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How do I research my assignments?

Research is an important component of your assignment preparation process. It is through reading, thinking about that material and writing about it in your own words that your learning about that material is demonstrated to your marker.

Example of assessment criteria

This outline of the research criterion from a Management unit illustrates the difference between a satisfactory amount of reading and discussion of the issues, where the student has covered most things - but quite shallowly - and the amount of research required for an excellent essay.

Criterion Research: Extent of research, interpretation and application of theory and critical analysis (45%).
Grade: Credit Satisfactory level of understanding and interpretation of the question; there may be minor inaccuracies; lacks depth in discussion, but covered most of the relevant issues.
Grade: High distinction Discussions display broad and in-depth research of the assignment topic; highly developed critical analysis and assessment, and application of different approaches.

In this case, a wide range of reading which demonstrates that the student has considered the topic (both issues and applications) in depth, must go hand-in-hand with good critical analysis. Note, too, the weight given to this important element of assignment preparation.

See also How do I conduct research?

Process of researching

The research to writing QuickRef on the Language and Learning Online site provides some pointers on the process of researching and writing assignments.

Regardless of the nature of your assignment, the skills and strategies required for the process remain the same. The steps involved are listed here sequentially; however, it is important to acknowledge that you are likely to revisit most stages at some point.

  1. Defining (preparing)
  2. Good research begins with good preparation. The main features of the first stage of the research process are:

    • understanding the assignment topic and requirements
    • defining key words or themes
    • identifying existing knowledge
    • planning research questions
    • setting the scope of the task
    • understanding the purpose of the research.
  3. Locating (finding)
  4. Once the purpose, scope and requirements of the assignment have been defined, the process of locating relevant resource material begins. This involves:

    • identifying what to look for and where to find it
    • determining search terms and research parameters
    • consulting library catalogues, databases, bibliographies, search engines, recommended texts, knowledgeable experts
    • considering a range of sources, including books, journals, websites, people, images
    • collecting and managing resources
    • recording all relevant bibliographical details.
  5. Selecting (sifting/choosing)
  6. The information collated during the location stage may generate a redefinition or refocusing of the research project. Selection and evaluation of resources takes place to a certain extent during the location stage, but it is often better to collect more information than you need, at least initially. Careful evaluation of the assembled resources is necessary to ensure they are appropriate, authoritative and relevant. Selecting resources involves:

    • identifying the source of the information
    • focusing on the assignment topic to determine the objectivity, accuracy, currency, suitability and academic merit of the information
    • skimming and scanning resources to sort information into categories
    • taking brief notes and observing how different sources may relate to one another
    • identifying questions or areas which may require further research
    • establishing which are your principal and supplementary resource materials.
  7. Organising (sorting/structuring)
  8. This step of the research process requires a more detailed reading of the resource material and the development of a structure for the assignment. Here, the skills of notetaking and arranging information are necessary, as is:

    • keeping your notes focused on the topic
    • writing in your own words
    • sorting information into categories
    • considering how various elements of the topic connect to one another
    • establishing a detailed plan or outline of the assignment
    • developing an argument
    • integrating sources and quotations effectively.
  9. Presenting (synthesising/communicating)
  10. Following the plan established in the organising stage, the task now is to write the assignment. Presentation of the research entails:

    • pulling all the information together
    • checking that information relates to the original question
    • considering the sequence in which the information is arranged
    • drafting and editing the assignment
    • considering the purpose and audience for the assignment
    • writing concisely, clearly and accurately
    • proofreading
    • following all appropriate academic conventions.
  11. Evaluating (reflecting)
  12. Although many people consider the research process to be over as soon as the assignment is submitted, it is important to reflect on what has taken place, in order to consider what has been learnt and improve next time. The evaluation stage involves:

    • thinking about performance at each step of the process
    • analysing how research skills or techniques could be improved
    • reflecting on knowledge gained
    • considering how this knowledge may be applied in other contexts.

    The process of researching is iterative: this means that what you find will help determine what more you need to do. You will find that you collect information, think about it, return to it, discard it, add to it in the process of developing your response to an assignment topic. This process involves organising your approach.

Structuring your assignment

Consider different approaches to thinking and questioning such as concept mapping.

Two other techniques

Storyboards

This technique was devised by Dr Ben Dean and requires Post-it notes in two sizes and a poster board.

Start by writing all your ideas about the assignment on the smaller sized Post-it notes, taking care to record where the idea has come from so you can follow it up later. Each idea should be written on its own Post-it note. Then, consider each Post-it note individually and determine whether or not you want to use the idea it expresses. If so, stick it on the poster board. If not, stick it in a 'scraps' envelope.

As you add more Post-it notes to the board, start sorting them into categories. Write headings on the larger Post-it Notes and stick the smaller ones under them. Make as many categories as required until you end up with columns of Post-it notes.

Next, organise the smaller Post-it notes into a useful or linear sequence under each category. If one idea seems to supplement or support another, you could indent the Post-it note slightly. Go through each category, then organise the categories themselves.

At this point, it might be easier to divide the poster board into columns which you can then rearrange. It is a good idea to number the categories or columns for later reference. If you discover any gaps in the sequence, it may be time to head back to the books. Otherwise, write out an assignment plan according to the 'storyboard' you have devised and start writing.

This system can also be used if you have taken notes on cards. A pinboard or magnetic surface can be used to arrange the cards, or you could do it on the floor.

Reverse outlines

A reverse outline is created after you have written your assignment. It can be a useful way of highlighting the hidden structure of your assignment and determining whether or not it requires some reworking. To do a reverse outline, begin by numbering every paragraph then writing down the main points being made in each. This should give you an overview of the assignment and the information contained in it.

Once you have done that, you need to determine whether or not each individual paragraph contains only one main idea and if all the sentences in the paragraph relate to that idea. You also need to check if the sequence of ideas is logical and that ideas are grouped together. If they are not, restructure the paragraphs or reorder them until they appear in a more logical sequence.

Another way of doing a reverse outline is to use different colours to highlight different ideas, then check if the same idea is being expressed in more than one place in the essay.

More

Find out more about the process of researching for assignments and developing your response to assignments in Language and Learning Online.

Being strategic

It is important to be strategic with your research efforts. For example, you may find you can't actually spend as much time as usual on researching for one assignment. You might then aim for (as per the example above) a credit.

If you're after a higher mark, you'll need to be strategic with your reading. The key thing, of course, is to manage your reading overall.

Some people find themselves overwhelmed with trying to find more and more information. You will find tips for determining when to stop going any further with your efforts under Organising your study.

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