Although understanding is the foundation of all reading experiences, it is not the goal of most post-secondary reading assignments. Your professors (and future employers) want you to read critically, which means moving beyond what the text says to asking questions about the how and why of the text’s meaning. In an era of proliferating “fake news” stories and campaigns to improve information literacy, being cautious in consuming information and media is paramount.
Let’s reflect on what it means to think and read critically.
Questions for reflection
- What do you think “fake news” is and isn’t?
- Do you feel comfortable identifying sources of information or news stories as biased or inaccurate?
- Can you think of an example of a “fake news” story? What makes it biased or inaccurate?
- What are the potential dangers of making decisions or acting upon biased or inaccurate information?
- What does it mean to think critically? How do you do it?
- What does it mean to read critically? How do you do it?
Reading critically means reading skeptically, not accepting everything a text says at face value, and wondering why a particular author made a particular argument in a particular way.
When you read critically, you read not only to understand the meaning of the text, but also to question and analyze the text. You want to know not just what the text says, but also how and why it says what it says. Asking questions is one key strategy to help you read more critically. As you read a text critically, you are also reading skeptically.
A critical reader aims to answer two basic questions:
- What is the author doing?
- How well is the author doing it?
What is the author doing?
To answer “what is the author doing?” begin by carefully examining the following:
- What are the author’s claims (a claim is what the author says is true)?
- What is the evidence (evidence is what the author offers to support what they say is true)?
- What are the assumptions (assumptions are what the author says is true or will happen without giving any support)?
It may be helpful to try to see the argument from different angles:
- How else could the author have written this piece?
- What other kinds of evidence could have been used?
- What difference would that other evidence make?
- How has the author constructed his or her argument?
How well is the author doing it?
To answer “how well is the author doing it?” consider the following questions:
- How effective is the introduction? Why might the author have started the piece with this paragraph?
- Are the main ideas supported by solid evidence?
- What evidence does the author use? Is it effective? Useful? Can you think of other evidence?
- Is the author biased or neutral? How do you know?
- Does the conclusion effectively tie the argument together? Could you draw a different conclusion from this evidence?
- What kind of language is used? How would you describe the author’s style?
- How is the piece organized?
Asking questions of a text helps readers:
- Predict what a text will be about
- Identify confusing parts of the reading
- Clarify what confused them
- Develop a response to the text
- Understand the author’s purpose for writing a text
The easiest way to develop questions about a text is to be aware of your thinking process before, during, and after reading.
- What did you wonder about before you started reading?
- What did you think the text might be about?
- What questions did the text raise in your mind as you read?
- What seemed important or surprising?
- What were you wondering when you finished reading?
- What did the author hope to accomplish in writing this text?
- Did the author achieve that purpose?
- What remains unresolved in your mind?
As you approach your writing, it is important to practice the habit of thinking critically. Critical thinking can be defined as “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking” (Paul & Elder, 2007). It is the difference between watching television in a daze versus analyzing a movie with attention to its use of lighting, camera angles, and music to influence the audience. One activity requires very little mental effort, while the other requires attention to detail, the ability to compare and contrast, and sharp senses to receive all the stimuli.
As a habit of mind, critical thinking requires established standards and attention to their use, effective communication, problem solving, and a willingness to acknowledge and address our own tendency for confirmation bias. We’ll use the phrase “habit of mind” because clear, critical thinking is a habit that requires effort and persistence. People do not start an exercise program, a food and nutrition program, or a stop-smoking program with 100 percent success the first time. In the same way, it is easy to fall back into lazy mental short cuts, such as “If it costs a lot, it must be good,” when in fact the statement may very well be false. You won’t know until you gather information that supports (or contradicts) the assertion.
As we discuss getting into the right frame of mind for writing, keep in mind that the same recommendations apply to reading and research. If you only pay attention to information that reinforces your existing beliefs and ignore or discredit information that contradicts your beliefs, you are guilty of confirmation bias (Gilovich, 1993). As you read, research, and prepare for writing, make an effort to gather information from a range of reliable sources, whether or not this information leads to conclusions you didn’t expect. Remember that those who read your writing will be aware of, or have access to, this universe of data as well and will have their own confirmation bias. Reading and writing from an audience-centered view means acknowledging your confirmation bias and moving beyond it to consider multiple frames of references, points of view, and perspectives as you read, research, and write. False thinking strategies can lead to poor conclusions, so be sure to watch out for your tendency to read, write, and believe that which reflects only what you think you know without solid research and clear, critical thinking.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2007). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.
This chapter contains material taken from “Critical thinking”; “Overview 3”; and “Reading critically” in Developmental Writing by Lumen Learning (used under a CC-BY 3.0 license) and Chapter 5.1 “Think, then write: Writing preparation” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license).