When an academic assignment asks you to ‘critically review’ or include a ‘critical analysis’ of the work of other people, it generally means that you’ll need to ‘think critically‘. This means analysing and assessing the work in terms of what the author was trying to achieve, the approach they took, how they conducted the research, and whether the outcomes were valid and acceptable.
A critical review evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of an item’s ideas and content. It provides description, analysis and interpretation that assess the item’s value. It’s an exercise that can be carried out on many different types of writing, but is most often carried out on a report, a book or a journal article.
Thousands of publications relevant to HR appear every year, via established journals, websites, management consultancy reports and universities all over the world. With so much information becoming available, many of which offer new ideas, new HR theories and approaches, it’s important that HR practitioners can evaluate whether what they read is valid, sound and unbiased. We can’t take everything we read at face value, and it’s an important skill, and a very important activity to conduct, if you’re going to base corporate change and your proposals to management on information from published sources.
Selecting an item to review
For study purposes, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to carry out a critical review of one or more journal articles. You may be directed to a specific journal article, or asked to select one based on your own research on a particular topic, or on a topic of your choice.
If you’re given options to make a choice, you’re more likely to achieve the required outcome if you use well-known academic journals. These might be found in a library, on HR websites such as HR Focus, or via any online journal hosting service, such as EBSCO which is provided free to CIPD members via our website [link].
An article will only be useful for a critical review assignment if the author has stated what the question was, how the research was done and the outcomes or conclusions based on the facts and evidence listed.
What is a journal?
A journal (sometimes also called a ‘periodical’) is a publication produced on a regular continuing basis - it may be weekly, monthly, quarterly (every 3 months) or annually.
The titles of journals (for example The Journal of Occupational Psychology) indicate the main topic focus of the articles contained in it.
As they are published regularly, journals usually have volume and issue numbers, and sometimes months, to identify them.
- a volume usually covers a specific year – so, for example, volume 45 may be all the issues published in 2013.
- an issue number refers to a specific instalment of the journal within that volume – they are often numbered issue or number 1, 2, 3, etc.
- as well as, or instead of, a volume and issue number, some journals use the month of publication. This information is often crucial in finding specific articles.
There are two main types of journal:
Academic journal (also called scholarly journals) - these often contain research articles written by subject experts; they contain academic commentary and critical evaluation of issues by experts. The articles will be written in an academic style and they may be ‘refereed’ or ‘peer-reviewed’ – that is they articles are assessed, often by members of an editorial board who are experts in the field, before they are accepted for publication. Articles from this type of journal are usually suitable for a critical review exercise. The International Journal of Human Resource Management and Harvard Business Review are examples.
Trade or professional journals - these usually contain news articles and comment on current issues. The articles often contain practical information and are written in everyday language. They also often have a ‘jobs’ section and news of people in that profession. They are likely to be written by journalists rather than academics and don’t usually have such rigorous publishing criteria. These articles may not be so suitable for a critical review exercise. People Management is an example.
The critical review process
Before reading the article
Take time to:
- Think about what content are you expecting, based on the title?
- Read the abstract for a summary of the author's arguments.
- Study the list of references to determine what research contributed to the author's arguments. Are the references recent? Do they represent important work in the field by accredited authors?
- Find out more about the author to learn what authority they have to write about the subject. Have they published other works which have been peer-assessed by other experts?
Assessing the article
Read the article carefully but straight-through the first time to form an impression. You may find it useful to note down your initial reactions and questions. Then re-read it, either right-through or in sections, taking notes of the key ideas. Use these questions as a framework.
- Who was the article written for?
- Why has the author written the article? To survey and summarize research on a topic? Or to present an argument that builds on past research? Or to disagree with another writer's stated argument?
- Does the author define important terms?
- Is the information in the article fact or opinion? Facts can be verified, while opinions arise from perceptions and interpretation.
- Is the article well-structured? Is it organised logically and easy to follow?
- Is the information well-researched, or is it largely unsupported?
- What are the author's central arguments or conclusions? Are they supported by evidence and analysis?
- If the article reports on an experiment or study, does the author clearly outline methodology and the expected result?
- Is the article lacking any information or arguments that you expected to find?
For more on effective reading and note-taking, see our guide on studying effectively.
Evaluating the argument
A key part of a critical review is assessing the author’s ‘argument’. In this context, the argument is the line of reasoning or the approach or point of view of the author. It may be the author is defending a particular idea. They may be trying to make a case for something, perhaps a new idea, in which case there would then need to be evidence, examples and a clear set of conclusions coming from the research, or investigation done. To be academically acceptable, any outcomes stated should not be just the author’s ideas alone, they must be backed up with valid, appropriate evidence.
Questions to ask yourself about the item you’re reviewing are:
- Is there a logical progression through the argument?
- Do you feel the argument is strong enough?
- Is there enough valid evidence?
- Does the author make any assumptions and, if so, are they reasonable?
- Are any surveys valid – for example, is the sample size representative and large enough for any conclusions to be valid?
- Would the findings and conclusions apply to other organisations, or are they too specific? Why?
- Do you think the author was biased? Why? For example, it can be useful to think about who funded the research and whether could that have influenced the findings.
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to agree with the author’s views - this would form part of your critical thinking.
A key skill when thinking critically is to be objective in what you are reading or thinking through. Look at both sides of the argument, think of some tests you could do to establish if the ideas are sound. You might apply them to your own organisation for instance.
Writing the critical review
The output from critical thinking in a professional context is usually a report – a critical review of the item(s) chosen for a given purpose (for example, as student assignment or, in a work setting, to a project team).
The steps are to:
- Select your area for review, and the reason for choosing it.
- Identify the different information sources reviewed, naming type, when accessed, and through which online database or source.
- Explain why you chose these source(s) to review (unless they were given to you).
- Highlight and comment on the different research approaches and methods used by the author(s).
- Comment on the argument and conclusions, drawing where necessary on your wider research.
- If required, make recommendations to named stakeholders for sustaining or improving practice, based on the findings in your sources.
Useful contacts and books
CAMERON, S. (2009) The business student's handbook: skills for study and employment. 5th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education.
COTTRELL, S. (2013) The study skills handbook. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
COTTRELL, S. (2011) Critical thinking skills. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
HORN. R. (2009) The business skills handbook. London: CIPD.
NORTHEDGE, A. (2005) The good study guide. 2nd ed. Milton Keynes: Open University.
OPEN UNIVERSITY. (2007) Develop effective study strategies. Milton Keynes: Open University