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Postgraduate study skills: Critical reading

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Once you have selected something to read comprehensively it is important that you engage effectively with the text. Before you start, make sure you have thought about why you are reading it and what you want to find out.

Always be ready to make notes as you are reading - in the margins of your study materials, on a separate sheet, or as comments and footnotes to a word-processed document on screen. Limit your use of a highlighter pen to key words only, as if you highlight too much you won't be able to pick out key points. Use sticky tabs to highlight key pages.

The theories you study are not static: they can be agreed with, disagreed with, analysed and engaged with. If you do this while you read you will show the person marking the work you produce that you have a good understanding of the subject as a whole.

Critical reading can be seen as a three-stage process.

  1. Understanding
  2. Questioning
  3. Evaluating

Understanding

Throughout your study you will be exposed to a wide body of academic literature: collections of theories, concepts, models and frameworks. The theses they advance need to be understood in their own right and in terms of their relationship with the associated literature.

Start your critical reading by considering who devised a particular thesis, and when, to get an insight into the academic approach taken by the author. For example, some authors approach their subject area from theoretical perspective, others seek practical applications for their work, or their contribution is to the wider academic debate. Recognising who produced the thesis gives you an insight into the position from which they are writing.

Knowing when the work was produced gives you a feel for the time relevance of the thesis. That is not necessarily to dismiss the relevance of older theses to contemporary studies, rather to review their relevance and recognise the platform they may provide for contemporary theses.

The next step is to identify the central claim or claims of the thesis. Finding the central claim reveals what the thesis is saying, trying to prove, or argue. Use the points listed below to help probe the thesis for this information.

  • What is the thesis trying to say? How successfully does it say it?
  • Is the thesis graphically represented, if so how does this look?
  • What are the key points or the component parts of the thesis?
  • What are the relationships between these points or parts?
  • What is the relevance of the thesis?

A further useful step in establishing your understanding of a thesis is to discover the reasons for producing it. Often you can see how a particular thesis has been shaped by looking at why it has been produced. For example, where the motivation is to produce a thesis which has practical relevance you might expect an emphasis on quantitative methods. The author might use measurement as a means of demonstrating the validity of their thesis. Alternatively, where a thesis is devised to contribute specifically to academic debate then the emphasis may be on discursive accounts rather than verifiable statistics.

Once you have established your understanding of these points you are much better positioned to start asking more probing questions.

Questioning

The core of a thesis is formed by the central claims made by the author, as identified above, and the ways in which these assertions are presented. You should question these claims to examine whether they are based on a strong argument - one that demonstrates their development from a clear grounding in the academic literature.

  • Are the claims argued using reasoning and debate?
  • Are they substantiated with evidence from primary or secondary sources?

You may discover that the claims are based on a weak argument, offering no more than a list of assertions with no rational explanation or justification, and insufficient grounding in academic literature. In these cases the narrative tends to be unilateral and value-laden, and the resultant thesis is skewed towards presenting a specific view.

You should note that these characteristics of strong and weak presentation of a thesis apply equally to the work that you submit.

Evaluating

By this stage you have an understanding of the thesis, what it entails and why it was written. You have considered the strengths and weaknesses of how the central claims are argued, and their grounding in academic rigour. You will be aware of the sense of balance in the supporting debate and the relevance or accuracy of the evidence presented.

Evaluating the thesis is the point at which you draw your own conclusions about the value of the work presented. Your evaluation should be based on an assimilation of contradictory and supportive evidence from within the thesis itself, from the surrounding literature and from your own considerations.

In formulating your conclusions it is worth thinking about the following points.

  • The robustness of the arguments for the thesis
  • The robustness of the arguments against the thesis
  • The circumstances in which the thesis could be useful
  • The circumstances in which the thesis would be less useful
  • Any amendments to the thesis that would be useful in the context where you would apply it

It can take time and effort to develop skills in critical reading, but the more you do the more you'll find the stages described above become an automatic approach. Critical reading skills are essential if you are to be able to gather and process evidence to support your own views, which is what we move onto next.

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