No matter what your major is, one of the most useful skills you can develop as a college student is the ability to read critically, and the earlier you learn to do this, the better. On the most basic level, reading critically means engaging and interacting with a text - taking notes, asking questions, comparing and contrasting. Another way to think about it is to consider not just what the text says, but how it works.
As new college students, you probably find yourself being asked to read more and to do it in shorter amounts of time than you're used to. Using the strategies listed on this page may seem awkward at first, but with practice they will help you to become more efficient and critical readers.
NOTE: The contents of this page are reproduced from the guide "Interrogating Texts" by Harvard librarian Sue Gilroy, with her permission.
Look “around” the text before you start reading.
Have you ever flipped through a book or article to see how long it was (translation: how much time and energy it would take to read)? That's one kind of previewing. But there are a lot of other useful things you can learn about a text before you start reading.
Previewing helps you to develop a set of expectations about the scope and purpose of the text and these impressions offer you a way to focus your reading. For instance:
The way language is chosen, used, positioned in a text can be important indication of what an author considers crucial and what he expects you to glean from his argument. It can also alert you to ideological positions, hidden agendas or biases. Be watching for:
Annotating puts you actively and immediately into a "dialogue” with an author and the issues and ideas you encounter in a written text. It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you.
Make your reading thinking-intensive from start to finish! Here's how:
Once you’ve finished reading actively and annotating, take stock for a moment and put it in perspective. When you contextualize, you essential "re-view" a text you've encountered, framed by its historical, cultural, material, or intellectual circumstances.
Also view the reading through the lens of your own experience. Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is always shaped by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place.
Outline, summarize, analyze: take the information apart, look at its parts, and then try to put it back together again in language that is meaningful to you.
The best way to determine that you’ve really gotten the point is to be able to state it in your own words.
Outlining the argument of a text is a version of annotating, and can be done quite informally in the margins of the text, unless you prefer the more formal Roman numeral model you may have learned in high school. Outlining enables you to see the skeleton of an argument: the thesis, the first point and evidence (and so on), through the conclusion. With weighty or difficult readings, that skeleton may not be obvious until you go looking for it.
Summarizing accomplishes something similar, but in sentence and paragraph form, and with the connections between ideas made explicit.
Analyzing adds an evaluative component to the summarizing process—it requires you not just to restate main ideas, but also to test the logic, credibility, and emotional impact of an argument. In analyzing a text, you reflect upon and decide how effectively (or poorly) its argument has been made. Questions to ask:
Set course readings against each other to determine their relationships (hidden or explicit).