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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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9 Developing your selective and critical reading skills

Session 4 introduced you to a process for critically reading and selecting relevant material. We expand this here and provide you with tips that will help you to develop your skills further.

  • Is it worth reading? To read an article in a critical manner takes time. You need to sift out unimportant or less relevant information first, so that you can spend most of your time concentrating on those you perceive as being really important (see Section 2 of Session 4 ‘A process for reading and selecting relevant material’). Articles generally tend to follow a particular format and style, which makes it possible to locate and evaluate certain information quickly (for example, the section headings of a paper published in an academic journal). The format and style can be exploited to make finding and assessing the material quicker as part of critical reading. Use scanning to locate particular information and skimming to pick out key words and main themes in the content. Then you can decide whether to invest further time in critically reading more of the article.
  • Skim-read the article to identify the important parts that need detailed analysis. Note which sections will require brief notes and which sections can be ignored. This is always a difficult task, but you have to be ruthless. It is very easy to waste your time reading something that is interesting or easy, but is not relevant to your studies. You have to make a clear decision about what is important and what is peripheral.
  • Decide which key points you want to extract from the article that are relevant to your studies. This may be key arguments or conclusions, data, tables, figures or diagrams. Write down in your own words the information you want to extract, and include brief details.
  • Look out for ‘pointers’ or ‘keywords’ in the text that alert you to ask critical questions. ‘However’ may introduce an opposing view or contradictory evidence. Can you identify any author bias? ‘Although’ is a qualifying word. Is the evidence reliable? Does it really support the argument? ‘Therefore/so’ can be used to draw together the argument when making a concluding statement. Is the conclusion logical? Is the reasoning justified? ‘Probably/possibly’ may be introducing an unsubstantiated generalisation. ‘Generally/most/many/some’ and ‘may/appears/seem to’ are qualifying words which allow for exceptions to a statement. Does this weaken the argument?
  • Ensure that you make a note of relevant bibliographic details (e.g. author, title, journal, volume, year, page numbers, DOI or URL etc.), and write some brief summary notes that offer a more detailed insight into the relevance and focus of each piece of information you have selected to include in your work (see Section 2 of Session 4).