What’s the evidence? How to Critically Examine Text

When reading a journal article or book, it is important to evaluate the author’s arguments rather than simply accepting them as valid. You should ask yourself: what is the evidence that supports particular statements? Passionate emotions, intuition, deep personal beliefs, and allegiance to particular authorities or “schools of thought” are not evidence; they are sources of bias in thinking. Evidence may include interview data, measurements of observable phenomena or events, the results of carefully structured experiments, surveys of public opinion, photographic evidence, and many other forms.

Some important questions to ask while reading include:

  • What evidence does the author use to support assertions and interpretations?
  • Is the type of evidence offered adequate to support the author’s assertions?
  • Is the author making any questionable assumptions?
  • Are the overall conclusions drawn from the evidence appropriate?
  • If comparisons are used, are they appropriate?
  • Does the author appear to be biased in any way? If so, what are those biases?
  • Based on the evidence presented, could you tell a completely different story or come to different conclusions?
  • When references are cited, are they from credible scholarly sources?

How does one know if an author might be biased? If an author states that most citizens of a particular country dislike the country’s leader, but their evidence consists of interviews with five citizens, then their “sample size” is too small to provide adequate evidence. Even if the author has interviewed a large number of citizens, it would be helpful to know that participants were not asked leading questions, as this biases the data. Additionally, if we learn that an author is a member of a rival political party that has openly denounced the leader, then we have identified a potential source of bias. However, bias should not be assumed on this basis. The evidence offered may be sound.

Learning to look for the evidence upon which particular assertions are made and to critically evaluate this evidence is useful not only in developing critical reading skills; it also helps your own writing become more evidence-based and thus more sound and convincing.

Neurodiversity: Beyond the Disability Label

Judy Singer, a sociologist with Asperger’s syndrome, has been credited with coining the term “neurodiversity.” The idea of neurodiversity considers a student’s learning differences but also moves beyond those difficulties and argues that there are variations in humans, just as there is bio-diversity in any particular animal species, and these variations may have some benefits. Simply put, it is argued that the brain of someone with a learning difference is merely a variation of normal, with that person having “differences” in cognitive function and not merely deficiencies. Unfortunately, discussions for those differences has too often been narrowly focused on “disabilities” or “deficits” requiring strategies and tools to help with the learning process. The need for strategies and tools is important and should not be minimized. However, neurodiversity emphasizes that students diagnosed with disabilities also have valuable “abilities” that need to be recognized, respected and nurtured in the education process.

The concept of neurodiversity is not without controversy. For example, the medical model of disability focuses on treating those with disabilities in an effort to cure them or make them as “normal” as possible. However, this model can be problematic, as there are those who argue that cognitive differences are not treatable illnesses. Instead of a medical model of disability, they might argue for a social model of disability. For example, Singer (1999: 64), writes that, “the ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.” The social model of disability arose as a response to the medical model and posits that people may have impairments, for example, like not being able to walk. However, if, within the society, ramps, lifts and other equipment are made available to accommodate people in wheelchairs then they can access the same facilities as those without impairments. Conversely, if society does not take their needs into consideration and accommodations are not made available, then this is what causes a person with impairments to be “disabled.” Let’s take this further and apply it to a situation in which someone has a neurological difficulty, for example, students with learning difficulties in an education setting. These students are able to achieve academically when the needed accommodations are provided. However, when accommodations are not provided, one might say that the learning “difficulty” becomes a learning “disability” due to a failure in society (the educational institution) to provide the needed accommodations.

Neurodiversity is a term that critiques the label of “disability” and prompts us to think about how we might develop or enhance the “abilities” of those with learning difficulties and other impairments. It also helps us to think about how society could be better organized to accommodate the needs of a neurodiverse society. For more information on neurodiversity, visit the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. For information and a person-centered discussion on the medical and social models of disability, visit Scope.

Singer, J. (1999). Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a ‘problem with no name’ to the emergence of a new category of difference. In M. Corker, & S. French (Eds), Disability discourse, 59–67. Buckingham: Open UP.

Break It Down: Getting to the Main Points of Books and Articles Quickly

The amount of required reading you encounter as a university student can sometimes seem overwhelming. However, don’t despair, as there are things you can do to make the reading process more efficient and increase your understanding of the literature. For example, don’t try to read articles or books from beginning to end if your time is limited. Instead, focus on key sections which reveal the main ideas, arguments and supporting evidence. Start with determining the topic or focus of the research. This should be discernable from the title, with more detail found in the article abstract. A good abstract will provide you with an overview of the work including the purpose, aims, methodology, results and conclusions of a study. The title, back cover, and table of contents will reveal the focus of books. Additionally, consider reading academic reviews of books.

Turn to the introduction of an article or book for an understanding of the rationale, why the work is important, and the research questions to be answered. From here you may want to explore the summary and conclusions sections, which usually provide answers to the research questions and a discussion of the wider implications of the research and possible recommendations. You can always return to specific sections of the reading for clarification of important points if needed.

Be sure to annotate the text as you read. This can be done directly on the page or with sticky notes if you’re using a library book and digital sticky notes for PDFs. Record any questions or things that are not clear from the readings. Your annotations can be used to create summaries for each reading which will prove useful to you during class discussions and when writing essays or other documents. You may want to use mind maps for your initial summaries if that helps you to better organize your thoughts.  See our article on mind maps for more information.

Create a summary sheet for each reading and include all citation information (e.g., title, author, date of publication, journal or publishing house). Remember to use quotations marks around verbatim text that you quote and include page numbers for direct quotes and paraphrased ideas.  The summary sheet can also include any arguments for or against the claims of the author.  These may be arguments that you have thought of while reading the text as well as arguments posed by other authors that you have read.

The contribution of your thoughts, questions and arguments can be used to stimulate class discussions and to demonstrate your understanding and thoughtful reading of the literature. It also provides an opportunity for you to receive feedback on your comments from classmates and professors and this contributes to your understanding of and engagement with the literature. For more information on reading skills and note-taking, visit the Oxford University Research/Library skills page.