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How to read at university

Critical reading

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Active reading (as opposed to passive reading) is the key to a successful reading strategy: you can't understand and remember something unless you actively engage with it. If you're a keen reader of novels you'll relate to this: you remember what happened in your favourite novel because you engaged with the story and empathised with the characters. Sadly, academic texts are often not so engaging, so you need to find others ways of getting active with the text.

When you read actively you make the text your own: you pick out the best or most relevant sections, you write you thoughts in the margins, you make notes, you summarise or paraphrase what you've read.

Here are some active reading strategies you may like to try (you probably already do some of them, but it can be useful to brush up your technique). The earlier strategies can be used when reading textbooks and journal articles, but the last three strategies are best used with journal articles - it's hard to engage critically with a textbook.

Highlighting or underlining:

Pick out key words, phrases and ideas to highlight or underline - note the word 'key' - it's all too easy to fall into the trap of highlighting large chunks of text, but this is time-consuming and unhelpful when you come to review what you've just read.

Notes in the margin:

Highlighting or underlining can be a bit of a 'blunt instrument'; it's easy to switch off and start underlining indiscriminately. Instead of (or as well as) underlining, try writing your own notes. This is also the start of your all-important 'critical engagement' with the text. But don't annotate library books, or the textbooks your house mate was hoping to sell at the end of the year.

Question what you read:

Interrogating the text is central to critically engaging with what you read. As you read, you need to consider what the author is trying to say, and what you think about what you're reading. The asking questions activity below gives you a list of questions you can ask yourself as you read to help you to engage critically with the text.

Disagree with the author:

Don't ever simply think “this has been written by an expert - it must be right”. Reading things that challenge your beliefs and prejudices is relatively common at university. If you disagree with what you read, say so - but don't forget you need to support your opinions with evidence. Also, don't let emotion blind you to the truth. An academic must be able to see other points of view, and be open to new ideas. You must dispassionately compare arguments and weigh up the evidence both for and against.

Are you convinced?

As mentioned above, higher levels of study require you to take a critical, questioning approach. There are very few 'truths' in academia, and you need to weigh up the evidence to discover the most likely explanations. The activity below suggests some questions you can ask to evaluate the evidence that you read.

Activity: asking questions - take as long at you like

This activity introduces you some questions you can ask when you need to actively engage with something you're reading.

1. Each time you read something new, try to answer these questions - make notes on your answers.

  • Do I have my own ideas, preconceptions or prejudices on this topic?
  • Does this text confirm or contradict my ideas?
  • Is this topic potentially controversial?
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • Am I surprised by what I have read?
  • Do I agree, or disagree with the points raised in this text?

2. File any notes you make in a reading record or another safe place.

Activity: weighing up the evidence - take as long at you like

1. When you need to critically evaluate what you are reading, make notes in answer to these questions:

  • Does the text seem trustworthy?
  • Who wrote it, and what is their reputation?
  • Where is it published? (peer-reviewed journal, popular journal, magazine, newspaper, Internet)
  • When was it written? Is it current, or potentially out-of-date?
  • Who are the intended audience? (specialists, experts, general public, patients etc.)
  • Are the arguments logical and sound, or is there some dubious reasoning?
  • Are the arguments supported by facts and evidence?
  • Is the article fully referenced?
  • If it's a research article, was the research well conducted? (this can be difficult to judge when you're new to reading journal articles - the quality of the journal is a good indicator of the quality of the research)
  • Are there any alternative explanations to those given by the author?
  • Are any conclusions justified? Has the case been made?
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