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Critical thinking, reading and note taking

Good reading and note-taking practices are essential to engaging critically with your topic.

In your unit, you are often provided with a list of recommended readings (or other media), so you should always start with these before doing any further reading as they usually include key concepts from the unit.

Completing your weekly readings before class is essential because it helps you to develop a wider vocabulary and better engagement with your topic.

Reviewing or re-reading texts after class allows you to read in a more engaged and informed way, take more meaningful notes, and prepare for assessments.

At other times, you may be asked to research for an assignment and find your own sources, so it is important that you know how to identify credible academic sources.

Reading, note taking and writing at university require more than just simply copying chunks of information into your assignments! Copying (without understanding) is not a very effective form of learning. It can also lead to committing plagiarism which carries serious consequences. Instead, you are expected to engage critically with your texts. At university, you need to:

Focus on the task 

On your first reading of a text, it is important to establish your purpose for reading as this will determine which parts of the text to focus on and to what extent you need to take notes. When looking for specific information for an assignment, you need to first refer to your unit learning outcomes, your assignment question and the assignment criteria. You might also consider how the reading relates to the weekly topic, as well as previous classes and readings.

Textual organisation

Becoming familiar with how texts are organised can also help you focus and find specific information. This can be done by looking at the table of contents, as well as section headers and titles within the text. For example, when reading journal articles, you may encounter the following elements:

  • the title and authors
  • an abstract – a summary of the key points, conclusions or findings
  • a list of key words 
  • headings that organise the key points discussed in each section
  • an introduction that provides the context of the research, arguments or research questions, or an outline of the paper
  • perhaps figures, such as graphs
  • paragraphs that each provide at least one key idea
  • conclusion that summarises the aims and main points, or provides recommendations or implications for future research
  • list of references that show other sources of information the author has drawn on.

Skimming and scanning

So, how can knowing these parts of an article help you to read more effectively? It can help you to be more selective in what you read.

It is good idea to first skim a whole article in order to find out if the text is exactly what you are looking for. You can then scan for specific information once you have located a section that might be worth reading. Skimming and scanning are not reading – they are very quick activities that can lead you to more effective and engaged reading.

  1. If you want to know what the text is about, you might look for key words in the title, the abstract, headings, or some articles highlighting key words at the top of the first page. You might also quickly scan the introduction and conclusion for the same reason. If you can’t see anything that connects with your purpose (for example, your assignment question) then the paper may not be particularly relevant to you.
  2. If you are looking for the writer’s opinion, you should find it in the introduction because it states the purpose of the article and often an outline of the main points covered in the article. Look also at the conclusion, or findings or recommendations sections if these are included.
  3. If you want to quickly look over the main points, you can scan the first few paragraphs looking for: 
    – the topic sentence (often the first sentence which tells you the topic of the paragraph) 
    – the supporting argument or evidence that follows 
    – any analysis or concluding statement within the paragraph. 
    You don’t need to labour over every word. You just need to get a very quick understanding of each paragraph.
  4. Also scan any figures. Perhaps some of the key information is presented in a graph or diagram?
  5. If some words are unfamiliar, you may need to look them up using a subject-specific textbook, dictionary or glossary. Don’t do this for every word but only for those you see as key words.

Deep reading

Scanning for information can assist you in deciding whether you need to read the text in more detail. If you do decide to read on, your second reading will be a ‘deep reading’. This is when you will need to take more time with the text. Some students like to print out articles rather than read on the screen. Some students like to read in a quiet space, others in a library or busy café. Whichever method you choose, it is during this deep reading when you need to take notes, noting down questions and summaries related to your purpose and also making a glossary of new terms and concepts. There are various methods for note taking, some of which are discussed in the note-taking essentials section.

Again, always ask yourself how the information in the reading is relevant to your classes and your assessments. Look in your unit site and unit guide to remind yourself of the unit learning outcomes, the weekly topics and your assessment criteria – this will help you to stay focused when reading.

One way to develop better critical thinking skills is to keep a personal reflective journal of ideas and observations you have taken from readings. You can use your responses developed in the journal to help you plan research, take further notes, and contribute to class discussions.

