How To Critically Read a Research Article as a SPT/SPTA

For a lot of students, myself included, reading research articles can be frustrating. I spend half my time googling statistical terms that, by the time I have defined all the terms, I have forgotten what the purpose of the article was to begin with. Or if I take the other route and completely ignore the statistics, I finish the article thinking it was great only to find out that I should have been skeptical of their conclusions.

As a student we are required to read research. As a professional it is expected that we do evidence based practice. To make reading a research article slightly easier I spoke to Odessa R. Addison, DPT, PhD, a faculty member at UMB, about the best way for a SPT/SPTA to critically read a research article. Dr. Addison is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at UMB School of Medicine. Under the funding of a VA CDA-2 career development award, Dr. Addison is examining the effects of weight loss + exercise vs exercise alone on improving mobility in older Veterans with PAD and the muscle mechanisms by which this improvement occurs.


5 Steps To Take When Reading A Research Article


Step 1: Do they have a statistics section?

  • If not run for the hills- this is a huge RED FLAG
  • If they do proceed to step 2

Step 2: Did they use the right statistics?

  • Look at what type of variables they are using in the study - are they using the appropriate statistical test?
  • Check out our statistics dictionary in our Student Resources page
  • If they have nominal data such as looking at weight, they should be using a Non-Parametrics test
  • If they aren’t - another RED FLAG

At this point if they have a statistics section and they used the right tests you are off to a great start!

Step 3: Interpret the results

(aka go to the Discussion section)

  • In the discussion section the authors should discuss if their results were statistically significant, clinically significant, and if not, why.
  • The why is key! Don’t throw out the article just because their results weren’t “statistically significant”

Step 4: Read the article in its entirety

  • Now that you’ve decided that your article is using the right statistics and you have made an opinion on whether you think the results can be clinically significant, read the article!

Step 5: Ask yourself how you would use this information in your clinical decision making?

  • Reflect on the sample population, interventions used and results. What is your take away from the article?
  • This is the last, but crucial step. This will determine if you will actually implement the information you learned into your clinical practice.
  • And that’s it! This will take practice, but the more you critically read research articles, the easier it will be. Just like we tell our patients, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”
Megan Mitchell, SPT