How can I be 'critical' when I'm reading?

At university, you are often encouraged to be ‘critical’ in your thinking, reading and writing. What does this mean? Critical thinking seeks to open up and challenge existing knowledge rather than to reproduce it – and this is what you have to bear in mind when you are reading.
Note: the word ‘critical’ is used differently in academic language than in everyday language. In everyday usage, it implies judging negatively (as in ‘criticism’); in academic usage, it means ‘questioning’ or ‘challenging’ (as in ‘critique’). When you think critically, it doesn’t mean you have to find fault with everything, rather you seek to question or challenge.

As you read you need to:

  • interpret: understand the significance of data and clarify its meaning
  • analyse: break information down and recombine it in different ways
  • reason: develop a point of view through logical steps
  • evaluate: judge the worth, credibility or strength of the text

Critical reading requires you to be an active reader – thinking about and responding to the assertions and arguments made by the writer. You should look for assumptions and omissions, and you should imagine asking the author ‘How do you know?’ You should assess:

  • the author’s purpose, motivation, attitude, background, methodology, etc
  • the text’s context, structure, language, relevance, recency, etc
  • the arguments: their fairness, bias, logic, etc
  • the evidence used – the authority of its source, its reliability, etc

At first you may have to rely largely on other experts in the field to see what critiques have been made; as you become more knowledgeable you can increasingly rely on your own ideas.
A critical approach is important so that you can:

  • become more independent as a learner
  • contribute to the scholarly rigor of your discipline
  • contribute to the creation of knowledge
  • achieve better marks

For more help on this topic, see the links on the right...