Critical reading techniques

Critical reading techniques

1- Critical reading techniques

You will likely find that there are many types of reading required for your study topic. Like many readers, you will find that you are having less time to study and you will, therefore, need to be speedy and efficient in your reading. Here in this section will help you become an efficient reader and information processor.

This sections covers:

  • Read efficiently
  • reading actively in an engaged way
  • Critically processing of what you read

Reading academic texts requires a more strategic approach from that used when you read for pleasure. When you read for university or collage you need to know why you are reading something and how to actively extract information.

Making notes is an essential part of the reading process. If you read lots of material without making notes, you’ll only forget what you have read and waste your time. Having said that, you should not dive straight into reading and note taking, instead you need first to stop and think about what you are doing. You need to adopt an efficient approach.

Make sure you are comfortable

Finding the right space and time to read in is important

  • Find a comfortable and quiet place to read, where you will not be disturbed or interrupted.
  • Study in short chunks. Most people can only concentrate for about 15-20 minutes in one go. So read for short periods and complete other study tasks in between.
  • Pause for thought occasionally. Sometimes you need to check that you understand what you are studying and revisit any parts you have found difficult.
  • Work with other students. If you are not confident that you have understood something, discuss it with other students in tutorials, self-help groups and module forums.

2- Use an efficient approach

Having an effective reading and note taking strategy is important. Time spent thinking and planning can save unnecessary work. If you are short of time, ask your tutor if there is any area of the work that you can skip over or read less thoroughly. Then, when you are reading through your study material.

  • make sure you know why you are reading – what are you going to get out of this text?
  • quickly scan the material for an overview of what it contains
  • then settle down to read it thoroughly.

Know why you are reading

Make sure you think about what you want to achieve and keep the purpose in mind as you read. Is it for an assignment (if so, have the assignment question to hand). Is it for an exam? If so have you mapped out which areas of the curriculum you will focus on? If you are simply working your way through your study materials, check your module guide to see if there are any guiding questions or statements for that particular piece of reading. You may also check the learning outcomes you are expected to achieve for that week.

Quickly scan the material

Before reading in any detail, scan through the materials quickly, simply to get a general impression of it. The aim at this stage is not to get to grips with its detailed arguments, simply to understand how many sections it has, which of them require careful reading and which you can read through quickly, etc. Check the contents pages to see how many sections there are. Check headings, images and summaries (see ‘Scanning and skimming’ below). Keep in mind what your purpose is.

Read more thoroughly

Once you have an idea of what you are trying to achieve and a general overview of the material, read it in more detail.

  • Take notes, add margin comments or highlight sections.
  • Pay attention to the structure of a text to help you to understand the writer’s purpose and argument. Take notice of headings and sub-headings, of opening and closing paragraphs and of other signposts the writer has provided.
  • Try to understand what you are reading, rather than simply memorising what you have read. Consider whether you agree with the content and think about how it compares to any other reading you’ve done on the same topic. This effort to understand is itself an aid to memorising.
  • As you work through module activities, jot down a record of your work. You’ll then avoid the need to work through these activities a second time for assignment questions and revision.

Keep a dictionary or your module glossary to hand and look up any terms you don’t understand. Accept that sometimes you need to re-read in order to check your understanding, reconsider particular points of interest and to add to your notes.

Be prepared to read in different ways depending on your purpose. Sometimes you might quickly skim and then you can slow down and grapple with the detail to improve your understanding of the topic.

If you find the material boring or frustrating the reading task becomes harder. The best way to handle this is to be actively critical. Ask yourself what makes it unsatisfactory. Consider why you’ve been asked to read it. See if others are having the same problems with that particular text.

Re-reading for assignments and exams

When you are faced with an assignment and you go back to a book to look for something specific (say, a reference to a particular theory) try simply scanning the text for the key words and phrases you are looking for. Also, re-read your original notes and apply the same techniques to those.

Scanning and skimming

Fast reading techniques help you to browse text and extract the key points. Once you have the hang of them you can get through a substantial amount of reading in quite a short time.

Scanning – handy when you’re looking for a particular word or phrase within a text or when you want to get an idea of the layout of the text (how many sections, where certain topics are covered). Run your eye quickly over the text to locate specific words or phrases that are of interest. You can scan

  • headings and subheadings
  • images and artwork
  • the body text for authors’ names
  • the contents page itself
  • the index for specific words.

This will help you decide whether you should read further, and how useful the document might be for your study.

Skimming – a useful first step before reading more deeply. Here you are reading the words quickly to get a feel for how something is discussed. If you think that the text will be useful to you, you can slow down and read in a more focused way. Read quickly to get an overview prior to in-depth reading. Although you may still need to read the entire text, by scanning first you can decide where you want to concentrate your time. Skim the text quickly to

  • get an indication of the scope and content of the text
  • read the first and last paragraphs to get the main points
  • look at the first sentence of each paragraph to see where the content of the paragraph will lead
  • note the key points in the summaries.

3- Active reading

Active reading simply means reading something with a determination to understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs.

Simply reading and re-reading the material isn’t an effective way to understand and learn. Actively and critically engaging with the content can save you time. Most study books and websites include in-text questions and self-assessed questions.

