If you’re about to start a new course at university, the chances are you’ve realised there will be a lot of reading. You might have already received an introductory reading list of books and journal articles, depending on the course you’ve chosen. So pretty soon, you’re going to need to get comfortable not only with reading course material, but also being able to interpret and analyse it.
And while you won’t be expected to read every single article or book chapter included in your extended reading list, for most students, reading academic literature as part of self-directed study will take up to 20 hours of their week. This can be a daunting thought, but what can help is knowing how to critically appraise an article or chapter. This will not only cement your understanding of a subject, but also prepare you for future essays and exams.
What is a critical appraisal?
A critical appraisal is “the process of carefully and systematically examining research to judge its trustworthiness, and its value and relevance in a particular context.”
Being able to critically appraise course material or content surfaced by a literature search will help you to:
- identify articles that are most relevant to your research, without having to read them all in full
- refine your reading list by screening out less relevant material
- assess how accurate the research is
- spot any potential for bias or weakness
You can critically appraise any piece of content, including research articles and book chapters. The appraisal process might show that a piece of literature isn’t particularly relevant to your area of study, or as accurate as you would like. In which case, you might decide to leave it to one side and spend more time searching for other articles that better meet your requirements.
How to critically appraise a paper
Reading a research paper from top to bottom can be overwhelming. Worse still, it can waste valuable time, which is why it’s important to critically appraise the work by homing in on some of its most important aspects.
Many students will skim read the paper to get an overview of the research and identify some key aspects needed to critically appraise it. However, emerging technologies such as AI-powered text summarizers and knowledge extraction tools can quickly highlight the key points of a research article for you, providing you with a useful starting point for your critical appraisal.
Although there are different types of papers available, from qualitative studies focusing on concepts and opinions, to cohort studies that follow research participants over a certain period, the appraisal process remains quite consistent. Here are some key questions to consider during your critical appraisal:
How valid are the results?
When considering the validity of the results, you should first look at the aims of the research and whether the methodology is appropriate. This information is usually quite easy to find, as it normally appears either in the abstract or in the introduction.
If relevant, you should also consider whether the recruitment strategy was appropriate to the aims of the research. Sometimes the author might explain how they selected the participants and why. This can often be revealing and surface any potential conflict of interest. For example, if the researcher chose to sample students within their university, you might want to consider whether they had a pre-existing relationship with these participants and whether there’s the potential for bias.
Lastly, consider how the data was gathered. Does the researcher explain how the data was collected and why that method was chosen? The use of audio to record participants, for instance, might suggest that the reporting accuracy of dialogue is excellent. However, you might want to consider whether the use of audio equipment might have prevented participants being as truthful as they would have otherwise been.
What do the results show?
Once you’ve reviewed the research methodology, it’s worth turning your attention to what the results actually show. In doing this, you’ll want to check that ethical issues have been taken into consideration – for instance, has the researcher treated research participants’ details confidentially?
When reading through the results, consider whether the data analysis is sufficiently in-depth. For example, does the author discuss how they carried out the analysis? What did they do with any contradictory data that emerged? And were they able to critically examine their own potential bias and influence during the analysis?
Lastly, look to see if there’s a clear statement of findings. If there is, are the findings discussed in direct relation to the original research question, and is there enough discussion of the evidence both for and against the author’s arguments?
How will the results help?
Finally, the question that gets to the real nitty gritty of a research paper: how valuable is the research? Does it explicitly add something new to the evidence in your field, or does it build upon existing knowledge? The paper might even challenge a popular belief, which could be useful for expanding your knowledge on a subject and building a compelling argument in an essay.
If you’re studying a practical subject, such as medicine or finance, it might help to consider how useful the paper’s results would be in practice – and whether the results would change how you would act. For instance, would the paper’s findings change the way you might manage a patient’s symptoms, or how you would advise people to invest?
Critical appraisals: A summary
The appraisal process is a useful skill to master. It might take a few attempts to feel comfortable with critically appraising a piece of content, but before long you’ll be completing them with ease.
By considering these key questions you’ll be able to make your reading list more manageable, dedicate more time to the research that’s most relevant to you and acquire greater knowledge of your subject.
Burls, A. What is critical appraisal? [online] Available at: <http://www.bandolier.org.uk/painres/download/whatis/What_is_critical_appraisal.pdf> [Accessed 22 August 2021]
2 Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (2019). [online] Available at: <https://casp-uk.net/casp-tools-checklists/> [Accessed: 22 August 2021]