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Library for Educators
11 min readFeb 4, 2022

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Critical thinking, reading and writing — Podcast bit

Hi there — My name is John and I am one of the Teaching and Learning Librarians working at the University of Manchester Library. I hope that you are enjoying your studies so far — I spend a lot of my time working on the Library’s My Learning Essentials skills development programme. We offer a wide range of online resources and workshops which help students to develop some of the skills they will need to succeed at University and beyond. Some examples might be reading, writing, presentations, referencing. All that stuff! There is loads to explore and get help with and you’ll find further information on how to do this within this package of resources that we have put together for you.

Our focus today is going to be on a very important skill which you will need to develop at University, and that’s the skill of “being critical”. You will hear the word “critical” a lot during your studies… You’ll be expected to read, think and write critically… So what does this is actually mean?

Being critical can mean lots of different things in different contexts, but at its core it’s about actively engaging with ideas, rather than passively accepting the information you encounter as true. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, it means being impartial — so that you can judge whether you agree or disagree with the information you’re considering. In your university work you’ll be asked to read critically, show evidence of critical thinking, and critically analyse texts and theories. So, how can you get started?

The good news is we have lots of advice and guidance to help you along the way. Today we will look at reading and writing primarily, but we’ll also consider how your note-taking can help make this easier, and also… and this is really important… where you can ask for help if you need it later. The Library team are here to help you throughout your studies and you will find all the information you need to get in touch within Blackboard and also on the Library website.

Getting started

My Learning Essentials has produced a really useful introduction to our focus for today — Our “Being critical” resource will introduce you to the concepts of thinking, reading and writing critically. Please work through this resource now. We’ll then move onto thinking about reading and writing in more detail.

PLEASE EMBED “BEING CRITICAL” HERE

Reading critically

Introduction

Reading is a core part of your learning. There is considerable value in developing how you approach academic reading and developing an awareness of how reading for learning is different to reading for pleasure.

What is critical reading?

So how is critical reading different to reading for pleasure? When you are reading critically you are actively engaging with the text rather than passively absorbing the information like you would do perhaps if you were reading a novel or a magazine.

Critical reading is about examining the text. You will evaluate the evidence and arguments presented in the text, and decide to what extent you accept the author’s opinions and conclusions.

Effective critical readers have been found to demonstrate a selection of behaviours that support their approach to reading. This post will explore these critical reading behaviours allowing you to practice them in your own academic reading.

Read with a purpose

Knowing why you are reading something is key to giving your academic reading the focus that it needs. If you have a clear understanding of why you are reading what you are reading then you can be sure that you are identifying what you need. Typical reasons for reading might be one of the following:

  • Context: to get an overview of the topic that you are studying.
  • Data/Evidence: to locate relevant data and evidence.
  • Deep understanding: to gain more detailed knowledge of a topic.

Actively engage with the text

Before opening a book or looking at a journal article it is important to be aware of your method to engage with the material. This is what makes academic reading significantly different to reading for pleasure. Below are a few options available to you:

  • Read in more detail or more quickly.
  • Take notes.
  • Highlight/underline key words.
  • Annotate the text with own comments/questions.

Recognise signposts within the writing

Effective readers typically read a lot and can recognise signposts within writing that signal to them that there is something to examine more closely. Identifying signposts can help you read with your purpose in mind. Here are some examples:

  • References to the work of others.
  • Statistics, numbers and data .
  • Words that are unfamiliar.
  • Words that indicate an absolute (something that is certain or known to be true). For example “Everyone learns to read”
  • Contrasting and comparisons of ideas.

Identify the author’s main idea

Following an active read of a paper or a book effective readers are able to identify the main idea that the author is communicating. Authors are usually making a claim and you should be able to identify their idea and define it in your own words.

The author’s main idea is the author’s opinion, it is not the data, it is not the facts.

Since the author’s main idea is an opinion, you can decide whether you agree or disagree with it — and crucially, you can get critical about it!

