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Critical Reading at University

Reading for Assignments

When reading for an assignment, a 'Systematic' approach should be taken:  

  1. Select a book or article from your resource list or literature search.

  1. Decide what you need to find out. What are the gaps in your knowledge? What do you already know? Write down some questions to focus your reading. 

  1. Check authors, publication date, contents and index pages to determine relevance. 

  1. Reference in full so you won’t have trouble referring back to the source when compiling reference list or bibliography. 

  1. Skim-read relevant sections and compare with other material before taking notes.  

  1. Record page number with any notes you take. 

Reading Critically

As a student, you may underestimate your ability to question the information and views of published authors, however, it is always important to challenge what you read; nothing should be taken at face value. There are many reasons published information should be critiqued. For example:  

  • The author’s expertise – Is the author an expert in the field? Are they suitably qualified to be writing on the matter. In spite of having qualifications and expertise it is impossible for an author to know absolutely everything about complex fields of study.

  • Time and place – It is possible that the resource you are reading is out of date or superseded by revised theories. It is important that the information you use to inform your assignments is up to date and relevant to the country/situation you are interested in. 

  • Ambiguity – If any of the information is unclear more attention must be paid to it.  

  • Consistency – Does the author stick to their point of view. Is their stance on the matter clear and consistent? If you find flaws in an author’s argument, do not accept it. 

  • Unintelligent use of language – Is there any questionable terminology used to suggest the author may not be suitably knowledgeable about the topic? 

  • Generalisation – It is not possible to know everything about a topic but where authors generalise their ideas, it is important to treat these as suspicious until proven otherwise. 

  • Use of ‘evidence’ - What evidence has an author used and what have they omitted?  

  • Consensus – Phrases such as ‘we all know that’, or 'it is clear' should be treated with concern as it suggests the author does not have appropriate evidence and is instead appealing to consensus.  

  • Authority – Just because an expert supports a view, does not mean it is correct. Experts can also have gaps in their knowledge or bias in their views. Even experts should provide good evidence to back up their points. 

  • Common sense – If an author tells you it is ‘common sense’ to accept a point, challenge it, as ‘common sense’ is not a universal phenomenon – neither is it an academic line of reasoning.