Need to write a critical review but unsure of where to start? Don’t worry, it’s normal to feel stuck when writing a critical review.
So, how should you approach a critical review? Well, you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the article. But, more than this, you need to draw links between this article and other relevant papers. This is important if you want a first-class grade!
Critical reviews are difficult, but they can help you improve your research and selection skills. That said, let’s explore how to write a critical review of an article.
How to be ‘critical’
First and foremost, be clear on what it means to be ‘critical’. If you’ve read our guide on how to critically discuss, you’ll know that being critical isn’t just about being negative.
Being critical means weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece of work and considering its implications and applications from various perspectives.
That said, in order to ‘be critical’ you must:
- Fully immerse yourself in the work(s) you are critiquing.
- Keep an open, balanced mind.
Why critically review an article?
Understanding why your tutor has set this piece of work can help you to feel more motivated to finish it. So, why would your tutor ask you to critically review an article?
Well, being able to critically appraise others’ work is considered essential to thrive as a student. This is especially true if you want to progress to master’s or PhD level study.
Writing a critical review can help you to become a more discerning researcher, because it teaches you how to appraise other people’s work.
If you can become good at critically appraising one paper, you can become good at appraising a bunch of papers. So, this means that when writing subsequent essays, you can accurately discern which research papers are worth including in your essays, and which are not.
Not to mention, an assignment like this also introduces you to the practice of peer-review; another practice that is central to UK academia.
What should I include?
The expectation of what a critical review should include will vary between subjects. As a rough guide, it should include the following:
A brief overview of the content
Generally, you should assume that your reader has not read the article, so you will need to include a brief description of its content. Remember to be brief in order to leave enough space for critique.
It’s up to you whether you write a short paragraph at the beginning of your review summarising the article, or whether you describe and critique the paper as you go along. The latter strategy can be more impressive, but it is more difficult to do.
Acknowledge (and critique) the author’s rationale
Ask yourself, why did the author(s) write this article? What problem or issue were they trying to solve? Ultimately, your review should say whether you agree that there was a problem to be solved, and whether you think this article has addressed this problem effectively.
So, for example, let’s say you need to review an article that tested whether putting stricter quotas on fishing can tackle the overfishing crisis.
First, ask yourself, is there enough evidence to confirm that we are facing an overfishing crisis? Use your response to this question to determine how ‘important’ you see this article to be. Moreover, ask yourself, were the authors right to focus on stricter quotas as a potential solution, or could/should they have focused on something else?
Remember, you are not just critiquing the paper itself but the decisions (or rationale) that led the authors to formulate this type of paper in the first place.
Strengths and weaknesses of the methodology
Most critical reviews should discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology, since the choice of methodology relates to issues like reliability and validity.
When critiquing the methodology, ask yourself why you think the author(s) chose this approach. For example, if they chose to conduct qualitative interviews rather than administer a quantitative questionnaire, why do you think they did this?
Tip: Most journal articles have a section at the end where the authors discuss the limitations of their paper (including the methodology), so this can give you some hints if you’re struggling to find any weaknesses with the methodology.
Research methods is a broad area of study, so we strongly recommend you take out a research methods textbook from your university library; this will introduce you to the basics of different research methods which will help you to critique the article confidently.
Applications and future directions
Remember we said that a critical review shouldn’t only be negative? Indeed, you should generally say positive things about the article, too.
One way to do this is to consider alternative applications of the author’s theory or argument. So, let’s say that the paper found that caffeine helps improve people’s memory. You might wonder whether caffeine could be an effective treatment for memory disorders and recommend this as a potential avenue for future research.
Remember, one of the aims of a critical review is to ‘fit it in’ to the wider literature. This will show off your ability to draw links between theories, concepts, and disciplines.
Language and tone
Depending on the type of article you are reviewing, you might also want to comment on the language skills of the authors.
Have they presented their ideas coherently? Is the argument easy to follow? If you had written the article, would you have approached it differently? Under this remit, you might also consider the quality of presentation.
Questions to ask yourself when critiquing an article
As mentioned, your tutor might have some quite unique requirements for what to include in your review. But, generally speaking, these are some good questions to get you started:
- Is this article convincing?
- What part of this article is most/least convincing to me?
- Does this article solve a problem?
- Does this article oversimplify (or exaggerate) a problem?
- How would I summarise this article in one sentence? (write it down)
- Does this article support or refute previous research?
- Did the author(s) formulate a specific hypothesis? If so, what was it?
- Were the findings largely in-line with the author(s) predictions or were they surprising?
- If another researcher replicated this study, are they likely to find similar results? (e.g., if this study was done in a different country, or using a different medium, what influence might this have on the results?)
- When was this article written? Is it still relevant?
- What have other commentators said about this article?
- Does this article feel biased or balanced?
Should I reference other papers?
Your tutor will be able to tell you whether your critical review should include other references.
However it is a good idea to include additional references because this shows you can ‘fit’ this article into the ‘bigger picture’ and draw links between different theorists’ ideas.
Moreover, when making an evaluative statement about a particular weakness within the paper, including a citation can help you to appear more authoritative.
For example, let’s say you write ‘The authors only included 12 participants so the sample size was very small; this means the findings cannot be generalised’ (Smith, 2010).
By including a reference to Smith (2010), you are showing that you have read up about sampling and the effects of using a small sample size. This demonstrates that you have thought carefully about various aspects of the article and done your own research to critique it confidently.
Tips for getting started
As with all academic papers, getting started is often the hardest part. That said, here are some tips to help you kickstart your critical review:
- Fully immerse yourself in the article – try to read the paper through at least three times so you fully understand it. If you’re finding it hard to focus, see if you can find an audio version of the article. If you can’t find an official audio version, copy-and-paste the content into Word, click the ‘Review’ tab and then click ‘Read Aloud’.
- Tell someone else about the article – This is a great way of testing your comprehension of the article and can help to increase your motivation for finishing the assignment.
- Check out the reference list – The reference list of the article can be useful for finding relevant sources for contextualising the article, e.g., some of these references will likely refer to the opposing side of the debate (you need to engage with these too).
- Make notes – Make notes as you go, and you will find it much easier to write up your critical review later.