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How to Read (and Understand) a Psychology Journal Article

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If you are studying psychology in high school or college, you are going to need to read articles published in academic and professional journals at some point. You might read these articles as part of a literature review for a paper you are writing, or your instructor may even ask you to write a critique of an article. Whatever the reason, it is essential that you understand what you are reading and find ways to then summarize the content in your own words.
Research articles can be complex and may seem daunting, especially to beginners who have no experience reading or writing this type of paper. Learning how to read this type of writing is mostly a matter of experience, but utilizing a few simple tactics can make this process much easier.

1. Start by Understanding How a Journal Article is Structured:

At first glance, a journal article may seem to be a confusing collection of unfamiliar terminology and complicated tables. However, most articles follow a fairly standardized format that conforms to guidelines established by the American Psychological Association (APA). By understanding this structure, you will feel more comfortable working your way through each section.

  • The Abstract: This short, paragraph-long section provides a brief overview of the article. Reading the abstract is a great way to get an idea for what information the article will cover. Reading this section first can help you decide if the article is relevant to your topic or interests.

  • The Introduction: The second section of the article introduces the problem and reviews previous research and literature on the topic. This part of the article will help you better understand the background of the research and the current question that is under investigation.
  • The Method Section: This part of the article details how the research was conducted. Information about the participants, the procedures, the instruments and the variables that were measured are all described in this section.

  • The Results Section: So what were the actual results of the study? This important section details what the researchers found, so pay careful attention to this part of the article. Tables and figures are frequently included in addition to the text.
  • The Discussion Section: What do the results of the study really mean? In this section, the author(s) interpret the results, outline the implications of the study and provide possible descriptions of future research that should be conducted.

  • The References Sections: This section lists all of the articles and other sources cited within the article.

2. Skim through the article:

Once you understand the basic structure of the article, your first step should be to briefly skim through the material. Never start by doing an in-depth reading of an article before you have skimmed over each section. Attempting a thorough read-through before you’ve skimmed the contents is not only difficult; it may be a waste of valuable time. Skimming is a great way to become familiar with the topic and the information included in the paper. In some cases, you may find that the paper is not well-suited to your needs, which can save time and allow you to move on to a research article that is more appropriate.

3. Take Notes on Each Section and Ask Questions:

Your next step should be to carefully read through each section, taking notes as you go. Write down important points, but also make note of any terminology or concepts that you do not understand. Once you’ve read the entire article, go back are start looking up the information that you didn’t understand using another source. This might involve using a dictionary, textbook, online resource or even asking a classmate or your professor.

4. Identify Key Information:

Whether you are looking for information that supports the hypothesis in your own paper or carefully analyzing the article and critiquing the research methods or findings, there are important questions that you should answer as you read the article.

  1. What is the main hypothesis?
  2. Why is this research important?
  3. Did the researchers use appropriate measurements and procedures?
  4. What were the variables in the study?
  5. What was the key finding of the research?
  6. Do the findings justify the author’s conclusions?

5. Note the Sources Cited:

When reading a research article, it’s all too easy to focus on the main sections and overlook the references. However, the reference section can actually be one of the most important parts of the paper, especially if you are looking for further sources for your own paper. Spending some time reviewing this section can indicate important research articles on the topic area in which you are interested.

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