the presentation today. If you liked it, they are a different format. They build on the skills we talked about in the presentation. You can make a pay-per-view appointment. We can talk with you about synthesis and connecting ideas and the overall structure of the document and give you feedback with whatever your writing goals might be as long as it's coursework or premise or perspective. Come in and make an appointment with us if you would like additional support. Thank you all for being here today. We appreciate all of your input in the chat box during this presentation. I am going to go ahead and wrap things up. Again, if you have additional questions for us, go ahead and let us know in writing support.