Selecting and connecting with your reading


Hello from Sam Aston from the Library Team. (embed video)

(for Lecture 2)


This resource will support you in identifying appropriate academic sources and reading academic texts critically. Developing these skills will not only support you on this unit and throughout your academic career but will also provide a foundation for how you can keep up to date with research in the humanitarian sector.

To do this we are going to take a series of steps:

  1. Finding and selecting reading

2. Evaluating your sources

3. Making connections

Finding and selecting reading

(Embed Finding information 2.1–2.3, 1 &1.2)

Library Search

2.1 What is it?

Library Search is a resource for you to search for the articles, books, journals, images etc for your studies held by or subscribed to by The University of Manchester Library.

2.2 Why should you use it?

It pulls together many of the Library’s systems and allows you to search across them simultaneously allowing you to quickly see how much information is available on your subject. Its basically the library version of Google but and this is a crucial but all the content on there is high quality academic information. It should be on of your go to places for your coursework.

2.3 How do I access Library Search?

University of Manchester staff and students can access Library Search through My Manchester or through the Library website. Make sure that if you are going via the Library website to sign in to Library Search to ensure that you can view all resources including those restricted to University staff and students.

Subject databases

1What is a subject database?

Subject databases are collections of scholarly information, such as journal articles, about a particular subject. They are searchable and often allow you to access the full-text of the sources you find.

Why use a subject database?

When you search a subject database you can be confident that the results you find are relevant to your subject. This is in contrast to search tools like Library Search and Google Scholar which search all subject areas. This means you should find fewer but more focused results. How many results did you find when you searched Google Scholar in the last activity? How many did you actually look at?

Using subject databases has two main advantages:

Subject perspective: if you search in a subject database you know that you will get results written from the perspective of that subject area.

Think — how might a health sciences researcher and a architecture researcher approach the topic of ‘healthy living spaces’?

Subject terminology: some words have different meanings in different subject areas. Searching a subject database is likely to focus on the meaning of words and terminology used in that subject area.

Activity: how might ‘Mercury’ mean different things to researchers in materials science, astronomy and popular culture?

Photo of a thermometer, the planet Mercury, and a statue of Freddie Mercury.
“Mercury” by arbyreed is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Mercury” by polaristest is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; “The show must go on” by PAMaire is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

1.2 Where can I find subject databases for my subject?

You can find the subject databases for your subject through your Subject Guide. Once you have selected a subject click ‘Databases’ to view the Library’s curated collection of databases for your subject. The ‘Humanitarian and Conflict Response’ guide is a good place for many of you to start.

Tip — you will find databases covering different aspects, even within the same subject area. Read the database descriptions to pick the right one for the information you are looking for.

Activity: Using Library Search see what articles you can locate that defines ‘what makes a good humanitarian’.

(For lecture 3)


This resource will support you in identifying appropriate academic sources and reading academic texts critically. Developing these skills will not only support you on this unit and throughout your academic career but will also provide a foundation for how you can keep up to date with research in the humanitarian sector.

You have already covered finding and selecting reading so now we are going to look at

1. Evaluating your sources

2. Making connections

Evaluating your sources

Once you have located information that seems relevant to your purpose then you will need to evaluate the evidence. You can adopt a questioning approach to inform your judgement on the reliability, relevance and objectivity of the source. When preparing an annotated bibliography your answers to these questions will feature as part of your annotation.

Embed Finding information 3.1 Critical evaluation podcast

Popular vs scholarly sources of information

Identifying whether a source is popular or scholarly can give you an indication of how authoritative it is. Scholarly literature is usually written by researchers who are experts in the subject area. In order to get their work published there are standards researchers have to adhere to and processes designed to check the quality of a piece of work before publication.

For instance, to get an academic article published the author must first submit a draft to an academic journal, where it will be reviewed by one or more people with similar experience in the field. This process is called peer review and it helps ensure the quality of academic sources.

If a source has been peer reviewed you can be reasonably confident that it is of a good standard. However, this does mean you should take everything it says at face value! Equally, if a source is ‘popular’ it doesn’t mean you can’t use it in your work, you might just want to think carefully about the purpose you are using it for.

A blog post written by a newspaper columnist, for instance, might provide useful evidence for one side of the debate around a particular topic or event. If you are aware of specific limitations in the sources you are using then make that explicit in your analysis so the marker knows that you recognise these limitations.

For example, when including the blog written by a newspaper columnist you could use the source to explore bias and unpack how the author came to hold that point of view.

The table below highlights some further characteristics of popular and scholarly sources:

Popular vs Scholarly sources comparison table. Download this image as a PDF or PowerPoint to read the text in image with a screen reader.

The distinction between popular and scholarly sources of information is not absolute — some sources are more popular, some are more scholarly and some sources contain characteristics from both. The diagram below plots where some common types of source sit on the scale:

Scholarly vs popular sources displayed as a scale. Download this image as a PDF or PowerPoint to read text in image with a screen reader.

