- How to perform thorough and relevant research
- how to absorb large amounts of information
- How to read large amounts of text
- How to take effective notes
In my opinion, study is more about efficiency than time. Some people boast about the hours they have spent researching, reading or studying, but if they have not been productive with their time it doesn’t really count for anything. However, if you maintain an effective process in carrying out your research, study, reading, note taking and so on, you will find you get better results in half the time.
When starting out, the prospect of research can be a daunting one, don’t worry, I’ve been there. Follow some of these steps and it will really help you get on top of your study and come out with the best results you can.
Planning your Research
Know what you need
The key to carrying out good research is really understanding what you are looking for. Check exactly what is being asked of you, note down bullet points of the key areas that you will need to gather information. Pick out the keywords associated with the question or brief. Then make a list of alternative key words that will help you in your search to find relevant information.
I found this really useful guide to process words. This was courtesy of the University of Westminster (https://www.westminster.ac.uk/library-and-it/support-and-study-skills/guides-and-tutorials/researching-your-assignments/understanding-essay-questions/understanding-process-words) and originally from the Student Study Support Unit at Canterbury Christchurch College.
Explain, clarify, give the reasons for. This is quite different from “give an account of…” which is more like “describe in detail”.
Break an issue down into its component parts, discuss them and show how they interrelate.
Make a case, based on appropriate evidence and logically structured for and/or against some point of view.
Consider the value or importance of something, paying attention to positive, negative and disputable aspects, and citing the judgements of any known authorities as well as your own.
This term asks for a combination of the criteria found in “analyse” and “assess”. Although it sounds as if it would be similar to “describe “or “summarise” it is asking you to be critical and evaluative in your approach.
Identify and discuss the characteristics or qualities two or more things have in common you will probably need to point out their differences as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to “compare” and “contrast”.
Point out and discuss the differences between two things. You will probably need to identify their similarities as well. Quite often an essay will ask you to “compare” and “contrast”.
Spell out your judgement as to the value or truth of something, indicating the criteria on which you base your judgement and citing specific instances and arguments as to how the criteria apply in this case.
Make a statement as to the meaning or interpretation of something, giving sufficient detail as to allow it to be distinguished from other similar things.
Spell out the default aspects of an idea or topic, or the sequence in which a series of things happened.
Probably the most common word to appear in essay titles and usually requiring analysis and evaluation of evidence as well as weighing up arguments and drawing conclusions.
Similar to “assess” in that you need to consider the value and importance of something and weigh up its different aspects, citing evidence and argument in support of your case.
Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to “describe” and to “analyse”.
To what extent
Explore the case for a stated proposition or explanation, much in the manner of “assess” and “criticise”, probably arguing for a less than total acceptance of the proposition.
Pick out what you regard as the key features of something, perhaps making clear the criteria you use in doing so.
Similar to “explain” but probably requesting you give specific examples or statistics to support your case.
Clarify something or explain it, perhaps indicating how the thing relates to something else, or explaining a particular way of looking at it.
Express valid reasons for accepting a particular interpretation or conclusion, probably including the need to argue a case.
Indicate the main features of a topic or sequence of events, possibly setting them within a clear structure or framework to show how they interrelate.
Survey a topic with the emphasis on “assess” rather than “describe”.
Give the main points briefly, omitting details and illustrations.
What do you already have?
Make a note of the areas that you are already familiar with, and the aspects you already know. This will help you figure out where the gaps are in your knowledge and what information you need to find out.
Make a plan
Before starting your research, make a plan of the different information you are going to be looking for. Make a list of the main topics that you will be looking into – so that you can then tick them off as you go. It also means you won’t miss anything out. Be prepared to adjust your plan, add to it and take things away from it as your research develops. You may see that your findings guide your research.
Are you considering your topic from all angles or just one perspective? Are you looking for new material or old material? Are you looking for specialist information?
Carrying out the research
Where to look
Firstly, check your assignment brief or project information to see if you have been given any suggestions or recommended reading that will supplement your research.
If you are a student, the chances are you will have access to a library with some sort of electronic database. This is a good place to start finding the resources you need. Every system is different, so if you aren’t sure how to access the information you are looking for, speak with your librarian, I’m sure they will be very happy to help.
Don’t forget there is more to life that just the internet! Yes, google comes up with some good results, but you need to expand your research beyond the comfort and ease of google. Make sure you consider books, journals, articles, audio, video as part of your research wherever possible. This will give you a much wider and valuable set of information to start your work from.
- Film and television programmes
- Market research
- Official publications (government etc)
- British Standards Institution
- Manufacturer information
Evaluating your research
Once you have collected your information, it is time to decide what is relevant to your needs and what is not. Make sure you note down where all your information has come from, along with all the required book details so that you can reference your research correctly.
You must then be sure that the source is reliable and useful for your research. Some of the things you need to consider are as follows, particularly relevant when finding information on the internet:
– What are the authors credentials?
– Is the article/book written on an area of the authors expertise and advanced knowledge?
– Has this author been mentioned to you by a lecturer, or in recommended reading?
Year of Publication
– When was the book/article published? Is it out-of-date, or still relevant?
– Is the source a first edition? If it is a revised edition it would suggest the book is kept up to date and reflects changes in knowledge.
– What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the content too simple, too advanced or just right for your requirements?
– Is the information in the source fact or opinion?
– Is the information supported by evidence? Is it well researched?
– Does the source cover the range of your topic? You should always try and explore numerous sources to gain a balanced and varied range of information.
Reading & Absorbing information
The ability to retain information without the need to spend hours studying is a really useful skill. One of the best methods for learning new information quickly is to use the ‘scan-absorb process’ method.