Three circles to highlight the meaning of the author’s main idea. Opinion not fact. Supported by evidence. Argue or Agree.
The author’s main idea is opinion, not fact. It is supported by evidence and is something that you can either argue or agree with.

Identify the evidence

The evidence supporting the opinion, or main idea, will include facts. Wherever you see references, citations, footnotes, web links, statistics or quotations, you know you the author is attempting to back up their opinion with some evidence.

Identify the analysis

The analysis is where the author examines the evidence they have presented. They may discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence. In the analysis the author will make connections to trends, larger ideas and the rest of the text. The author will use the evidence to make an argument and communicate their main idea.

Summarise for understanding

Do you ever feel like you’ve spent lots of time reading a journal article or chapter but you still don’t understand what you’ve just read?

By actively engaging with a text and drawing out the author’s main idea, you should be able to succinctly summarise the whole piece in your own words. Imagine you are explaining what you have read to a friend; if you are able to communicate the author’s main idea(s) in your own words, it demonstrates that you understood the text.

Effective note-taking

In the previous section we touched on the importance of actively engaging with the text when you are reading. Taking notes and creating summaries of what you have just read are a great way to do this.

This can be particularly useful when you are reading academic content such as peer-reviewed journal articles which often discuss complex ideas and theories.

Using a strategy like the Cornell note-taking technique outlined below provides a systematic way to approach this. Cornell notes have three sections: Details, Key Points, and Summary.

1. In the Details section, write down all the important bits of information you discover about a topic while researching and reading. This can include quotes, statistics, diagrams or paraphrased information.

Cornell notes structure
Cornell Notes

2. In the Key Points section, write down all the questions and thoughts you have about the details of your reading. The thoughts and questions you record here will guide further revision on where you may want to focus next.

3. In the Summary section, in your own words write a summary of everything you have learned and recorded in the two other sections. Summarising a lot of information into a few sentences helps to really focus on what is important.

Here is a completed example from our student team.

There are other note-taking options available and you can find further skills support here:

Writing critically

Academic writing is a skill that you will develop naturally with practice as you progress through your studies. It is very important that you engage fully with the written feedback you receive on your written assignments as this is one of the chief ways you will be able to improve your writing.

There are some general tips and strategies which you can use as well to ensure that your writing demonstrates appropriate levels of criticality, and we will explore some of these further within the next section which is focused around academic writing.

PODCAST BIT

“While other forms of assessment are becoming increasingly common in higher education it is a safe bet that at some point during your degree programme you will be faced with the task of writing an essay. The aim of most academic essays is actually quite straightforward. You will be usually presented with a question (or questions) which provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of a particular topic you have recently studied.

The question(s) will have been carefully selected by your tutor. They will usually invite you to take a particular position, towards an area of controversy or interest, in your area of study. The aim of your essay should be to persuade your reader of your own position or perspective towards this. You will be expected to provide a reasoned and logical argument, which is backed up through the evidence you have collected during your study of the topic.

Your essay will need to have a clear and coherent structure in order to achieve this aim successfully. With this in mind it is important that your essay has a clear beginning (or introduction), middle (often referred to as the Main Body) and Ending (your conclusion). Each of these sections should perform specific functions in order to allow your esssay to demonstrate your full understanding of a topic.

Your introduction should provide your reader with a clear indication as to the position you intend to take within your essay, and an overview of how you plan to address the question which has been set.

The Main body is where you will introduce and analyse the evidence you have found during your research. Your analysis should demonstrate your understanding of the topic, and support and strengthen the overall position you are taking in response to the question you have been set. By introducing evidence in a logical and coherent manner you can incrementally convince your reader of the merits of your position in a similar way to how a barrister might introduce pieces of evidence within a courtroom.

Your conclusion should provide a thoughtful overview of what has been covered and some reflections on the implications of what you have discussed”.

Tips for writing the Introduction, Main Body and Conclusion.

There are no absolute set rules for writing introductions, the main body of your text, or conclusions. Every assignment you work on is likely to require a degree of flexibility, and a slightly different approach. There are however, some useful techniques you can look to apply within the writing of the individual sections.

