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.

Read on for more guidance on common techniques in critical reading!

Preevaluate the Source

As a scholar and student, you will be expected to read widely, but sometimes it is just not possible to read everything!  Luckily there are some preliminary questions you can ask to help determine whether a text is worth reading before you commit a large amount of time to finishing it.

How will this piece contribute to my knowledge or my specific project?

A quick way to help you preevaluate an article is to read the abstract.  There, you can determine if an author's approach is relevant to your interests or if the conclusions of the study support your paper's thesis statement.  Sometimes you can even find out details like the study's population or implications for practice.  Use this information to judge is your time will be spent well reading the article.

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 authors are well-known and have immediate credibility in your field.  If you are unfamiliar with a writer, a simple Internet search to learn more about his or her background is always a good idea.  Then, you can use your critical thinking skills to help determine that 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.

Is the source scholarly?

Where was the text you are considering published?  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 conflict of interest), 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.  A source about information technology written in the 1960s will probably not be worth much, unless you are researching the history of information technology.  Generally, works written within the last 5 years are preferred. 

Are there any apparent biases?

One of the simpler ways to identify potential bias is to examine the connection between the author and the subject.  Is there a potential conflict of interest? A piece on gun control written by a former president of the National Rifle Association is likely to come with biases.  Although there may be aspects of the piece that may be useful, a diligent researcher will keep the writer-subject connection in mind.

Does the source have a bibliography?

Examining the bibliography should tell you whether the source is well researched and may lead to the discovery of other valuable sources!

Additional Resources

Cornell University Library. (2008). How to evaluate information sources. 

     Retrieved from

     http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/evaluate.html

Cornell University Library.  (2008). Critically analyzing information

     sources. Retrieved from

     http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/skill26.htm

Walden Libray. (Producer). (2012). Evaluating online resources

[Recorded webinar]. Retrieved from http://libraryguides.waldenu
.edu/content.php?pid=303856&sid=2495176#8564372

Examine the Evidence

Once you have decided to commit to reading a text, your next step is to look closely at its evidence and arguments. When evaluating evidence, try to determine not only whether the evidence presented supports the conclusions drawn, but also the quality of the evidence itself. 

Consider issues like whether the evidence is consistent with the facts, whether the same evidence can be used to support a conclusion different from the one drawn, whether there is any counter evidence, and if not, whether a legitimate effort was made to present counter evidence.  This is particularly important when evaluating evidence in the social sciences, given that there can be numerous explanations for a particular phenomenon.  Consider whether the evidence could be flawed, perhaps due to issues in the way the study was conducted. Consider whether the method used to gather the evidence and asking whether the research method was appropriate for the study. 

To do this task effectively, you must understand what types of evidence are valued in your particular field and you must be familiar with basic research techniques and logical fallacies. 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 particularly unique demographic.  In such cases, a critical reader must be able to recognize that the case is isolated and the results cannot be justifiably generalized to the entire population.  It is also important to ask whether the evidence presented proves the conclusion or whether it simply leads one to deduce that the author's conclusion is reasonable. To answer the latter question, you will need to take time to carefully judge the strength of the evidence and analyze its quality.

Consider Context

As you are reading and evaluating a source, an important step is also to consider the source in the appropriate context.  This step can include interpreting the usefulness of a source through the lens of your field, comparing the source to another source you have read recently, or contrasting the ideas in the text to what you know and have learned in previous courses. 

This process of comparison is often called synthesis.  Ultimately, strong academic writers 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!

Let's say you have read the following four articles:

Barry, M. (2003). Violence in adolescents attributed to videogames. Journal of Electronic Entertainment, 4, 34-55. doi:10.2435763467
Fulton, F., & Fuller, G. (2004). Hamlet on the holodeck: Videogames and the frontier of fiction. Journal of Mass Media, 4(3), 1-12. Retrieved from www.journalofmassmedia.com
Grass, G.G., Timberfund, D., & Lake, E. (2008). Domestic violence linked to violent videogames. Journal of E-Narrative, 7, 101-117. doi:10.67392012-5
Phillip, J. (2008). Desensitized: Gamers and televised warfare.   Journal of Mass Media, 9(4), 67-87. Retrieved from www.journalofmassmedia.com

Assuming that your intent (something that you decided during the critical reading process above) was to prove that videogames have a negative effect on the individual, a synthesis of these four articles might then look something like this:

Although some see them as art (Fulton & Fuller, 2004), videogames have been shown to increase indifference toward and encourage acts of violence (Barry, 2003; Grass, Timberfund, & Lake, 2008; Phillip, 2008). 

However, if your intent was to showcase the potential benefits of videogames, your synthesis would read much differently:

Despite the concerns of its critics over its current incarnations (Barry, 2003; Grass, Timberfund, & Lake, 2008; Phillips, 2008), a videogame is nonetheless a new and raw narrative medium.  In fact, as Fulton and Fuller (2004) noted, "the early reception that this new technology has received is not unlike the public's initial response to the novel. We are again ignoring unimaginable potential" (p. 3). 

In the two examples above, it is important to note how the context is being employed. Note that in the first example, the author is stressing the volume of the literature to support her claim (that games have a negative effect on individuals). It is clear that this author going to give each article its due in her paper.

The second example, while using the same resources, downplays the volume of the literature on the antivideogame side and instead highlights Fulton and Fuller's claim (which aligns with the author's argument). Here, the author acknowledges that she's going against the mainstream and choosing to examine the topic in a new and interesting way. 

Articulate Your Assessment

The final step of critical reading is to articulate your assessment of the text.  This exercise is a short one that may not always end up in a paper or dissertation chapter, but it is essential for remembering the key points of a text, especially if you are working with numerous sources.

If using a tool like a literature review matrix, now is the time to fill in your evaluation of the source and other notes.  If writing a shorter course paper, you may want to write a few sentences about this source and your evaluation of it immediately after you finish reading.  This practice means you will be well on your way to writing a paper before you even begin a draft!  Even a short discussion post will improve in quality if you spend a few moments clearly articulating your thoughts about a source directly after reading.  The longer you wait to write down your assessment of a source, the less specific and strong it will be!

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