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How to Read Critically: An Exam Focused Guide

Critical reading is a form of active learning. This essential study skill can improve our ability to read efficiently, making information easy to retain and comprehend. But how can we implement critical reading, and banish distracted sessions of passive reading? In this article, we’ll share eight tips to plan, maximise and benefit from critical reading sessions.

Reading can become a passive activity, just like any other mode of learning. However, critical reading allows us to be active readers that thoroughly engage with the material, instead of passively skimming over it. Critical reading can improve your focus, and your ability to comprehend and retain the reading material. Through this process, it’ll be easier to identify the main ideas and structure of the text; evaluate the effectiveness of the writer’s ideas, and develop informed questions based on the content. You’ll learn how to think and plan for focused reading sessions, how to ask the right questions both during and after reading, and make effective notes, annotations or summaries. This reading process will result in both active and critical reading that leaves you with an improved understanding, and better retention of information.

During exam season, a good amount of time might be spent reading. This could be for various reasons, such as gathering current literature to support your arguments, or to revisit material and improve your understanding. Alternatively, you might be catching up on your reading list before exams. For all students, learning to read actively is the best way to ensure reading sessions are effective and productive. This is particularly important during exam season when you’re likely to be short on time, and need to show understanding beyond the lecture notes for those higher grades.

In exams, you’re typically assessed on your understanding of perspectives, theories, concepts, models, and their applications. But you’re also assessed on your ability to give a well-developed and broad argument that involves critical analysis and highlights connections between ideas. This makes reading an important part of the process for filling gaps in your knowledge, providing information for critical thinking and for guiding your study sessions. Your learning outcomes, and past papers can provide a framework for reading selectively, and ensuring you’re extracting what’s needed for your course. 

Critical Reading: How to Get Started 

Time management is important for critical reading. Naturally, you’ll lose focus and become passive when reading a dense text. You might struggle to engage with the material, and want to simply reach the end of those unfamiliar terms and complex explanations. This is why time management is essential. Ideally, you should aim to tackle dense reading material in small focused bursts. 15-20 minutes is a good reading session length, but see what works best for you. When do you begin to lose concentration? These small bursts allow you to read actively, really focusing on the section at hand before pausing to reflect on the material. You might feel more motivated knowing there is a clear end in sight. 

Begin with a reading goal to ensure you’re focused. Reading sessions will be more efficient if you know why you’re reading something. Are you looking to simply scan for certain information, or skim for a more general overview of the content? Are you building on previous knowledge of a topic with recent insights? Are seeking to discuss, analyse or summarise the material for a particular piece of work? During exam season, you might be reading to seek recent evidence that supports your arguments, or develop a more critical outlook on a particular topic. Through critical reading, you can progress efficiently, and move onto memorising the essential information sooner rather than later. 

Be selective with your reading material, particularly during the exam season. We’re often short on time during the exam period, and trying to juggle revision alongside the rest of our lives or commitments. This means being selective while gathering reading material is important. Ideally, prioritise quality over quantity. You can only read so much. For an overview of the content, choose something that is easy to read yet comprehensive. For example, a meta analysis, summary paper, or textbook and lecture note summaries. These can be an easy read to refresh your memory and draw connections between material. For more focused research or evidence, aim for reliable and current sources, these can be found through citations from recommended readings. But how can you be sure the text is relevant? 

You can preview the text before committing to a thorough reading. You can do this by scanning, looking for particular pieces of information, or skimming to get an overview of the structure and potential contents using headings, subheadings, and figures. Tools such as genei make this process quick and efficient by providing AI generated summaries and outlines of your reading material. This makes it easy to complete a thorough scan and identify if you can meet the reading goals you set initially. At this point, you might begin to ask some broad descriptive types of questions to see if the reading material relates to your learning outcomes or needs for your exam and essay plans. 

Critical Reading: The Strategies for Active Reading 

Identify the main points very early on. After previewing the text, this might already be apparent. However, being able to synthesise the core idea of the text can provide a framework for your reading. This might be clearer by looking through the introduction or conclusion of the text, which would require a little more depth than previewing the text. By having a firm grasp on the main point, you’ll be able to carefully digest the material when reading, and maintain your focus on the core message. This way, it’ll be easier to draw critical observations, and begin asking specific questions to analyse and evaluate the author’s ideas. 

Annotate your reading material to remain actively engaged. Your mind might be less likely to wonder if you’re proactively seeking to jot down your thoughts, questions, or mini summaries while reading. This is a good way to make notes if you find connections between your current reading material, and previous knowledge, or readings. Rather than notes, you can also underline, and highlight things of importance but use this sparingly as a way to draw attention to specific pieces of information. Annotation is also a key feature of genei, making the reading process seamless and efficient from start to finish. When you pair annotating with short, focused reading sessions, you will be able to thoroughly consider and engage with the reading material. This will be a useful strategy as you begin to ask those more critical questions, as we’ll discuss next. 

Ask specific, critical questions that allow you to enter a conversation with the author. When you begin reading, you will move on from the broad and descriptive questions such as what are the main points, how is the information structured, and instead begin to focus on analysing the material. For example, you might question the author’s arguments, conclusions, and whether you think their arguments are convincing or their points are well supported. Likewise, you can evaluate the usefulness and relevance of this reading material to your needs. After the initial preview, you’ll know it’s necessary to some extent, but how strong of an argument does it make, and how does this relate to your stance on the subject so far? For more critical questions that focus on analysis and evaluation, see these resources: Critical Thinking Questions and Critical Reading Questions. 

Test your ability to synthesise, recall and share information after each short, focused reading session. After you’ve read something, it’s easy to move onto the next thing, and soon realise, you still can’t quite remember the details. Although critical reading makes it easier to retain information, for memorising that information, and sharing it effectively with others, a little active recall after reading can go a long way. For example, you could paraphrase an idea, maintaining the original point while tailoring it to your audience, from memory. You’ll be able to identify any gaps in your knowledge as a thorough understanding is necessary to paraphrase well. Or, you could summarise the key findings from a piece of research, bringing to light the conclusions that support your arguments, without cluttering the reader with unnecessary details. Alternatively, instead of writing, you can discuss reading material with your friends, family or course mates. This is ideal if you have completed the same readings, as you can help each out and hear things from a new perspective. 

Finally, take the time to reflect on whether your original reading purpose or goal was met. Did you find what you were looking for? Have you built a critical view of the topic at hand? Or, improved your comprehension of a particular theory? You might come away from reading feeling accomplished but checking in and reflecting on whether you did meet that initial goal is important. These strategies are best used often as possible, rather than after reading a bulk of material. You can take time to pause, reflect and recall which will improve your comprehension and ability to retain information.

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