Skip to Main Content

Critical Reading at University

Reading Myths or Facts

Students come to university with different expectations about what reading they will need to do.  Here are some of the common thoughts that people have, but are they myths or are they facts?’

1. "It is expected of me to read everything on my resource list"

2. "I should read a book that is marked as essential in full (cover to cover)" 

3. "Authors of academic sources can be incorrect".

4. "Wikipedia is useful in university study"

5. "If I have not done the pre-reading before a lecture or tutorial I should not attend"

Take a few moments to consider your thoughts for each of these points, are they myths or facts? You may find it helpful to jot down some notes.  Then, once you are ready, use the tabs below to see our thoughts.

Use the tabs above to see the answers for the 5 common reading thoughts. 

1. "It is expected of me to read everything on my resource list."

Verdict: Myth! However you are expected to use your resource list.

Resource lists are very useful for your pre-reading and initial reading for your assignments. However these lists are often long and contain sources that overlap. Reading everything from your reading list would:

  • Take more time than you have available.
  • Create additional pressures.
  • Cause you to feel behind.
  • Distract you from the most relevant parts of your reading.
  • Encourage passive rather than active reading.

The only exception to this is if your resource list is very short with each source clearly labelled as essential. In this case, clarify with your lecturer what is expected.

How then should you use your resource list? 

  • Look for the descriptions below sources. 
    • Essential: Sources that you should make an effort to engage in.
    • Recommended: Sources that you may wish to use in your reading and assignments, if you have the time.
    • Further: Sources that you can use, and may be useful for additional research, and for helping you to understand tricky topics.
  • Read sources that are directly pointed to by your lecturers. 
  • Use the resource list as a starting point for your assignments and pre-reading. 
    • You are expected to go beyond your resource list and complete wider research for your assignments.

2. "I should read a book that is marked as essential in full (cover to cover)" 

Verdict: Myth! You should only read only what is relevant.

Even sources marked as essential on your reading list will contain material that is not relevant to your course. Therefore you should be active in reading to decide what to read and what not to read. As you read more and study you will become better at judging what is or is not relevant. Initially this can be a challenge, however you should avoid reading sources cover to cover as it can:

  • Waste time that you can be spending elsewhere.
  • Make you feel that you are falling behind and under pressure.
  • Cause dissatisfaction as your time is precious and should be focused on useful and relevant information. 

How do I know what is or is not relevant reading?

  • Read what your lecturer has recommended.
    • Although do still check relevance using other techniques.
  • Look at the contents page and index of a source.
    • Take notes of pages that you think may be relevant to your lectures, tutorials or assignments.
    • Skim read these chapters to see if they are relevant. Note any sections that you want to read and their page numbers.
  • Use the first and last line technique.
    • The first and last lines of a paragraph usually set the scope of the discussion. Before reading the full paragraph you can use these to consider if it will be worth your time to read.
  • Use the find tool (CTRL+ F or Command + F) to seek our keywords in digital sources.
    • This tool can search webpages, journals and documents for matches. This can be really useful for finding specific terms. 
    • The find tool will only pull matches from what you have searched. Therefore you should take care when searching documents to ensure you don't miss relevant areas of a document. You can use synonyms and the initial part of a word to ensure you get more relevant results using the find tool. 
      • For example - If you search 'friendship', all matches of 'friendship' would be highlighted, but the words 'friend', and companion and  would not be pulled up. 
  • For journals, you may wish to read the abstract, introduction and conclusion to check relevance.

3. "Authors of academic sources can be incorrect".

Verdict: True

Whilst academics are often right in areas of their expertise you should still be critical of what you read. There are a number of reasons why academics are not always correct.

  • Academics are humans and sometimes make mistakes. 
    • You should use critical thinking skills to question any claims made, and should compare what you read with other academic sources.
  • There may be conflicting views on a topic.
    • You should research with an open mind and consider all sides of an argument before coming to a judgement. Do wider reading to compare different views and reasoning. 
  • The research may be outdated
    • Over time research may become outdated due to new discoveries and ideas. Question when the source was made and whether its age affects its reliability. Not all old sources are outdated (for example the Law of Property Act 1925 is current law) and not all new sources are up to date (particularly in medical fields). 

See our guide on evaluating sources of information for further support in this area. 

4. "Wikipedia is useful in university study"

Verdict: True! Whilst you should not cite Wikipedia, it can be used to give a base level understanding and as a springboard for research.

Wikipedia is a useful resource for students in the following ways:

  • Gaining a basic level understanding on a topic.
    • Wikipedia offers short summaries of content that is often higher level. This can be used to learn basic information that you can verify through other sources. Students may therefore find Wikipedia useful for getting their heads around a topic. 
  • Acting as a spring board for research.
    • Wikipedia articles usually have citations for their claims. These citations are usually from more academic sources that students can read, evaluate and use in their work. 
    • Reading Wikipedia articles may provide inspiration for creating research questions. These questions can then be used in databases such as Library Search. 

5. "If I have not done the pre-reading before a lecture or tutorial I should not attend"

Verdict: Myth! You should always try to attend sessions where possible, even if you have not been able to do the pre-session work. This will stop you from falling behind.

Usually you will feel much better for attending, even without the pre-work than not attending at all. Even with the increasing levels of lecture recordings, it can be hard to catch up, and you may find it taking much more motivation to watch a session back than to attend live. If you do have any areas of uncertainty, watch those parts back in lecture recordings, and do any pre work that related to that area. 

Complete the pre-reading where you can, as this will help you to understand the content discussed in the session and will give you the opportunity to ask questions in the lecture. 

If you cannot complete the pre-reading do what you can. Even as little as 10 minutes skimming through the notes can be useful in better understanding the lecture.

Furthermore, lecture attendance is monitored and there can be consequences for failing to attend lectures and tutorials. If you have trouble attending your classes please speak with your personal academic tutor.