How to research is aimed at pre-university students, to explain why research skills are so important, and to explain how to do research effectively

As you progress up the education ladder, the responsibility of learning will shift from your teacher to you. Perhaps you have already experienced this, with your teachers asking you to find something out in your own time, rather than simply presenting the information to you. Certainly, by the time you get to university independent learning will be the norm, and you will be expected to do most of the work yourself. This means that you will need to learn how to carry out effective research.

Why research things?

Most of us are likely to begin researching something because we have an interest in it, such as a theory, a film or a sport. It is likely that you have searched for something on the internet, then clicked on another link, then another. Before you know it, you’re a million miles away from what you originally searched for! That search has led you to discover things you didn’t know before, and would probably never have found out otherwise.

Teachers often set A level students homework tasks that involve looking things up, allowing you to find out more about a topic than can be covered in the lessons. Usually there is more than one point of view on something, so it’s important to look at the wider picture. In terms of your A level studies, this will allow you to evaluate theories more effectively, resulting in higher marks. Beyond education, it is important to find things out for yourself, because much of what we’re told may not be the full story. This doesn’t necessarily mean the original source is wrong; usually it’s because things are a little more complicated than they might first seem. Finding things out for yourself can be frustrating, but it’s ultimately much more satisfying.

So where do I look?

The first place many people turn to is the internet. It’s a brilliant invention and you can find out an awful lot in a very short space of time. Google scholar, Google books, and things like online Newspaper Archives are all wonderful sources of information. YouTube contains some excellent university lectures, as well as short videos on how to do all sorts of things, from rewiring a plug to sequencing DNA.

However, anyone can post anything on the internet and it isn’t checked for accuracy. Some websites, such as Wikipedia, are referenced, and they are reviewed by other people, so you can be fairly sure that the information you read there is accurate.

Another place to look is the library. Your school library (if you have one), your local public library or, if you are in a university town, the university library, are a treasure trove of books, academic journals and articles. University libraries differ in their rules about non-university members using their facilities, so check before you visit. Public libraries allow you to take books home, and they can usually order in a specific book if you request it.

Libraries organise things using the Dewey Decimal Classification System. This means that you can easily find what you are looking for as books are ordered by subject, and each subject is given a number. “Science” is given the number “500” so you would look in the “500” section of the library for books on science. (100 is Philosophy and 800 is literature and so on). Ask the librarian if you’re not sure.

Read critically

It's important to read critically, by which I mean that you should keep asking yourself questions:

  • 'how does this fit in with what I know already?'
  • 'is this relevant to my project?'
  • 'is this argument convincing?'
  • 'is something being left out?'.

The answers may not be clear, but just by asking the questions you are engaging more actively and more effectively with the material you are reading.

You’ll need to make notes on what you find.

Of course, reading around your chosen subject is all well and good, but if you don’t take notes on what you find, you are probably going to forget most of it very quickly. Copying huge chunks of text from a book or article is a complete waste of time, as you don’t gain anything from it.

Write a summary of the key points as you go along. Some students find highlighting key terms and phrases from the text to be an effective way to do this, although you may need to photocopy the chapter you need first! Our guide to making good notes tells you more, Whichever method you choose to use, make sure you keep a record of the source. Which book did you get this from? Who wrote it? If you don’t do this, then when you use this information, you may end up plagiarising someone else’s work.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is where you take someone else’s work and give the impression that it’s yours. Put simply, it’s intellectual theft.

It is a growing problem in schools and universities, and universities go to great lengths to check whether people are submitting work that is not their own. This is usually thought to be written work, but it can also apply to other media, such as computer code or pictures. Universities are making use of software which is excellent at finding examples of plagiarism in students’ work. The punishments for plagiarism can be severe, from the loss of marks, to expulsion from the institution. It’s not worth the risk!

There is a major difference between acknowledging someone else’s work in your own work and plagiarism. To refer to someone else's work, and where relevant to include a quote from it,  is a key aspect of most academic writing, as it puts your own research in its wider context. When directly quoting from a source, the phrase or sentence you are going to use should be referenced, either using a footnote, or by putting the author’s name, and the page the book is from in brackets after the quotation (the Harvard System).You should also limit the length of any quotation to the minimum necessary, and not to use other people's words as an excuse for not finding your own way of expressing something

So, quoting is OK so long as it is relevant to a point you are making, limited in extent, and acknowledged. Simply lifting huge chunks of text from a book, or internet page, and putting it into your own work is unacceptable.

How do know that what I’ve found is accurate?

If you found a website that claimed that bicycles have square wheels, you would instantly dismiss this as being inaccurate. However, most of the time it isn’t that obvious. It is also likely that what you’re reading will be biased in some way. This doesn’t mean that you should instantly ignore it, but it does mean that you have to understand the position the author is coming from, and bear it in mind when you are reading.

If you want to be sure that what you’re reading is accurate, then check more than one source. Look at several websites, or a couple of different books. If they all say the same thing, then it’s probably fairly accurate (check they aren’t all making use of the same original source though!).

A good way of checking for bias in online sources is to look at the name of the website and who is providing the information (the “about us” section of the website is helpful for this). If you’re looking for an article about abortion, for example, then a website called “Abortion is Wrong” is unlikely to provide the most balanced argument. Look at a variety of sources and, if you really can’t find an unbiased source, then use several biased ones, but whose biases are different (e.g. “Abortion is Wrong” and “Women’s Reproductive Rights” will, together, allow you a more balanced view of the whole topic). Then try to come to a balanced conclusion of your own.

Refining, finishing and writing up

Generally academic research has a purpose, and it's important to bear that purpose in mind as you delve deeper and deeper into the wonderful world of knowledge. After each bit of reading, ask yourself 'how does this fit in with my purpose' and be sure to keep a note of why that piece of research was (or wasn't) relevant. As you progress, use what you find out to determine the future pattern of your reading, by asking yourself 'what gaps in my knowledge or argument do I still need to fill in, and what's the best way to do that?'. Do by all means use what you find out to refine the direction of your project, but make sure you keep the purpose in sight or you may end up chasing your tail and spending lots of time on reading which isn't relevant to the task.

And once you've covered the ground, stop researching and start writing up your project. You probably won't be sure you've read enough, and if in doubt, discuss it with your teacher, but you can always do a bit more research if the writing up reveals gaps. It's important not to fall into the trap of using research as an excuse to delay writing your report!

This advice article was written by  Clare Compton of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

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Related article on this site

How to make good notes

Article updated: 29th June 2021

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