Almost everything we’ll ever need to know is written down somewhere. You can learn to be anything you want to be within your limits if you can master planning, study, research, critical thinking, and information literacy (or as I like to call it – infolit). If you master each of these skills and keep good daily habits, you can grow faster than someone can teach you.
This second part of “Essential Skills: How To Learn” is on how to research.
There are many people who are amateurs and pretend to be experts and there are people who don’t have a clue pretending to be amateurs, but almost everyone calls themselves an expert. It’s difficult to connect with expertise in our culture. Just compare the screen-time that football stars and actors get to philosophers, scientists, and teachers. The industry of entertainment versus the industry of truth. Hell, our president is a TV personality. (Or is he a Twitter personality?)
Now imagine a society in which everyone is a highly skilled researcher. What if we all could constantly filter out secondhand information and find credible, relevant, original sources and fact-checked with ease because we practiced it?
In this second part on the essential skill of Essential Skills: How To Learn, I’ll talk about how to research. We first learn to research in school to make papers and presentations for our teachers, but that is a useless objective. We should be learning to research because we are life-long learners, and no matter what, we will always need higher quality, credible information.
Choosing What To Research
Pick a topic you’re curious about and write down your questions about it. Think of keywords and get a gist of the topic on google. If your info is too hard to find or if you are getting too many or too few results, your topic might be too broad or narrow.
Read what you’re curious about. Choose a topic that engages you and appeals to your passion! What do you want to learn about? How much time do you have to commit to reading? Does the date of the info need to be current or does it matter?
Write down the questions you have about your topic. Write down what you already know and what you want to know about the subject. Avoid yes/no questions and ask the 5WH. (“Who, what, when, where, why, and how?”)
Find keywords. The easy way to do this is to start reading about your topic and to look for repeated words unique to the subject. You can also make a keyword search chart.
Look for background info. Background info can be found in textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, encyclopedias unique to the subject, and article databanks. Background info can brief you on the topic if you don’t already know about it. It can also help you define terms, collect dates, events, history, and names of organizations and businesses.
Refine your topic. If you find too much info during your first search, your topic is too broad. If you’re having trouble finding info, your topic is too narrow. Choose a topic that’s somewhere between broad and narrow – that’s the sweet spot.
Check out my article for tips on how to study better!
Research uses study strategies to get information from diverse sources. Sources include books, eBooks, articles, videos & images, databanks, websites, and “grey literature”, which is a fancy name for someone else’s research.
Here are some search strategies to improve the kind of info you find.
Searching Databases For Info
Use keywords, truncation, and connecting words to get results in databanks. Connector words are “and”, “or”, and “not”. Truncation symbols widen results and help you look for similar, helpful words. Truncation symbols are ?, *, !, +, and $.
Searching “men*” in a database will return results for “firemen”, “policemen”, “mailmen”, “menstruation”.
Search Google! It’s faster.
Searches are not case sensitive, so searching “barack obama” returns the same results as “Barack Obama”. Keep searches detailed, but in as few words as you can.
Google automatically truncates search terms. To stop this, use a + sign in front of each word. Use double quotations marks (” “) to search exactly what you type in. (Searching “Barack Obama” will return sites that contain “Barack Obama” just as you typed it.
To search an entire site for something, type your search then type “site: example.com”. To allow other words to be in your results, type “OR”. The results will return any of the words you type on either side of “OR”. The connector word has to be all caps.
Read books for in-depth info
Check a book’s table of contents or index to find the unique topic you’re looking for. Bum citations from the bibliography. It’s better to look for books that are newly published.
Search Videos and Images
You can find videos in all the popular places at YouTube, Vimeo, Metacafe, Flickr, and Break. Images are easily found on Google Images, just get the sources and cite them later.
Peer-reviewed articles are read by other scholars in the field to make sure that the research is legit and makes sense. Scholarly articles are written by experts, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been reviewed.
