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Navigating the Research Process

Understanding your Assignment

Quick Tips

  • Read the assignment to get an overview.
  • Read it again, this time circling/underlining important points, like due date, page length, format.
  • What are the important words or phrases?
  • Write down ideas of how you might tackle the assignment.
  • Ask your professor questions if you have any.

It may seem obvious but before getting started on anything related to research you should make sure you've actually read the assignment and fully understand it!

Practice: "Dissecting your Assignment" tutorial

Starting with the Internet

Your professor might give you a specific topic to write about, tell you to pick one out of a list of options or give you free rein to pick any topic related to your class. This information will be available to you in your assignment.

Regardless of your freedom of choice, you can't just jump into peer-reviewed academic research articles if you don't even know the basics of your topic. Scholarly or research articles will have a lot of terms or vocabulary with which you may be unfamiliar. If this is the first thing you use to start your research, you might get overwhelmed (or bored, tbqh) very quickly.

You need background information: names, dates, definitions, etc.

So, at this point in your research, it's actually a good idea to do a Google search or check Wikipedia. 

via GIPHY

Don't be too shocked, we both know you were going to start there anyway :) 

But why is it a good idea to start with a Google search?

There are a few reasons.

  • It will give you a better, although general, idea of the topic you have and what people have already written about it.
  • Depending on what you need for your assignment/topic, it will help you collect some resources (websites, blogs, newspaper articles). If you need current events information, you will definitely find that in a Google search

But don't think this is where your searching stops. Google and Wikipedia are a good place to START, but you'll run out of good options pretty quickly.

In many cases, the type of information required of you (scholarly articles) might not even be available in a simple Google search. Soon after Googling you'll have to switch gears to doing research at the library. 

The pitfalls of Google

Google dominates our lives in so many ways. They are the most used search engine (about 65% of the market). Doesn't everyone use Chrome and have a Gmail account? Google knows a lot about us, but we don't know everything about them.

How does Google decide on the search results and the order they display? 

Many factors influence this:

  • Your search history
  • Your location
  • What other people are searching
  • Money: ads and sponsored content

It is important to be aware of these issues, not only when searching for an assignment, but even when you need some information for your personal life. These factors can sway your search results.

Sometimes this is okay. If you are looking for information about a place to eat lunch, you want to get results that are closest to you, not in a totally different state. 

Here is a very informative and complex infographic about this issue: http://www.seobook.com/learn-seo/infographics/how-search-works.php 

Take Aways:

  • General Internet searches (Google/Wikipedia) will help you find basic information about a broad topic
  • You should not just jump into scholarly materials if you do not do some background research
  • Take the opportunity to think about your assignment, your topic and how you want to approach answering a question or solving a problem. 

The Information Cycle

Think about how quickly you can find out if your favorite baseball team is winning today's game.

Your smartphone and the internet make current information available nearly instantaneously.

But what happens to that information over time?

When doing research for class, your topic will guide you in deciding the resources you need.

Let's say you want to research a current event, something that just happened over the weekend. Most of the information that you will find this week will be on social media and other parts of the internet, including newspaper websites. The physical newspaper will take a few more days to print the whole story. But, if you try to look for scholarly research on the event that happened last weekend, you're not going to find it. It takes months, if not years, for scholars to write about an event and their research about it.

If your topic includes something that happened about a year ago, you will start to find research about it in scholarly journals published within the last few months.

The information cycle infographic to the right illustrates the timeline new information flows through. As you can see, it can take longer than one year for information about an event last weekend to appear in a book, like an encyclopedia or even a popular non-fiction book.

You might be thinking:

"Wait, if I can't find scholarly stuff, does it mean I have to change my topic??"

No, not necessarily. When researching a current event or issue, take the opportunity to see if there are scholarly articles about something similar. You can see if the same thoughts and recommendations apply to the more recent event you are studying. 

Keep this in mind as you look for information about your topic:

Where are you going to find the most information about a recent event or current issue?

Remember: Google and Wikipedia are perfectly good places to start. But don't stop there.