Standing at the feet of the world's collected knowledge can be daunting and overwhelming when starting to do research. How do you even begin a research project? Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch! Let’s discuss some strategies for gathering information in your next research project.
Narrow your focus
When you sit down to research, decide what you’re going to be spending your time learning. Chances are, your research topic is broad and can be broken down into small questions. These are much easier to manage. Let's say you have a half hour block carved out for research. If you only have one small question to answer, you’ll be less distracted on the total of what you’re researching, and it’ll feel like a bigger accomplishment when you find the answer to your narrow focus. All your narrow questions will add up to a better understanding of your research topic. Start small; decide what small question you’re going to answer even before heading out to study.
Find the right setting
Find a place that is comfortable and conducive to good study; some place free of distractions. Libraries are good because they’re quiet, free, and are filled with physical resources. Most even have free wifi. Coffee shops are a popular choice as well. They usually have stimulating coffee, and very comfortable chairs….and again, free wifi. Studying at home is usually not a great idea despite it being very comfortable, since everything from television and video games, to chores and even roommates can interrupt your flow. I often sit down to write these blogs and then 15 minutes later, wind up doing laundry for 2 hours. For me, I need to make sure I have access to water, coffee, and snacks as well. Pick a space that satisfies your needs and you’ll be physically setting yourself up to succeed.
Use a timer
I talked about this in an earlier blog about taking breaks. Our human brains aren’t designed to focus on one thing all day. Your brain needs rest just like our muscles, so it’s a good idea to take frequent breaks. Personally, I have issues with naturally feeling when I should take a break, so I like to have external technology tell me when I should take my breaks. Usually, I work for half an hour and then take a 5 minute break, but you can use any block of time that works for you. This also goes back to my first piece of advice. Using a timer to time your small research chunks will keep you focused on easily researched, bite size questions.
Find an interesting way in for you
The worst research projects for me were the times when I was assigned a topic which I had no affinity for. I’m not alone saying that I had trouble researching something I found boring. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding going on there, though: I think that any research topic will have a fact somewhere which connects with something you care about. Maybe history is your thing; you could frame your research around the story of why people care about whatever it is you’re studying in the first place.
Use an outline format
Just like taking notes in school, formatting your research with an outline helps see what you have already learned and what you still have yet to learn. I personally like to write out my research questions well in advance in order to see a roadmap of my research. I also like to use a strategy I learned in first grade called KWL: Know, Want, Learn. Basically, you write down all the Knowledge (or assumptions) you already have about your topic. Then, write down all the questions you still Want to know or would like to
clarify, and once you do the research, you summarize what you Learned. Another method is the Cornell Method of note taking. Sort of a combination of outline and KWL, the Cornell method organizes notes into the outline format on a large box on the right side of the notepaper, a smaller box for main ideas and topics on the left side of the paper next to the corresponding outline section, and a box at the bottom for a summary of your notes which you fill out after your lecture or research. These are simply methods of organization. Organized research makes for easier recall and learning.
Use current and quality sources
This advice will be familiar to anyone who has been in school ever; don’t use wikipedia! Or rather, use Wikipedia to frame your research, but choose verified sources to actually gather your information. Figure out why the author is qualified to write about the information you're looking for. Also, it is important to take note of the year your source is from. The amount of information in the world is always being added to and will naturally evolve. It’s important to use your own judgement call though, too, since some things change faster than others. Doing research on internet memes will probably require more current sources than research on what the word for house in Spanish is.
Pull out conclusions and summaries instead of pure syntax where possible
Facts, numbers, and statistics are important, but they’re meaningless if there’s no context or conclusion to apply them to. One of the reasons people use the Cornell method listed above is because it makes the researcher focus in on the reason they’re doing the research in the first place. Summarizing your research in your own terms can also be a powerful proof that you totally understand your research subject.
Talk it out!
A lot of my research comes from Crash Course: Study Skills on YouTube, and they suggest a few things at the end of research. First, creating your own quizzes and quizzing yourself is a good way to recap your research. And second, explaining your research to a person who is unfamiliar with the subject can prove that you understand your topic. They even mention an informal programmers trick called the Rubber Ducky Debug. When their program is having performance issues, a programmer will explain what their program is supposed to do to an inanimate rubber ducky, and often, that small lever of separation can reveal that they were too close to the program or not thinking about it the right way.
Follow your outline -- but not too strictly! The discovery of unexpected facts is one of the greatest joys that comes from research.
This is what I always look forward to when starting a new research project. Finding a fact that is tangentially related to my research topic that I hadn’t expected to find and never knew before is tremendously exciting! Sometimes it can even change how I look at my research topic. Being open to the facts influencing you and your conclusions is super powerful. Don’t ignore it or underestimate it!
Research is something that doesn’t end once you’re out of school. Whether doing it for a project, for a job, or for your own personal enrichment, we’re going to have to do it at some point. Using strategies will always make it a much better time; you won’t have to dread your next research project if you know how to tackle it!
What is your favorite note taking method? Do you write with pen and paper or with your laptop? What was your favorite research project in school? Let’s discuss these questions and anything else research related over on Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to subscribe to Professional Geek on Apple Podcasts, and while you’re there, leave us a review!