Questioning information sources

If you want to be able to put together strong, critical, academic work and achieve higher marks, it is important to make a habit of asking questions of your source material, rather than taking things at face value.

The following six questions are a great starting point:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Where?
  • Who?

You can often find the answer to some of these questions straight away (in an article abstract for example), which can help you decide whether the source in question is relevant to your needs.

Once you know whether the source in question is going to be relevant, you can start to devise further questions which will help you evaluate it.

We will now look at each of these questions in turn.

What… type of source is it?

Identifying what kind of source you have can help you in indicating the source’s quality. This is important if you are using the source to establish an argument. A high quality information source can enhance your argument or research.

Here are some questions that you could ask:

  • What are the main arguments that are contained in the source?
  • What is the content of the source that is relevant to your research?
  • Has the information been verified in any way?

Why… was the source produced?

Just as you should pay close attention to your purpose when searching for information, you should also consider the purpose of each source you come across.

  • Why was the source written?
  • What was the author hoping to achieve?

Different types of source are often written with a different purpose in mind. Let’s return to some of the source types mentioned earlier in this resource:

  • Conference proceedings are written to inform, giving those who couldn’t attend the conference a basic outline of what was discussed.
  • Journal articles are written to inform others of new research in a certain field but they are also designed to persuade the reader of the value of the author’s research and validity of their arguments.
  • Blogs are usually written to entertain readers and often feature the author’s subjective opinion on a certain subject, without necessarily including evidence for those opinions.
  • Newspapers are written to inform readers about the news and current events, however, particular newspapers tend to have a political leaning which influences the way they present information. Some information within them is also to entertain.

When… was it created?

In order to decide whether a source is relevant to your purpose you will need to gather information about when it was created. Different types of information sources are created in different ways, so the exact information you gather may differ depending on what you are looking at. Here’s what you should consider in this regard:

  • When the source was published?
  • When was it last updated?
  • How often is it updated? (especially important for websites)
  • What is the time between any events discussed and the source’s publication?

Often, your academic work will require you to demonstrate your understanding of the current debate surrounding a particular topic so you will want to make sure that the information you use is up to date.

Pro tip: Academic journal articles are often a good place to look for up-to-date research on a particular topic as they take less time to publish than an academic book. Academics will usually use a journal article as a way of sharing their newest research and ideas to see what the reaction is, then they may build on these ideas in a book later on.

Who… wrote or produced the information source?

Finding out more about who wrote a particular source can help you make an assessment of how reliable it is. Consider what the author’s background is — are they well qualified to talk about the subject? Have they written anything else? Some sources, such as academic journal articles, are more likely to make information about the author/s readily available (often this can be found in the article abstract). Other sources like websites may require you to investigate further in order to find this information.

Learning about the author of a source can also give you an indication of how objective it is.

  • Does the author have a bias?
  • Has the author been funded by or affiliated to an organisation?
  • Who is the intended audience and does this affect its relevance?

When searching for sources to use in your academic work you will usually want to find sources which have been produced by experts in the subject area. However, in some cases your assignment brief might specifically ask you to comment on public opinion during a particular time period, in which case newspapers and other primary sources might be helpful.

Where… was the source produced?

You can look at this through a couple of lenses. You might want to look at the geographical location of where the information source was made available. This might be relevant to your research area. You may also want to look at where the source was published and the process that the information went through to be made available.

The second lens is to look towards where the source was published; this can support you in defining the objectivity and reliability of the source. If you are looking at a research journal article then you might want to look if the journal is peer reviewed. Peer review is a publishing process where before research is published the article will be looked at by experts in the discipline. This process is considered by some to enhance the quality of the research.

Questions you could ask are:

  • What is the purpose of the source and does the purpose influence the objectivity?
  • Where is the source published?
  • Was the source peer reviewed?

How… was the information produced?

When you examine how the information was produced you are looking in more detail at the source. You want to know how the author got to their main idea that they are sharing. So you might be asking questions to establish the reliability of the source by looking towards any references that they might have provided to substantiate their ideas.

If the source is a piece of research then look at how sound their methodology is to establish reliability as well as relevance. If the source is not a piece of research then has it been informed by research, can you identify that research and examine the credibility of the original work and then analyse the purpose of the secondary source?

So you may be asking questions like:

  • Does the source provide references that have informed its current form?
  • What methodology was used?

Reliability, objectivity, relevance

While thinking like a detective is a good way to approach evaluating the sources you read, consider how you will have those sources earn their place in informing your opinion. Studying at university you will be expected to make judgements on the information that you give credence to, that you use to inform your thinking and that you go on to cite in your work.

You can use the previously outlined questioning approach to make an evaluation that will lead you to think about the information source from the three following perspectives. Thinking about information sources and their reliability, objectivity and relevance can help you to elaborate on the evaluation that you have made and support you in writing and talking about the information that you have identified.

