As you progress through your undergraduate studies, you will be expected to undertake an increasing amount of background reading in order to broaden and deepen your level of knowledge and understanding.
However, simply reading chapters of books and journal articles is not enough. You should avoid the temptation to treat all academic work as ‘the truth’ – some academics’ work is clearly less adequate or credible than others. Whenever you read something you should learn to treat it with suspicion and interrogate its integrity.
You need to try and develop your capacity for something called critical thinking. In essence, this means that you should be critically analysing everything you read so that you begin to prioritise between the stronger and weaker references you come across.
Critically reviewing literature is an academic skill. If it is done well it is likely that the associated assignment will also be done well and therefore receive higher grades. This reviewing of literature is of paramount importance to those writing a Final Year Project (where a specific section is required on a review of relevant literature) but it is important to practice this skill throughout your studies to increase your ability in this area. Remember that your observations gain greater academic credibility when underpinned by reference to the work of others.
Some literature reviews will establish theoretical frameworks which underpin the project or essay. Others will provide the basis for debate and critical reflection. The key to a successful literature review is to allow enough time to seek out the key and recently published articles in the area being studied. In general, the more sources that can be considered, the more thorough the review process will be. Once the sources have been collected they should be reviewed individually and then ‘synthesised’ (i.e. amalgamated together in order to highlight any comparisons and/or contrasts that emerge)
What follows is a model of best practice of how to critique a journal article. This should help you begin to develop those skills of critical thinking referred to above.
A Step-by-Step Approach to Reviewing Critically
The best way to critique an article is to be systematic and logical. Consider the following steps and how they work together to break down a piece of work into its component parts, thus making it easier to manage.
1) Read the whole article!
It sounds obvious, but it’s important to gain an overall impression (good or bad) of the literature. Time pressures often mean that people simply read the abstract and the discussion sections of a journal article thus potentially missing a key weakness within the methodology, for example.
2) The Article’s Structure
Consider the layout and ordering of each section – is it easy to follow? Is the article over-structured making it difficult to read or is there no apparent structure at all?
3) Re-Read Each Section in Depth
The majority of academic literature is broken up into sections Use these to unpack the important parts of the article piece by piece. Read each section in isolation and see if it stands alone as a solid piece of work.
4) Follow up References
Explore the materials that the author has used, i.e. if they refer to a particular model or theory go and read about that model or theory for yourself. Has the author represented and interpreted things accurately in their work? Has the author understood the sources? Has there been an unquestioning acceptance of comments or conclusions made?
5) Check the Validity of the Article
This will allow you to begin to make a judgement on the overall quality of the piece of work. Break this down by asking the following questions in each of the sections.
Introduction: What was the point of the study?
Previous Work: Which theories/models are being privileged?
Method: Were suitable tools of measurement used?