Because a research degree is intended to make a contribution to knowledge, it is an important starting point for a research project to know what is known about your prospective topic. It goes (almost) without saying, that reading is an essential skill for undertaking a research degree; but when we use the term reading in the context of bodies of knowledge, as happens with a research degree, the notion of reading is much more complex.
When there is a requirement to undertake a literature review as part of a research degree, there are expectations that the research student will read a number of different discourses and form an opinion about the relationships between the range of things that are known about a given topic. This requires more than description of what each article is discussing. The crucial reading skill with literature is critical reading (1) .
Sometimes this term of critical reading can be misunderstood. It is not necessarily suggesting that you disagree with what is written in a particular article. It is being able to read the text of an article and comment on the perspective from which that text is written, and whether this perspective is different from other perspectives. This is sometimes described as bringing together affirming and disaffirming viewpoints.
One way to ascertain your student’s reading skills, is by setting them a reading task which requires them to submit a report to you about their reading. The reporting can be orally or in writing, with the oral report being a structured discussion with your students early in their candidature.
An annotated bibliography is a good example of the sort of task that you might set for your research student. You might require them to complete an annotated bibliography of a single article or a number of journal articles. You can even scaffold this type of assignment by providing them with a template in the form of a set of questions you want them to ask of the text.
1. What is this article about?
2. What is the research purpose or question that is being addressed in this article?
3. What theory has been applied in the article?
4. What assertions/propositions/hypotheses are developed in the article?
5. What methodology has been used (what sample, data types and sources, design, analysis). Does the paper nominate and articulate a paradigm?
6. What results are reported and how is this seen to make a contribution to the topic area?
7. What does the student consider is the ‘buy in’ or relevance of this article to their own PhD topic?
8. (Where multiple articles are reviewed) How does this article compare to the other articles you have read? Is there affirmation between comments or disaffirmation?
(These questions were inspired by an exercise that Professor Charmine E. J. Härtel at University of Queensland Australia uses with her students undertaking classes to support their research degree candidature.)
At the outset the task is ascertaining a student’s reconnaissance skills and their ability to locate articles, particularly if you have provided the references but not the actual article. Part of the contemporary challenge of reading a discipline is being able to locate the journal articles and master the many electronic searching tools that support this.
These questions predominantly test the student’s comprehension of the article. Some examining their ability to critically evaluate the article.
This does not have to be a written assessment. It is quite viable to provide the task for a student and suggest that you will have a discussion. For some students their strength lies in their oral communication and listening to themselves speak can provide the essence of what they might write.
Beyond the step of reading an individual article, is the challenge of reading not only multiple articles, but the large volume of reading that is often associated with undertaking a research degree. Part of this challenge is developing a system so that not only is the information being brought into some framework of thinking, if you need to go back and check something, then previously read materials are easily found and accessible.
Two systems that might provide a starter kit for a new researcher.
1. Sort into affirming and disaffirming.
After you have read your first article on your topic adopt a position. Either agree with the article or disagree with the article. This then establishes two folders into which you can file reading. This sounds very simple, but no two articles will necessarily match and slowly your filing system will grow bigger as you read more. Every once in a while you may need to reconfigure your filing system to accommodate the new way in which you are understand your topic.
2. Sort into chronological order
There is a natural sorting that is provided by way of the publication dates of the articles. If you begin filing your articles in publication date order this establishes a first level system. You can then look to see if an article refers to previous articles, and you get something more than a chronological order, you get the development of a line of thought. One thing that can become evident when you do this secondary sorting, is that you may have an article that no-one else is referring to. This might represent a new way of thinking or it could also represent someone writing oblivious of what has already been written.
For the supervisor, once you have established the level of reading that your student is demonstrating, you can then address whether there is a need to refer them to some additional workshops to strengthen their academic reading or to scaffold the development of their critical reading yourself. This could simply mean showing them how you read an article and pointing out the things which to you are self evident , but may not be to a novice reader. As the student progresses with their reading you will also observe their growth in confidence in discussing the nuances of each article and how it informs their growing understanding of their topic.
1.In the course of preparing this blog I came across a very good, free web sites devoted to critical reading or critical literacy http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4437