Reading at university is a demanding task. It can often seem difficult to question the work of academics, given that they are experts in their fields. But this is something you have to do to achieve strong marks at university and to avoid common pieces of feedback saying that you are being ‘too descriptive’ or ‘not critical enough’. So, how can you ‘think critically’ about what authors say? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Identify the author’s argument. This is a set of propositions of which one is a conclusion and the remainder are reasons for supporting that conclusion.
- Ask yourself whether the author’s argument is based on flawed assumptions. What is underlying the author’s suggestions and is it logical? For example, an author may state “old people are scared of being robbed. They shouldn’t keep their money under the bed, then.” This assumes that elderly people are scared of being robbed, that they keep their money under their bed and that they are robbed because they keep their money under the bed. Are these assumptions reasonable? Is there evidence to support them?
- Consider whether the author’s argument is based on flawed reasoning. Are they making a general conclusion based on only one example which may be unique? Can you think of any cases which their argument would not be applicable to? Are they assuming a causal connection when one may not exist? Just because two factors are correlated, it does not mean that one is causing the other. For example, the murder rate may increase when ice cream sales increase. This does not mean that ice cream sales are causing murders.
- Identify the evidence presented by the author in favour of the argument. This could be statistics, examples, case histories, experiments, etc.
- Assess the strength of the evidence and compare it with evidence provided by other authors. Does the evidence provided support all of the author’s claims, and to what extent does it do so? Does it conflict with evidence provided by other authors? If so, why might this be the case?
- Judge the quality of the evidence. Check the date of the research. The conclusions drawn from old data may not apply in the modern world. Can you think of any reasons why this might be the case? What is the source of the evidence, and could it be biased? If someone has an interest in the matter, the evidence they present may be accurate, but they may not tell the full story, for example. If the author is using statistics, have they used a large enough sample to give reliable results? Is the sample representative of the population under study? What was the method of data collection, and could that have distorted the results? Has the author controlled for other factors in order to get closer to the causal effect of a given factor on an outcome?
Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 9780230285293 (e-book).
Cottrell, S. (2019) The Study Skills Handbook: Fifth Edition. London: Red Globe Press. ISBN: 9781137610898 (e-book).
The Open University (2008) Thinking Critically. Available at: http://www.openuniversity.edu/sites/www.openuniversity.edu/files/brochures/Critical-thinking-Open-University.pdf [Accessed on 1st July, 2020]
Wallace, M. and Wray, A. (2006) Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. London: Sage Publications. ISBN: 9781446200261 (e-book).