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Critical Reading at University

Critical reading and critical writing are interlinked skills which are key to academic success and an essential part of being a student at university. They are all about developing the ability to find information, know how to read and understand it (and its context), think about its deeper meaning, evaluate and analyse it, and apply it to your academic work. 

Understanding the structure of academic writing

Although there are variations, you will generally find that most academic literature follows a particular structure and includes specific sections or 'parts'. They may be more obvious in a journal article than in a book chapter, but you should generally see some of the sections listed below. Knowing what each of the sections aims to do will help to direct your reading and get you thinking critically about the source that you are reading.

Abstract or Summary: This gives a review of the overall content of the article and includes an outline of the topic, any theoretical or methodological standpoint or view, and a summary of the main findings and conclusions, but without too much detail. It is often the last section to be written and can help you decide whether the rest of the article is going to be relevant and/or useful.

Instead of an abstract you may see an Executive Summary - particularly on reports. 

Introduction: This section introduces the broad overall topic and provides basic background information. It also gives a justification for the research and provides the focus for the rest of the article. Even if the rest of the article or chapter is very detailed, you will probably find some useful information in the introduction.

Literature Review: The purpose of the literature review is to give details of other, relevant, published or unpublished research (books, other journal articles, reports, theses etc) and relate it specifically to the research question. The review should critically examine the major theories related to the topic and demonstrates the author's understanding of the topic and provides evidence to show that there are gaps in the research that the particular article or book chapter will attempt to fill. If you are researching a topic, then the literature review could help you to find further resources to read.

Research Methodology: This section describes the research design and the methodology used to complete to the study, including any limitations. There should be enough detail for someone else to carry out the same research. If you are carrying out your own research, then it can be helpful to see how others have approached researching a similar topic. 

Results/Research findings: In this section, the results of the research are presented and how this is done will depend on whether the research was done using quantitative or qualitative methods. You may find graphs, tables, images or figures. 

Discussion: This section should be a discussion of the results and the implications on the field, as well as other fields.

Conclusion and recommendations: The whole article and the arguments presented should lead the reader to the conclusion. There should not be any new concepts introduced in this section but it should discuss any limitations of the research and the findings and also any ideas for further research, which can be very useful if you are looking for a topic to research. 

References/Bibliography: This section should be a list in alphabetical order of all the academic sources of information used in the paper. Again this can be helpful to find other relevant information.