Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

1 Being critical in your reading

As your aim when critically analysing material is to respond objectively to what you are reading or thinking through, you need to keep an open mind and be prepared to question the author’s claims. This means that you should try to be aware of any preconceptions you have that might be skewing the way you think about an argument. As you read, allow yourself opportunities to check your understanding and revisit sections if you are unsure of their meaning. How you do this and the questions you ask will vary depending on what – and why – you are reading (for example, you might be responding to an assignment question). As a result, you must always be prepared to adapt your approach according to the demands of the material.

An approach for thinking and reading critically

Although there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking and reading critically, you will find it useful to get some basic tasks done before moving on to an evaluation of any material. Try the following three steps:

  1. identify the thrust of the information
  2. analyse the material
  3. compare and apply the information.

Identify the thrust of the information

First, identify the general thrust of the argument within the information you are reading. At this stage you are simply trying to define and be aware of the subject matter. Try to identify the main points of the argument, the claims being made, evidence used, and conclusions reached.

Analyse the material

As you read, think about whether or not the material is relevant to your needs. Here are some questions that might help in your analysis:

  • Does the information make sense in relation to other theories and research? Where in the broader picture does this particular argument sit?
  • How old is the material?
  • Is the material clear, or do you need to find additional information to aid your understanding?
  • Can you identify any implications that might require you to look for other material? (Perhaps complementary explanations of a phenomenon if the original material is not comprehensive enough.)
  • Does the argument present a balanced view, or is the author disregarding some topics in order to put forward a particular argument?

Compare and apply information

Assignment questions will often ask you to apply theories, principles or formulae to situations. The process of trying to apply what you are learning can help you to build your understanding of the subject. Try looking for:

  • The implications of one piece of information for another.
  • Weaknesses that might be revealed when you apply the idea to a real-life situation.
  • A lack of coverage. Does the theory or formula only go so far, and do you need to rely upon another theory or principle to complete your understanding?

Activity 1 Applying the concepts of critical thinking

Timing: Allow approximately 45 minutes

Read the article Adolescent leadership: the female voice [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   and consider it against the following questions. Provide your responses in the text box below.

  • What ideas and information are presented and how were they obtained?
  • Are there unsupported assertions?
  • Are reasons or evidence provided?
  • Are the reasons and evidence given relevant?
  • Is the method used to find the evidence sound?
  • Is the evidence correct or valid?
  • What assumptions have been made?
  • Are you convinced about the conclusion(s) reached?
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Now watch the following presentation, which uses the same article. The presentation shows how the concepts of critical reading, analysis and argument can be applied to an academic journal article. How does it compare with your responses?

Download this video clip.Video player: Analysis of ‘Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice’
Skip transcript: Analysis of ‘Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice’

Transcript: Analysis of ‘Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice’

In this animation, we are going to take you through some analysis of the article you have just read-- "Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice," by Nicole Archard. We will be using some of the questions we developed at the end of the last animation, which will be useful to have in front of you.
Firstly, what is their point of view or perspective? It is very important to try to understand this, as the author's point of view will flavour the article. If we look at the beginning of the text, the author states that her interest is in the gap in the literature and how better understanding of the area might inform adult female leadership. This is hinted at again a little later.
But when the purpose of the research is stated later, it only includes the understanding of female adolescent opinions on the matter with no extension.
And not much further on, the next stage is stated as being an evaluation of the educational practices needed to develop female adolescent leadership. So although at the beginning the author appears to be wanting to understand the implications of this for adult leadership behaviours, we rapidly change to an interest in developing school practice to better encourage female adolescent leadership.
This is a very value-laden position, as some cultures will not see development of female leadership, let alone adolescent female leadership, as desirable at all. And yet this idea is never problematised. Is this worth bearing in mind?
Secondly, is the method used to find the evidence sound? As you would expect from the article subject matter, there is great concern to capture the authentic voices of the female adolescents. The difficulty of achieving this is noted. The points made are not linked to the methodology but apply equally well to it.
Without any discussion of alternative methods or any statements about the author's methodological position, we are told that the research will use focus groups because of their reported success with adolescents. There is then a supposedly unproblematic leap from deciding on focus groups as the method, to the use of Skype instant messaging. This is accompanied by a bold statement that makes a number of assumptions about young people's familiarity with social media.
The bonus of anonymity is mentioned and the removal of potential intimidation, but only scant mention of the loss of relationship, which is seen as an important part of focus groups. It appears that the author considers intimidation a possibility only when the participants are able to identify each other. It ignores the intimidation of not knowing who you are speaking to, who is listening, and who might be able to trace who you are. It ignores the earlier statement about needing safe environments.
In addition, it ignores the difficulty of gathering thoughts about feelings in a short text message. Girls who might be able to speak very eloquently about leadership may not be able to write as well.
And the issue of power is completely ignored. What is the involvement of the adults in this process? What is being fed back to the schools? The author mentions the growing tendency of female adolescents to want to conform to adult and peer expectations. But no consideration is given to the implications of this for the data. Then, of course, there is the issue of the sample size. But let's leave that for now.
We will now have a quick look at the conclusion. Often when people are in a rush, they skip straight to the conclusions. Is this conclusion a fair representation of the article?
Early on, a very bold statement is made that does not appear to be supported by the research. The assumption in the statement that female adolescents can be taught leadership is not based on data. The sample claimed to have been taught leadership in formal ways. But given that they were all leaders, did they already have competence that made them susceptible to the teaching?
And once again, that extrapolation from female adolescents to adult leaders creeps in. There was nothing in the research to prove this. It is mere conjecture. We are not provided with a reference for this change in leadership research. There is acknowledgement here that there might be social norms at play and that the author recognises the voices of girls are often silenced. This is presented in an unproblematic way, as it is in the main text.
Once again, the extrapolation from the female adolescent voice to pedagogic change to development of female leaders is presented in an unproblematic way. There is no reference to cultural or societal influences.
The final paragraph acknowledges that there might be societal influences. But it still presents female leadership in adulthood as a universal good accepted by all. The potential dual purpose of this article spotted right at the beginning and through the analysis in Question One is here again in the final paragraph.
Has this perspective influenced the quotes they have used, the data they have reported, and the inferences the author has drawn? Probably. How much? That would be mere conjecture on our part. But it should be reported in a critical analysis of this article as a potential weakness.
We have only had the time here to feed back on our analysis of three questions. Hopefully, it has provided you with insight into how critical you're expected to be in reading and analysing articles during your studies.
End transcript: Analysis of ‘Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice’
Analysis of ‘Adolescent Leadership: The Female Voice’
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It should have become evident that there are a series of questions it would be sensible to ask when engaging with an activity (such as reading an article or listening to a podcast) from a critical and analytical perspective. Here is a checklist to use when making judgements about material that you read:

  • 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 reasons or evidence provided?
  • Are the reasons and evidence given relevant?
  • 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?

You might like to keep this list with you as you read and begin to analyse texts. The list is not exhaustive, however, and you can add extra questions as you progress in your understanding.

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