Scholarly articles are written by scholars, professors or researchers. They’re written for experts using experts’ vocabulary (the natural enemy of amateurs and the bane of an expert’s relevance). They have an abstract (the summary of the work), a literature review of related research, a brief of their procedure, their data, their result, their notes, and their bibliography (the bib).
By using scholarly articles you support your arguments with experts’ writings. Many databanks only have scholarly articles. Others allow you to filter for them in your search. Periodicals are published as journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Grey Literature includes things like theses, essays, conference papers and proceedings, research reports, and government archives.
Conference papers and proceedings can be hard to find because they can be published as books, journals, or abstracts. They take a few years to be published, if at all. Grey lit may be stored in archives who-knows-where. The good news is most of us dabbling readers can get by without that shit.
Government archives are a crucial first source on a wide range of issues. They can be found on government websites. (.gov)
Research projects, studies, and surveys, are usually published by the funder of the researchers. Research reports can be found by searching the websites of subject associations and research organizations.
Google Scholar gives us an easy way to research from a lot of diverse subjects. Databases provide you with 24/7 access to magazine, journal and newspaper articles.
Database types can be interdisciplinary, where they cover info from a broad range of subjects. They can be discipline specific where they focus on unique studies. They can be subject specific. (i.g. news, statistics, art, law, and more). They can have background info with definitions and encyclopedia articles.
Databases do a lot of the same things. They have advanced search, which lets you string together terms to refine your search. They have subject headings and search prompts for finding search terms. They usually have tutorials for using their database, in case you’re stuck.
Databases have article linking, which means if you can’t find the full version of a text in that database it will lead you to one that does. In some databases you can create your own account to save your search results. They include citations and citations from Zotero, RefWorks, and EasyBib. They have videos, images, audio, translation ability, and autocorrect for pesky spelling mistakes.
Check Info For Truth
When doing research, it is important to find information that is legit, correct, and a good fit for what you need.
Primary sources are first-person accounts by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. The original document hasn’t been messed with by anyone else. A primary source can be the first issue of a scientific study, a speech, a lecture, letters, or a diary. All the knowledge you ever have is thanks to someone else who figured it out before you, so be sure to thank them. Primary sources are the highest quality information, so aim to get these as often as you can.
Secondary sources are one step removed from the primary original source. The author makes a conclusion based on the information in the primary source. Examples are a newspaper reporting on a scientific study, a review of a movie or restaurant, or a biography.
Tertiary sources are further removed from a primary source. These refer you to the secondary source, rather than to the primary source. An example is a bibliography. The more steps between you and the original source of information, the more distorted the information gets.
You can search results by publication type. Types of publications are:
Trade magazines. These are print versions with pretty pictures. They are written by staff and professionals with list references at the end of the article or footnotes. They have current events and special features within a unique profession or industry. They are published biweekly or monthly.
Academic journals. These contain graphs and charts and are not so easy on the eyes to look at. These are abstracts, methodologies, discussions, charts or tables, results, conclusions, and references written by academics or professionals in field-specific language for particular industries. They can be published bimonthly or quarterly. If you are not in the habit of reading scholarly journal articles, they can be difficult to read and understand.
General Interest magazines are illustrated, print versions with photographs. They’re written for the general public with articles written by staff or freelance writers. They have current events and special features and are usually published weekly or monthly.
Newspapers, famously printed in black in for the general public. Articles are written by staff and freelance journalists. They’re published daily or weekly.
Knowing how to acquire information can help with bigger life decisions, and finding crucial and correct information can help you make informed choices about graduate school, a new car purchase, financial aid, jobs, and your health.
When picking a source, use CRAAP.
CRAAP – Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.
Currency – How current is the info? Does that matter?
Relevance – Who will this info matter to? Who needs to see it?
Authority – What’s the expertise of the source? Are they a trustworthy source? (i.g. What makes this candidate a good candidate for president? Who are the author, publisher, and sponsor?
Accuracy – Is the info correct? Is there proof to support claims?