The Library has produced a series of guides which focus on strategies you can employ to improve your writing. These offer clear guidance and examples of different elements you can look to include. These will ensure that each section performs a useful function within the larger piece of writing.

Structure and flow within your writing

You need to give close consideration to the overall flow, or direction of travel, within your writing. Your aim is to provide a straight and clear line of argument which runs throughout from the introduction to conclusion. Ideas and/ or evidence should be introduced in a logical manner, which connect strongly with your central themes and ideas. This will allow you to build your argument incrementally, and gradually convince your reader of the value of your postion.

There are some general rules methods you can use to improve your writing fluency. These are discussed below. However, a key writing objective, and principle, should be to keep your focus firmly on the following simple consideration.

“Why am I writing about this?”

It can be very easy to lose your overall focus when you begin analysing and discussing complex articles, datasets or concepts. This may lead to comments about a lack of clarity, or focus, when you receive feedback on what you have written.

Keeping your focus on “why” you are discussing something can help to avoid this. It will also ensure that you consistently connect your writing back to your central ideas and themes. This will help to ensure that your writing maintains a consistent structure and flow.

Words, sentences and paragraphs
Thinking about how we use language when we are writing can be an effective way to improve. Your words, sentences and paragraphs should all form building blocks which help in the construction of your overall ideas and themes.

Words (less can be more!)
There can be a temptation in academic writing to over-elaborate when you are writing. We may feel that this helps our language to sound more scholarly, or authoritative. However, it can have the effect of making our language overly clunky and confusing. Simple, concise expression is a good thing to aim for.

Consider using the shortest form of a word possible — think “use” instead of “utilise”! Also, try to limit the number of times you use phrases which don’t actually add anything meaningful to what you are saying. Terms like “However”, or “as such”, are good examples of these. They can be useful occasionally to signal a transition, or change in direction, but should be used sparingly. This will help your writing to be more concise.

Technical terms (such as ophiophagus hannah rather than King Cobra if you were writing about snakes) are often preferred. They can often be the most concise way of saying something. Look for guidance on this within your course handbook, or try reading some relevant journal articles within your field. This should help to give you a good idea of what is expected.

Above all the language you use should be natural and consistent. Searching for “clever” words or expressions in a thesaurus may be tempting, but can actually inhibit the natural flow and expression of your writing.

Sentences
Your sentences should be short and clear. It is generally better to express one thought clearly and succinctly if possible. You should also try to make it obvious what is important by placing the subject of your sentence at the beginning. This will help add clarity to your writing.

Example — It was only following extensive criticism in the media that the government finally acknowledged that the algorithm was flawed and unfair to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the sentence above it is very unclear who is the main subject or focus. This can be improved by splitting it up into two sentences. This makes the writing clearer and easier to understand. It also makes it clear that “the government” is the primary focus of our writing.

The Government finally acknowledged that the algorithm was flawed, and unfair to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This came in response to extensive criticism from the media.

Paragraphs
You may often hear people refer to the advice that a paragraph should consist of one idea. This can be problematic in academic writing, as our ideas may be complex. This can lead to VERY long paragraphs. It can be more helpful to think of the paragraph as providing a distinct movement in your argument. It may require multiple paragraphs to construct the whole idea, but each paragraph should discuss a particular element. A common way to do this is to analyse a specific section of key reading within an individual paragraph.

Further support

There is lots more support available for academic writing not only from My Learning Essentials, but also the University Language Centre. The resources below will provide you with further ideas, and ways to improve your written work.

PLEASE EMBED LINKS TO “START TO FINISH: ESSAY WRITING AND THE ULC ACADEMIC PHRASEBANK

Help and support

The Library and the My Learning Essentials Team are here for you, so please feel free to get in touch with us using any of the following methods.

Email us uml.teachingandlearning@manchester.ac.uk

Use the ‘Ask a question’ tab at the right side of the page on any Subject Guide.

Use Library Chat by going to the Library Website or MyManchester (log in required).

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