Try these techniques to make your reading active

  • Underline or highlight key words and phrases as you read. When you return to it later on, you can easily see which points you identified as important. Be selective – too much highlighting won’t help.
  • Make annotations in the margin to summarise points, raise questions, challenge what you’ve read, jot down examples and so on. You can do this in printed books or etexts. This takes more thought than highlighting, so you’ll probably remember the content better. (Use sticky notes if you don’t want to mark the text.)
  • Read critically by asking questions of the text. Who wrote it? When? Who is the intended audience? Does it link with other material you’ve studied in the module? Why do you think it was written? Is it an excerpt from a longer piece of text?
  • Test yourself by reading for half an hour, putting the text away and jotting down the key points from memory. Go back to the text to fill in gaps.
  • Look for ‘signposts’ that help you understand the text – phrases like ‘most importantly’, ‘in contrast’, ‘on the other hand’.
  • Explain what you’ve read to someone else.
  • Record yourself reading the module material or your notes, and listen to the recording while you’re travelling or doing household chores.

Reading for comprehension

Much of what we have said already is contained within a well known technique for actively engaging with and extracting meaning from content – SQ3R. It is good for revision as well as reading something for the first time. ‘SQ3R’ stands for the five steps involved.

  1. SKIM through the text quickly to get an overall impression.
  2. QUESTION. If you are reading it for a particular purpose (for example, to answer an assignment), ask yourself how it helps. Also ask questions of the text: Who? What? Where? When? How?
  3. READ. Read the text in a focused, and fairly speedy way.
  4. REMEMBER. Test your memory – but don’t worry if you can’t remember much.
  5. REVIEW. Read the text in more detail, taking notes. Use your own words.

4- How to take notes

You are probably thinking ‘Why talk about taking notes’ when this section’s called “Critical reading techniques”? Well, it’s because making notes is an essential part of the reading process. It helps you internalise difficult ideas by putting them into your own words and can help you be more focused during exam revision. You are more likely to remember material you have thought about and made notes on than material you have read passively.

Taking notes is a skill that you develop with practice. There is no right or wrong way, just find a method that suits you (for example, bullet points, mind maps and diagrams, highlighting, annotating or underlining significant words).

Many people find it effective to take notes in two stages.

  • First writing down the main points.
  • Then summarising, condensing and organising the notes so that they can be used when writing assignments or revising for exams.

In general, your notes should be brief and to the point. Take time to think about

  • what is expected of you, by reviewing the learning outcomes listed in your module materials
  • what each assignment requires you to do
  • how you learn best, so you can choose the most effective techniques.

If you are given a handout before or during a face-to-face session, use this as the framework for taking notes.

Revisiting your notes helps you learn the material and prepare for assignments. It helps you ‘pull together’ all the different ideas you have recorded, so you can make cross-links with earlier study.

What to avoid when taking notes

  • Don’t attempt to write everything down, just reflect the main themes. Aim to get the gist of the topic or the main points.
  • Try not to get flustered if you miss something out or come across something you don’t understand. Use a question mark to highlight the point in your notes and come back to it later.
  • Don’t lose track of your purpose in making the notes in the first place – keep focused.
  • Don’t be concerned about whether anyone else could make sense of your notes, you are the only person who needs to read them.
  • Don’t try to remember everything you read or heard in a tutorial session, it can’t be done.
  • Don’t forget to revisit and organise your notes and get them systematically arranged so that you can find the information you need when you want it.
  • Don’t forget to check you have complete references when you revisit your notes, this will save you a lot of time later on if you want to cite particular sources of evidence.
  • Don’t be afraid of trying different ways of taking notes – try lists, colours, bullet points, underlining, highlighting and mind-mapping. Experimenting with various methods helps you discover the technique that suits you.
  • Don’t take notes all the time – spend some time at tutorials engaging with the tutor and other students or just thinking about what you’re doing.

5- 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?

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.

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

PROMPT criteria Evaluation questions
Provenance Is it clear where the information has come from? Can you identify the authors or organisations responsible? How was it published? Has it been peer reviewed?
Relevance Does the information match your needs? Look at the introduction or overview to check what it’s about.
Objectivity Is the author’s position or interest made clear? Look for an introduction or overview. Does the author declare any connections that might compromise their independence? Is the language emotive? Are there hidden vested interests?
Method What research methods were used, and how are results reported? Do you need to reassure yourself about their importance?
Presentation Is the information clearly communicated? Look at language, layout, and structure.
Timeliness Is it clear when the information was produced? Does the date of the information meet your requirements? Is it obsolete?

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?

6- Coping with difficult content

At times during your module you may come across ideas that are difficult to understand. Try the following strategies to help you make sense of this material.

  • Set some time aside when you can work without interruptions.
  • Take a step back and look through headings and sub-headings that might signpost the direction the content is taking. Also look for summaries and conclusions that could restate the material in a way you find understandable.
  • Use a dictionary or subject-specific glossary to look up any unknown words.
  • Photocopy the text or print out the article so you can scribble on it.
  • If you have a question to answer, note it down and keep asking yourself how it relates to the piece.
  • If the text contains several specific themes use a key and write in the margin, e.g. p for politics or g for gender.
  • Try to write a few points in your own words about what you do understand.
  • Use a forum to ask for help from a fellow student – but always check that you do understand and agree with their interpretation.
  • Look online to see if the article or book has been reviewed by other people. Or look for overview books on the same subject – they might summarise the author’s point of view. Once you can understand the basics, go back and look at the detail.
  • Don’t assume the content is always correct. There might be a hidden agenda leading to bias – check the funding behind the article or find out why the article has been written.
  • Try saying the words in your head or aloud as a way of unravelling the meaning. Imagine that you are trying to explain it to someone.
  • You can also draw sketches or diagrams as a way of understanding.
  • If all else fails, leave it for a few days then come back to it.




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