*we thought we would experiment with using ChatGPT to generate a blog title! Comments welcomed 🙂

In the second of our ‘mini-series’, Ori offers some useful insights into how to engage critically with your reading and deal with information overload. Although talking about her dissertation, Ori’s advice is applicable to students undertaking a variety of assessments across degree programmes:

Hello again guys, hope you’re all managing to power through this semester, despite the mid-term assessments.

As always, here’s my quick general update: I’ve been clumping through this semester with my huge moon boot – I broke my ankle a few weeks ago by leapfrogging over a bollard. In case you’re wondering, this is not unusual for me, I’m a fun loving gal. Whenever I see one I simply must jump over it, but this time sadly it really wasn’t fun. However, I will not let this ruin my inner child; I was either fantastically optimistically or very very stupidly eyeing up – you decide –  another bollard the other day despite this (as I still can’t really fully stand on my poor ankle, and as my boot makes one leg taller than the other, I wisely decided against it. Self growth?). Anyway, it affected me more than I realised it would, so I’ve had to get some extensions for my midterms. This also included an extension for my draft dissertation deadline – which for me ended up being on the 16th March. I managed to include three chapters and my introduction section, but I’m still writing my final chapter, revising my literature review and drafting my conclusions section.  This week I am going to share how critically approach and manage sources for my dissertation – which will include being able to draw out your own arguments and therefore approach them with originality. This is something that I’m still working out myself, so I’ve made my usual list of tips and popped them below. Hope they’re helpful!

What makes a good source?

In the context of a dissertation, this will sometimes depend, as it can rely on your methodology. For instance, if you’re doing a media based dissertation, then of course you will most likely primarily use the type of sources we’ve been trained not to fully trust – such as newspaper articles etc (but NEVER Wikipedia, although I completely get the temptation). However, even whilst completing this type of dissertation, academic articles as a method of critical analysis will be needed. Ultimately, then, a good source often comes down to where it’s from. You can ask yourself key questions like these:

  • How reputable is the platform you’ve found your source on?
  • Is it well referenced and coherent?
  • How old is this source – is it still applicable to the current day?

Choosing your source will often overlap with your critical analysis, some of which you can create by answering questions like this.

How can I critically analyse my sources?

A key way often used to analyse a source is by critiquing it, although this of course must always be well justified (and sometimes there won’t be anything to critique). To do this you can think of questions partially mentioned above and below. Think of the date of publication, its structure, and its main argument. Sometimes it’s helpful to step back from it as an academic source and just think about whether you actually agree with its argument and main points too – perhaps you don’t disagree with it at all. If you’re really stuck, maybe summarise it to a friend and see what they think – maybe you won’t agree with your friend, or there will be something they say that can help you. Here are some questions below that I often use, to help me work out how I want to critically analyse the source:

  • Who are the authors? For example, if an author is writing about research conducted with or within an indigenous community, is that author also from that community? If they’re not, what are the implications?
  • Have the authors included everything possible?
  • Have they included too much?
  • What would you add or take away from their point to make it better?
  • Do you agree with their overall points or argument?
  • What is their tone? Do they draw you in, what language do they use – are there any harmful connotations, implicit or explicit bias, stereotypes, harmful assumptions and stigmatisation?
  • What methodology is used? Have they used the best approach?
  • Has the author published newer work since on the same topic? Or, do they have any older useful publications?
  • What is the source’s impact?

Another key element in successful critical analysis is nuance; it’s easy to critique but what about the good parts of their work? What about real life impact? You are also a part of the academic community, and when I’m writing I like to think that in a way it is a colleague of mine who has written the source in question. It’s also helpful to add parts that you thought were good about their work as an element of persuasion, as you can use this in contrast to your critical analysis, and therefore to make your critical analysis more balanced and powerful. This can also work the other way – if your critical analysis is based on the positive aspects of their work, you can use any negative aspects of their work to contrast with your critical analysis to add elements of nuance and persuasion. Also, side note, but make sure to use an active voice where possible, instead of a passive voice. This is something that a lot of my lecturers/seminar tutors have advised me to do.

Another way is to look at critical analyses of the source, such as book reviews. These can give you ideas, and also can provide a further level of analysis – maybe you don’t agree with existing analyses of your source.

How do I know which sources to include?

I personally really struggle with this. I tend to get really carried away and start including multiple sources, but end up not going into enough depth and critical analysis. I also have an awful time cutting words, because I’ve usually gone overboard. I think ultimately, choose the sources you know the best and that you enjoy reading, that are fundamental in your arguments, and that you feel contain or involve your strongest points of argument. It’s often a balancing act, and it will depend on what your topic is – there may be some sources you have to include, especially if it is a theory based dissertation.

Another helpful way to decide which sources to use is to make sure you have a solid plan. Know how you want to structure your dissertation, or at least the section that you’re working on, and that way you can work out which sources that you definitely want to include, and therefore which ones you have to know well to be able to discuss them. Ultimately though, it could also just work out as you go along. I’ve found myself adding and removing certain sources as I finalise my arguments – and even finding the perfect source just when I think I’ve finished that section, which is irritating but weirdly exciting. 

How do I deal with information overload?

Whilst writing my dissertation I’ve felt quite overwhelmed at times with the sheer amount of sources I feel like I have to get through. It felt pretty never ending in the beginning, and even now I know that there is most likely still a lot more out there to read. However, you won’t be able to include everything, and even if you could it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to. Remember that this is your research, so you decide the direction that it goes in, and therefore what sources to include or exclude (although I’m not too familiar with other demands/expected directions of research outside of the social sciences – your direction of research may be predetermined in some cases such as within the natural sciences).

Like me, you may also have to do a lot of skim reading, so I’ve listed below some of my key tips for this:

  • Make use of sticky notes or tabs – I have read a lot of chapters so struggle to remember specific pages etc., which is where shoving in a sticky tab (potentially colour coded if you’re feeling wild) is very useful
  • It may be obvious, butcheck the abstract and conclusions of academic articles – if those don’t relate to what you’re researching then move on
  • Download your source online, open it in Microsoft Edge and highlight away to your heart’s content. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I only learnt this ‘trick’ last year at the ripe age of 22, embarrassing.  I also like downloading my sources and searching for keywords to find the juicy relevant bits.

That’s all from me for this month! Wishing you all success and healthy ankles this semester!

Ori 😀 x

For more help on critically reading for your final year project, visit our online resource The Final Chapter