Purpose – Why does the info exist? What were the researchers looking for and do they have political, ideological, personal, or religious bias?
Write, Format, and Explain Your Info
Take notes, outline your paper, quote and recap sources.
Check out my last article for note-taking tips!
Use summaries, paraphrasing, and quotation to take notes. Summaries are short and hold the main ideas by restating them in your own words. Paraphrasing is also in your own words, but longer and with your own sentence structure. Quotation copies exactly what the source says with quotation marks and includes the name of the speaker/author.
Create a file for notes, sources, and ideas. As you add sources, put them in MLA or APA format. Group sources by publication type. Number each source within the publication type.
For websites, include the URL information and the date you accessed each site. Next to each idea, include the source number from the works cited file and page number from the source. When done taking notes, assign keywords or sub-topic headings to each idea, quote, or summary. Backup your notes.
When taking notes by hand (this is better!), use index cards. Make cards for each source that have the author, title, publisher, date, numbers, etc. in MLA/APA format to stay organized. On each note card, write an idea, fact, or quote from one source on a side.
Write a header at the top of the card. Write the source card number and write the page number of the info. When taking notes, use abbreviations, acronyms, or incomplete sentences to speed up note-taking. Only write the info that answers your research questions. Use symbols, diagrams, charts or drawings if they help you.
You should paraphrase when you can express in fewer words the main points of a source. You want to communicate the main ideas of a source, but not the words used with it. A paraphrase is the rewording of something written or spoken by someone else.
Quotes are the author’s exact words you’d like to use in your paper. Record them as they appear in the source. Use ellipses […] to mark spots where you omitted words from the text. Use quotation marks around the sentence. Note the source and page number of the quote in the sentence right before the quote or in parentheses.
A summary is a brief statement of the main points of a source. To summarize, pick a passage from a text, article, chapter or an entire book that supports your research. Read the selection until you feel you understand it. Write a sentence or two in your own words that captures the main points. Revise it so it’s clear. Note the source (and page number if there is one) of the summary in a launch statement or in parentheses.
Creating an Outline
Outlines can organize your papers and research. Place your thesis statement at the beginning, then list the major points that support your thesis. Label them in regular or roman numerals. List supporting ideas or arguments for each major point. Label them in capital letters (A, B, C, etc.) or as bullet points. Continue to sub-divide each supporting idea until your outline is fully developed.
Easy-To-Use Research Tools
Learn to use Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides. These are easy to use, free, and shareable.
Check out Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) for help with citation.
Mention your sources
Don’t steal other people’s work. Give credit to them, give proof for your research, and give your readers a path to learn more.
Annotated bibliographies are your reading list. They’re a list of books you read with a detailed recap and your take on how useful the books were. Sometimes your take should reflect how useful the source is compared to the needs of the researcher. The purpose of annotated bibliographies are to inform the reader of the bearing, truth, and nature of the sources cited. The important parts of an annotated bibliography are the citations, the author’s expertise, the purpose of the work, the topic covered, the findings, the reading level, the bias or stance of the author, the relevance of the info to other fields, and its relevance to your research.
Understand things like privacy, censorship, freedom of speech, intellectual property, copyright, and fair use are important for research! I’ll expand on these in the future.
Understand what plagiarism is. “The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.” – The Oxford English Dictionary
Changing someone else’s words around or looking for synonyms for their words is still plagiarism. Mention every source you use after stating a fact unless it is common knowledge.
Remember to cite Internet sources, the minutes of meetings, speeches, films, TV shows and ads, and anything else that doesn’t belong to you.
Plan Your Research
Research is easy when it’s something you care about, if you have infinite amount of time to do it, and if you plan it out yourself. This makes it a lot harder to plagiarize. Most people that have plagiarized just ended up running out of time.
Becoming a life-long learner means mastery of research skills, time management, and organization, but it’s also important to practice critical thinking, and information literacy in the age of the Internet. More on these next time!
You’re a life-long learner. What do you want to learn more about?