Level Up: Reading Critically in Upper-Level Courses
Resources for Upper-Year Students
Goals of reading in upper-level courses
Reading in upper-year courses is more important than ever because you are moving from information-focused learning to understanding complex theories, arguments, and methods. During upper-year courses you are delving into the debates of your chosen field, and you are beginning to gain familiarity with the way academics in your field discuss issues. You will be honing your critical thinking skills and discovering ways that evidence is used, analyzed, and interpreted in your field.
Reading Critically in Upper-Year Courses
Empower your reading
Recognize that you may not be the intended audience for the reading
Students in undergraduate programs are often not the intended audience for many of the readings you are assigned as these works are written for Ph.D. specialists. Knowing that you are not the intended audience, and not a poor reader, will help you to proceed with the reading. You can still get a lot from these complex readings.
The purpose or genre of the reading can influence your approach
There is no one size fits all approach to reading and even professors have different reading strategies depending on their purpose for reading or the type of reading that they are doing. Consider the purpose of your reading (preparing for a seminar versus researching for a course paper) and the genre of the reading (a journal article versus a blog post). Do you need to only understand the main argument or do you require a more detailed knowledge of the text?
Reading critically does not mean criticizing
Reading critically does not mean criticizing the text. However, it does mean to ask questions. To read critically is to make judgements about how a text is argued. How does this text work? How is it argued? How is the evidence used and interpreted? How does the text reach its conclusions?
Critical Reading Approach
- Determine the central argument or thesis of the piece. A critical reading evaluates how these central claims are developed and supported.
- Focus on argument, or those places in the text where an author explains their analytical moves, the concepts they used, how they used the concepts, and how they arrive at their conclusion. Focus on the first sentence in each paragraph to help understand the overall argument and the use of evidence.
- Examine the evidence, or the supporting facts and examples, that the text employs. Consider the kinds of evidence the author uses. What counts as evidence in this argument? Is the evidence statistical? literary? historical? From what sources is the evidence taken? Are these sources primary or secondary?
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an argument. Are the conclusions warranted based on the evidence presented? If the argument is strong, why? What might an opposing argument be?
Reading Process: Efficient and Effective Reading
Three Steps to Efficient Critical Reading
Do you find that you spend a lot of time looking at a text and not understood or retained any of it? To prevent this, try an active reading approach.
1. Preview before you read
Critical reading is much easier if you have a sense of the text’s purpose, or the main point, prior to reading for detail. Understand the type of text and its purpose, the main topic or question being addressed, the author’s main argument or findings, and how the text is organized.
2. Read in detail
To read critically you must read actively, which means asking questions as you read. Consider the key message, the main findings, the evidence to support the argument, and any application or limitations of the findings. It is important to take notes as you read to increase your engagement with the text as a resource for your seminar or lab and for study purposes.
3. Reflect after you read
Take some time after completing a reading to review your notes and reflect on them. Critical reading requires you to reflect on the arguments presented, the types of evidence used to support the arguments, and an evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of the argument. You can also consider how this reading corresponds to other readings assigned in your course and the overall course objectives.
Reading Scientific Papers
The first step to reading more critically and efficiently is to understand the structure of the source you’re reading. Scientific papers typically follow a standard format based on the scientific method: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. This common structure helps scientists to better communicate their research with one another and the larger public—armed with an understanding of this structure, you can better understand and analyze scientific research.
1. Preview the scientific paper
Consider how the scientific paper relates to your course, experiment, or research project. Your first step should be to read the abstract to determine the papers’ main goal, method, and findings.
2. Read for understanding and analysis
You can ask guiding questions as you read each section of the scientific paper. This how-to guide for reading scientific papers offers an in-depth analysis of each section of the scientific paper with guided questions to ask yourself as you move through the paper. There are questions to check your understanding, as well as to guide your reflection and evaluation of each section of the scientific paper.
3. Take notes and reflect on the paper
You may want to use this notetaking template for scientific papers to organize your notes after you read each section. [link]
After you have read the paper, be sure to reflect on it. How does it compare to other papers you’ve read on this topic? How does it relate to your experiment or research project? How might you use it in your course work, lab report, or paper?
Reading Critically in the Sciences
Reading in the Social Sciences and Humanities
Authors generally introduce their question early in an article or a book’s introduction. They then present their answer to that question in the form of a thesis or central argument. Throughout the article or book, they provide evidence to support the thesis. Finally, in the conclusion, they offer some explanation of the larger significance of their findings. These elements are important when critically reading a social science or humanities text.
1. Preview the article, text, or book chapter
Consider how the reading fits in with the themes of your course. Next, read the title, introduction, and conclusion and try to identify the topic or question the reading is attempting to address as well as its thesis. Knowing the key ideas, or thesis, of the reading before you read it in its entirety is useful; when you do read the rest of the text, you can skim over irrelevant sections and focus on essential ideas and evidence.
2. Read for understanding and analysis
After previewing the source, you will be ready to begin reading it in full. You should be reading both to understand what the author is trying to say as well as to analyze and evaluate your response to the source. Ask yourself questions to help with your understanding and analysis of the text. Good questions can guide your critical reading; see this how-to guide on reading in the humanities and social sciences for some helpful prompts.
3. Take notes and reflect on the source
Make sure to reflect upon what you have just read. How does it compare to other sources you have read on this topic? How does it relate to lectures or other course materials? You may want to use this notetaking template for the social sciences and humanities.