Reliability: Is the evidence trustworthy? There needs to be a good reason to believe that the information presented is accurate and complete in order for a source to be considered reliable.

Objectivity: Is the evidence objective/neutral? Note that a source doesn’t need to be objective for you to use it in your work. In some cases, you may be seeking sources from a particular perspective to illustrate a point, or provide a counter-argument. However, it is important that you are aware of any bias when using a source.

Relevance: Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

Activity: Try using this questioning strategy handout to help you come up with questions that you might ask of the following article.

Matthew Clarke, Sophie Perreard & Phil Connors (2019) Building a humanitarian sector career: understanding the education vs experience tension, Third World Quarterly, 40:9, 1655–1669, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2019.1601549

You may need to log-in with your university username and password to access the journal article.

Tailored content:

(Embed text) Making connections with what you read

In this section we are going to cover how you can develop your reading skills to be a more critical and efficient reader by focusing upon developing what you do when you read. You will have the opportunity to apply five different strategies when reading an academic journal article, each with a slightly different purpose. The five strategies you will use are:

  1. Reading with a purpose
  2. Actively engaging with a text
  3. Recognising signposting within writing
  4. Identifying the main argument
  5. Summarising for understanding

We will use the following article to practice these reading strategies. If you prefer to read a hard copy, please do print the article off, or you can read it on your device.

What is academic reading?

Before applying strategies, however, it is important to understand what we mean by academic reading and why it is so important. Reading is a core part of your learning.

Academic reading is different from reading for pleasure. When you are reading academically you are actively engaging with the text rather than passively absorbing the information like you would do if you were reading a novel or a magazine. Pages 13–14 of this article cover the factors that make academic reading different in more detail.

Academic reading is about examining the text. You will evaluate the evidence and arguments presented by the author/s, and decide to what extent you accept their opinions and conclusions.

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

(embed text) Strategy 1: Read with a purpose:

Knowing why you are reading something is key to giving your academic reading the focus it needs. Before you start reading, it is important to decide what information you want from the text — setting a number of questions you want the text to answer can be really helpful for this.

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

We have a few tips to help you get started!

  • Before reading depth, quickly scan the text to find the sections that are most relevant to the two questions you are trying to answer
  • You don’t have to read a whole journal article if you only want specific information from it.
  • Explore the below infographic which outlines the type of information you can find in the different sections of a journal article.
    embed infographic pdf.)
Image of the Read What you Need Infographic
Read what you need infographic

(embed text Academic reading 1.1) Strategy 2: 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

Stop and reflect activity

  • Individually consider what method you usually adopt when it comes to note-taking when reading?
  • Reflect on what changes you may need to make to your strategy to read academic texts more effectively.

Strategy 3: 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 facilitate reading for your purpose. 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.
  • Phrases that show the author’s own thinking.

Strategy practice

Read through the same article and highlight or annotate any words or phrases which match one of the elements mentioned in the bullet points above.

Explore the Academic Phrasebank to become familiar with a range of words and phrases that can be used to signpost the above (Top Tip — this is also a great resource to use when writing your own assignments!)

Strategy 4: Identify the authors main idea:

One of the most important things to remember about academic texts is that the author is trying to convince the reader (you!) that their idea is correct. This means an important part of academic reading is identifying the author’s argument.

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

Once you have identified the author’s idea, your next job is to decide whether you agree or disagree with it — by critiquing their reasoning and the evidence they use to support their argument.

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 author’s 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. So identifying the evidence that an author is using is a valuable step in you taking a critical view of the authors main idea.

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.

Argue or Agree

Your own analysis of the text will revolve around whether you decide to argue against or agree with the author. To help you make this decision, consider the following questions:

  1. Do you think the evidence the author has used is relevant, reliable and objective?
  2. Does their argument make sense in relation to the evidence used?

You should be able to articulate why you are arguing against or agreeing with the author.

Strategy 5: Summarise for understanding

Summarising a text allows you to test and reinforce your understanding. It also helps you to check that you understand the author’s main idea and collate the key learning points from the text. Practicing putting an author’s idea into your own words is also important, as this is what you will be expected to do in your academic writing.

All of the reading strategies we have covered will help to build your understanding of a text and will make writing your summary of the example text easier. Scanning the abstract, introduction and conclusion can also help you to identify important information to include in your summary.

Activity: Read this article and take some notes as you read. Use the questions that you drafted in the previous activity and apply one of the strategies.

Matthew Clarke, Sophie Perreard & Phil Connors (2019) Building a humanitarian sector career: understanding the education vs experience tension, Third World Quarterly, 40:9, 1655–1669, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2019.1601549

Next Steps

The My Learning Essentials team have created a wide range of resources which will support you in developing your approaches to learning throughout your time at university. The two resources below are will help you to build on your academic reading skills further.
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Planning your search

Being Critical: thinking, reading and writing critically

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