Critical Reading with CritiqueIt: A Guest Post from Colin Brown

Our latest guest post is from Colin M. Brown, PhD, a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University.  He shares with us a great tool for teaching students how to critically engage with texts in a meaningful way.

Active learning has shown effectiveness in teaching concepts, but what about in instructing college students how to read effectively? One unavoidable problem in political science remains teaching students how to read actual works of social science. We expose students to original research and “great books” in our field as a way of simultaneously teaching the course content and also teaching how to read a particular style of social science argument.

This is well and good, and like writing, reading is a skill where students will learn mostly by doing. But are there things we can do to assist the process of learning how to read analytically?

Students may form reading groups, but this conversation still happens after the fact, and the reading process itself remains solitary.

Some new technologies have potential to make the reading itself into an active and collaborative learning process. In my (small, upper-level) discussion course this semester, we used a piece of proprietary annotation software –CritiqueIt –to allow students to comment on shared, digital copies of a subset of the readings, and to reply to each other’s comments. Because this was a test run for a small class, and only seven texts were used this way over the course of the semester, it’s hard to use this to make broad generalizations about the technique. But there were a few kinds of promising interaction that I saw:

  1. I could mark up the text beforehand with questions to help frame students’ readings.
  2. Students could ask a comprehension or terminology question and get my response.
  3. Students could offer comments and marginal notes for other students to view and react to.
  4. Students could point out flaws in/points of disagreement with the readings

For example, in reading E.E. Schattschneider’s Party Government, one student highlighted the passage: “He justifies the system by stating a famous argument against democracy, the supposed tendency of majorities to become tyrannical,” (p. 9) with the question:

  • Are there examples of political parties forming tyrannical majorities occurring in any modern democracies?

To which another student replied,

  • Perhaps Madison would have been most wary of political parties in a parliamentary system like the UK, where the majority can be “tyrannical.”

This gave me a concrete question on the topic I could touch on briefly in setting up the discussion, but also indicated that students were already aware of some of the potential institutional variation underlying party systems and we could jump right into that part of the discussion.

Until we actually test outcomes, it’s hard to say much about gains to learning; students seemed to like it, at least. As an instructor trying to lead a discussion-based seminar, I can certainly vouch for the helpfulness on my end. By posting pieces that I thought would either be difficult or controversial, I was able to get a sense before class of whether students had the reactions I expected, and could try steer our conversation accordingly.

For example, when we read parts of Fowler, Baker and Dawes’ 2008 APSR piece on genetics and participation, I had planned on focusing the discussion on the ethics of using this kind of knowledge in mobilization, but found that students were uniformly doubtful about the practicality of using this kind of knowledge, so I was able to come to class more ready for that conversation. The early pieces also were helpful in signaling to me the background knowledge that students had, as well as cases they were familiar with or interested in (the first student comment above went on to specifically ask about Japan, for example).

It also allowed me to do an gentler cold call on some of the students in the seminar who weren’t as assertive or talkative, in order to engage them with a more specific question that I knew they would be ready for: “[Name], in your comments you mentioned that you didn’t think this dynamic would work in the United States. Can you talk me through your thoughts on that?” As the course went on, students increasingly prefaced any remarks with something like, “Oh, I talked about this in my comments,…” Explicit feedback from students was limited but generally positive; formal evaluations are still open so it will be interesting to see how much this works into their comments.

So, this is definitely still in the experimental stage, but I am eager to see where this goes, particularly trying it out with larger seminars or even in more introductory/lecture style courses. But if we need to teach students how to read academic writing, then bringing active learning back into the reading process itself seems promising.

NB about NB: If you want to try this and your institution’s LMS does not support CritiqueIt, AnnotationsX or similar software natively, NB ( is a pretty user-friendly web app which supports PDFs and allows for back-and-forth on comments. It also has the advantage of allowing students to flag comments as questions needing answers, which might be especially helpful for introductory courses where there might be more comprehension questions.