Researching an assignment
There is no single way to research an assignment. It depends on the nature of the assignment. But a wise researcher knows where to look, asks for help when they need it and then knows when to stop.
Researching, like writing, is not about reaching perfection (although we might strive for it). When researching and writing in some professions, such as law and medicine, the consequences of inaccuracy or miscommunication could result in miscarriages of justice and even be life threatening. Nevertheless, whether you are a professional working in the discipline, or a student on the way to becoming such a professional, researching, reading and writing concerns doing the best job you can with the time and resources available. When researching the literature for an assignment, following the guidance in this chapter should save you time and focus your attention on gathering high-quality material that is most relevant to your task.
4.1 Being strategic
In carrying out research you need to be strategic. You need to quickly gain a sense of the information that is available, how it relates specifically to your task, and how to judge its value in completing your assignment. It is easy to waste time gathering information that is not exactly relevant to your task or is of poor quality. You also need to be prepared to change direction, based on the information you are finding. In many cases you start out with preconceived ideas (and this allows you to make a preliminary plan), but often it is only when you have gathered material that your response to an assignment takes shape - and perhaps in unexpected ways. This is as it should be. After all, if you knew the answers before you carried out the research, why carry out the research? An assignment is intended to stretch your learning, not simply to reinforce what you already knew and understood.
Taking online information alone, as you are no doubt aware, there is a huge volume of material on almost any topic. Searching the World Wide Web using a search engine such as Google and the phrase ’global climate change’ will find many millions of relevant webpages. The problem is, from the wealth of material available to you, to quickly find and evaluate the best sources for a given writing task. That is what this chapter is about. Given that you have understood the nature of a task, as outlined in Chapters 2 and 3, then your next step is to find the information you need to write the assignment. Identifying key words, phrases and underlying themes, while understanding the scope of the assignment, is key to carrying out an efficient literature search. These parameters set the boundaries for what you do and don’t need to find.
YOUR UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
Your university library, information centre or resource centre (for convenience, we’ll call it a library) is much more than a repository of information on paper. It is an electronic gateway to a world of online material, much of it in peer-reviewed journals, which is accessible from on or off campus. The library is also an invaluable source of expertise. It normally provides:
- computing terminals, printers, scanners and photocopiers
- an online catalogue of resources held by the library, or to which the library has access
- paper (hard copy) information such as books, journal articles, newspapers, magazines, dissertations and theses
- online resources, including those for which the library pays a subscription, such as electronic journals and e-books
- resources in media other than paper or electronic print, including CDs, DVDs and photographic slides
- bibliographic databases to help you search for relevant information, including interdisciplinary databases such as Web of Science and disciplinary ones such as Eric, Psychinfo or Pubmed
- subject librarians, who provide one-to-one assistance and may also run courses on various aspects of information literacy
- online tutorials to help you develop your literature-searching and other information skills, including evaluating information, citing and referencing, avoiding plagiarism, copyright issues and managing references
It may hold specialist collections of artefacts as well as the kinds of materials listed above.