I often find I scan through the information first, marking what I consider to be relevant to then return to for more through reading. The scan absorb process method is dependent on your goal – i.e., whether you are just trying to gain an understanding of the article or more in depth knowledge.
So the first step is to scan through the information. If the information you are scanning is not easily digestible, consider reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph. This works on medium size paragraphs. If the paragraphs are too short you will end up having to read everything and if too long, you may be missing important points.
Note the table of contents. This gives you an outline to all the important points relating to the subject, and allows you to focus your efforts and take notes accordingly.
Scanning the information is the easy bit. You need to be able to absorb the information while you are scanning. The best way to do this is take notes as you go. This can be a scribble of the main points in a stream of consciousness style – you don’t need to write neatly and format your notes. You can write a basic outline, or you can rephrase the key points which will help you absorb the information better. You could also try making key points.
If note taking is difficult for you, an alternative is creating a mind map. These are more creative than basic notes, and you can show connections between information and refer back as required.
Question what you are reading as you go, again this helps you to absorb the information and concentrate on what you are reading. It also means you won’t skip important bits as you engage your mind.
If you will be referencing specific passages from the source, it would be a good idea to note down page numbers to you can easily find the information again.
Once you have scanned and absorbed the information, the next step is to the process what you have read. One way of doing this is to write out and rephrase the information that you have just read. Keep it short, it will help you to retain the information.
Another option is to dispute the article (works best with items that have different view points, opinions or methods). As you read your notes, try looking at it from another angle, look for what is missing, and write down the opposing views or ideas you may have.
Note Taking for research and revision
In order to take effective notes, you must first establish your main goal for taking the notes. Having a clear focus on your goal will enable you to produce more useful, organised notes.
The main goals of note taking are as follows:
- To select
- To understand
- To remember
We will look at the three reasons for note taking and the skills that can be used in each case.
Note taking to select
If you are making notes to assist you with an essay or report, you will need to understand and select information. You are essentially carrying out research and selecting the information that is relevant to the assignment brief in order to use in your final output.
In order to collect the correct information that can then be used in your assignment ensure you make note of the following:
- Details of the reference: Author, date, publisher and so on
- Record chapters and page numbers should you need to check back on information you have found.
- Use your own words to ensure your understanding of each point. By putting the information into your own words you will gain a better understanding of the topic but also avoid plagiarising sources, whether intentional or not.
- Double check each note you write is relevant to the assignment brief.
- If you are directly quoting a passage ensure you use quotation marks and acknowledge the authors words in your assignment.
For assignments that have numerous topics and areas, it is a good idea to organise your notes into topics, headings and so on. Perhaps use keywords to help you identify quickly which section your notes are referring to.
Note taking for understanding
When carrying out individual study, it is often difficult to truly absorb and understand the information you are ready. By taking notes you can engage yourself with the information and give yourself a chance to understand the material.
The best way to do this is to follow some key points:
- Summarise in your own words
- Copy technical terms or data to ensure accuracy
- If you are quoting an authors words, add your own comments to show your understanding of the information.
- Another useful method is to underline or highlight key information within the text to help you focus.
- As you read through, highlight central words that convey the key meaning of the text.
- Only highlight or underline your own copies of text – never on borrowed books.
Note taking to remember
By condensing information into notes, you can improve your ability to remember information. Some of the following techniques will be useful to aid recall:
- Select keywords to represent crucial facts and commit these keywords to memory
- Begin by using keywords with a few pages of text, choose a keyword for each heading then a keyword for each point under the headings.
- Test your recall by using the trigger of memorised keywords
- Practice the method and start to use throughout your revision.
Colours and images can also help with recall. Visual triggers can be more effective for some people than keywords, so see what works for you.
Diagrams can also be a way of gathering and holding large amounts of information on one page. Mind maps, spider diagrams and so on, will help you see links and connections between your notes.
Note taking in lectures
Note taking during lectures is a good way to absorb, process and understand the information you receive. These days, many lecturers provide hand outs of the slides they are using during the lecture, so often all that is required is additional notes on the handouts. However, there is still a requirement to take notes during a lecture, some reasons why this is important are as follows:
- It enables you to avoid unintentional plagiarism
- Gives you a better ability to focus on the important points that you are hearing/reading
- Enables you to gain a better understanding and memory of the information
- Assists with exam revision
However, there are negative aspects to note taking during lectures:
- It can distract you from listening to the lectures
- It can be stressful to those who are not comfortable writing notes, or for people who do not write naturally
- You can end up with so many notes that you spend too much time going through them looking for the important information
How to take effective notes
Before the lecture, think about the relevance of the topic to the rest of the module and think about what you already know about the topic.
During the lecture, identify key words that are significant and try to engage in the information that you are being given. Question it, and reflect on it.
After the lecture, take a few moments to consider what you have just learn. Write a summary of the main points in a few sentences. Make a note of anything you need or want to find out to further your understanding. If you have a seminar discussion, make a list of questions you would like to raise.
File any notes ready for future assignments or revision.
Don’t copy slides if you know they are going to be available to download or as a handout
Skim read the handouts so you know what they do and don’t include and what you will need to write down
Write your notes on the hand out if possible so they tie together
Much of research and note taking, and general effective study is about pre planning and organisation. Slowly teach yourself to prepare in advance before diving in to the project, in order to approach it in an ordered manner. Keep on questioning the relevance of the information and how important it is to you, your research, revision and so on.
I hope you have found this post useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write in the comments section below. Wishing you all the best in your studies.