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Critical reading techniques

Critically processing what you read

Critical thinking is the process of applying reasoned and disciplined thinking to a subject. The higher grades at every level of university study require some critical analysis.

You will need to develop reasoned arguments based on a logical interpretation of reliable sources of information. These skills are essential if you want to obtain high grades in your university study and, like other skills, they improve with practice.

As you read your module materials follow these three steps.

  1. Analyse

    Examine how key components within your module materials fit together and relate to each other.

  2. Compare

    Explore the similarities and differences between the ideas you are reading about. Do some ideas conflict with or complement each other?

  3. Synthesise

    Bring together different sources of information to serve an argument or idea you are constructing. Make logical connections between the different sources that help you shape and support your ideas. Are there any inferences you can draw from the material and apply to an assignment question?

There are a range of study skills booklets available to students. If you're not already signed in, sign in to see them all including Thinking critically which gives you further information on this subject.

Finding and evaluating material

Most OU modules provide you with all study materials. However, if your studies require you to look for some supporting material yourself (e.g. case studies) make sure you choose appropriately. You will need to develop the skill of finding and evaluating sources of information.

Finding material

The OU Library gives you access to over 5000 electronic journal titles, databases of journal abstracts, newspapers, etexts and other library catalogues. It also offers resources that can help you identify and evaluate material. Visit the OU Library website which includes the interactive Being Digital, a collection of short, easy to follow activities covering the skills needed to be effective online, whether it’s searching efficiently, critically evaluating information, communicating and sharing online, or selecting the right online tool for your needs.

Libraries and searching

Click here to listen 127

Jo: Libraries have been traditionally about bringing people and information together, whatever information people need, and libraries have also traditionally been store places for organising and managing information. That's shifted recently, and libraries are becoming more and more about providing electronic access to information and that's really what the Open University library is all about.

When it comes to searching, you could just go to a search engine and type in your whole assessment title, and hope that you've found some good quality information. But a far better way to approach looking for information is to have a little bit of a plan, so that you know what you're looking for, and can find it successfully. So, one thing you might like to do is think about choosing key words carefully. Now, the way I do it is to think about the key words that I'd expect to see on the web pages I'm trying to find. Another way of doing it would be to get a piece of paper and write down exactly what it is you're looking for, and then cross out the words that don't really mean anything.

I use Google all the time. You can search for words in titles of web pages, for instance, and that can really help you narrow down your search. The other thing that you can use Google for, that a lot of people don't know about, is you can use it to define words. But I really would recommend visiting the advanced search screen and having a look there, because it will really save you a lot of time.

Sometimes there are better places to look than on a search engine. Did you know that about 80 percent of the web you will not find using a search engine? So, if you want something that perhaps carries a little bit more weight or authority, to back up some of the arguments you're making in your assignment, you might like to go and have a look at some of the resources on offer through the Open University library - for instance, electronic journals and electronic books. There are all sorts of things that you can search there that will enable you to find the latest research, the latest thinking from academics in all sorts of fields, to help you put your assignment together.

How to evaluate and organise the information you find online

Click here to listen 231

Jo: I think the most important skill that you can develop today is that of evaluating information, simply because there's that much more information out there to be found. You need to be very clear on what it is you're looking at, before you decide to use it in your assignment for example.

Blogs are a case in point really. These days there's millions and millions of blogs out there and basically these are online diaries that people have put on line - anybody, anywhere - you don't know who they are, whether they're the experts that they say they are.

When you're evaluating a website, the things you perhaps might like to look for are who put the information there, who published it? Does it come from a reliable source? Can you identify the company or the institution that produced the information? When was it last updated? There should be a little date on the bottom of the page. If you could see whether the information is objective enough; can you detect any um vested interests? Have they put forward both sides of an argument, for instance? Or does it come down heavily on one side or the other. If it's to do with scientific information, look to see whether the method that they've used in their research is mentioned. That's always a good indicator of whether something's reliable or not. Another thing that you might like to look for when you're evaluating a website is whether it's relevant to what it is that you want to cover in your assignment.

When you're searching for information it's really important, firstly to have a plan, but also to keep track of what you're doing, where you’re looking, and the searches that you've done, so that you avoid going back and doing the same thing all over again.

The internet today's changing. There's lot of new tools on offer to help people organise themselves and be more efficient really. One tool that I use quite a lot is something called RSS feeds, and it's a way of keeping up to date. You can get something called an RSS feed reader and, when you look for the orange button on some websites, you get and can get news snippets delivered straight to your desktop. So you don't actually have to go out looking for information, it comes to you instead.

Another good way of being organised, I've found, is to personalise my Google home page. So I have all my RSS feeds with snippets of news items and things on my Google page. I have the weather. I have games. You can have quotes of the day. You can have all sorts of things from all sorts of different websites altogether in one place, with the search box at the top. So everything I need is all in one place.

It's really, really important, when you're looking for information, to keep track of what you've found. It's important, not only to store the website using your bookmarks or favourites so that you can find them again, but also, if you're using books or journals, to keep track of all the information about a particular reference that you might have used. Because, when it comes to writing your assignment, you're going to need to refer to items that you've used in your assignment to help back up your arguments. It's very important, if you've used articles and references from the people, to acknowledge them. It also shows your tutor that you've been reading round the subject, and you've looked carefully for things that back up your arguments. It's important to cite references at the end of your assignment, so that you can show that you're not passing off other people's work as your own.

Keep track of absolutely everything you find that you might use because, when it comes to writing your assignment, you will probably have to write a reference list to acknowledge all those sources that you've used. You'll save yourself a lot of time if you keep track of it right from the start, rather than having to run around at the end trying to complete references where you've missed bits off.

Evaluating the material using PROMPT

If you are new to finding your own web resources you may find it difficult to select trustworthy sites. For example, there is a mass of information on nutrition and diet, but much of it is sponsored commercially or potentially biased. You need to critically evaluate the resource. The OU Library has developed PROMPT which offers a structured method for evaluating any information that you find online.

PROMPT stands for

  • Provenance
  • Relevance
  • Objectivity
  • Method
  • Presentation
  • Timeliness

To find out more, visit the OU Library website and complete the Evaluation using PROMPT learning activity.

Some module activities and assignment questions ask you to read and do a critical review of the various resources provided. Here are some more detailed questions that you might ask.

  • Who is speaking or writing?
  • What is their point of view or perspective?
  • What ideas and information are presented and how were they obtained?
  • Are there unsupported assertions?
  • Are relevant reasons or evidence provided?
  • Is the method used to find the evidence sound?
  • Is the evidence correct or valid?
  • What assumptions have been made?
  • What is fact and what is opinion?
  • What are the implicit and explicit values?
  • Are there unreasonable generalisations?
  • What has been omitted?
  • How was the conclusion reached?
  • Is the conclusion reasonable?
  • What other perspectives or points of view could there be?

Last updated 4 weeks ago