— Caroline Wright-Neville, Language and Learning Adviser

At university, reading critically means being open-minded to new ideas, opinions, theories and evidence, without being blinded by your own biases. In your assessments, and at university in general, you are expected to demonstrate your critical thinking by analysing the knowledge you have collected in your course, rather than just repeating what you have read and heard. You are expected to quote, paraphrase and summarise other authors and then critically analyse their ideas when writing your own assignments.

To think critically, you can start by reflecting on your own values and experiences and consider how they influence your own understanding of what you believe to be reasonable and logical. For example, how is your own thinking influenced by political, cultural or religious beliefs? Where have these influences come from and how do they shape your points of view? Keep in mind throughout your studies that what is ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’ can mean different things to different people (and writers).

Critical analysis starts with asking questions

It is your job, as a university student, to ask questions and to hold other people’s ideas and words up to scrutiny. In many ways, being a critical thinker is similar to being a private investigator:

  • Question what people say and write.
  • Question any assumptions you believe have been made.
  • Explore connections between ideas.
  • Consider what might be missing.
  • Examine the type and amount of evidence available.
  • Reach your own conclusions in a systematic way.

So, what might this look like in an assignment where you are responding to several different texts? You might, for example:

  • compare and contrast different writers’ ideas, approaches or opinions
  • assess differing pieces of evidence and judge which evidence appears to be stronger
  • find areas where different writers agree and disagree with each other, and come to your own conclusions
  • highlight where a writer has failed to mention something important, or suggest where an improvement could be made
  • identify some reasons why a writer may have come to particular conclusion.

Critical analysis is a skill that develops through practice over time as you become more aware of key concepts and debates in your discipline and can engage in an informed way. You can develop your critical analysis skills by attending classes and seminars as much as possible, paying attention to other peoples’ ideas and perspectives, asking questions (don’t stop asking questions!), reading widely, following debates in the media and keeping track of the wider professional discussions within your discipline.

Note taking: Six strategies

Before you start taking notes – whether in class or when reading – think about what you have to do with the information you are collecting. Always approach your note taking with purpose and start by looking carefully at your unit guide. What are the unit learning outcomes? What are the key concepts and questions raised in weekly classes and seminars? If you are preparing to write an essayreport or other assignment, what are the assessment criteria? In all cases, your marker will want to see evidence that you have understood what you have read or listened to.

A few general tips

Good note-taking practice is an integral step in the learning and writing process at university. Before you look at some of the specific note-taking strategies and templates, consider some of the following general tips. It is important to experiment to find out which strategies works for you and it may also differ depending on your purpose and your discipline.

  • Organise your class and seminar notes according to the weekly topic – it makes sense to follow this structure which also informs your assessments.
  • Be very selective about what you highlight and add notes to. If there is too much highlighted text or too many notes, it will not help you in preparing for an assessment!
  • Write your assignment question at the top of the page. This can help you stay focussed on more specific information gathering. Also, always have your unit learning outcomes or assessment criteria close by to refer to. If you have rough plan for an assignment, use this structure to take notes. You might write out headings for each main point from your plan and then add notes from readings under each heading.
  • Don’t spend hours and hours reading one text and taking notes if you are getting stuck. Instead, make sure that do a variety of shorter tasks. And don’t forget to take a break.
  • When taking notes, always include the reference details of each source, so that you know exactly where that information came from and so that you can easily add citations and references in the very first draft of your assignment. Don’t leave this until the last minute, as it often takes more time than you think!
  • To deepen your understanding of a topic, set an alarm so that after 20 minutes of reading, you stop and write a short summary (50–100 words) of what you can recall.
  • Review your notes within 24 hours to reinforce your learning.
  • Don’t expect to understand everything in one reading, in one day, or even in one assignment! Spend time between readings thinking about what you have read. Understanding accumulates over time.
  • Re-write and summarise your own notes as early as possible in the trimester to revise for exams. Create your own questions based on a reading to test yourself at a later date.

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