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HWC Student How-To: Get Ready to Research

College-Level Research Skills

Make Sure You Understand Your Assignment

Your research needs will most often be determined by your assignment. The assignment may have stipulations about sourcing, and it is up to you to know the specifics! For example: 

  1. How many sources will you need?
  2. Do they need to be scholarly, popular press, primary, or secondary?
  3. Should you use a newspaper or government source?
  4. What are you required to do with the sources? Summarize? Utilize them to build an argumentative paper? Create an annotated bibliography? Incorporate them into a presentation?

Places to go for information:

First review the assignment sheet. If that is unclear or you would like further guidance, reach out to your professor. You could ask clarifying questions before/during/after class, email your professor and set up a time to meet, or visit during their office hours. Your professors like to talk to students and always are there to support you.

You may also want to talk to dependable students in your class to see if they have additional insight into the assignment.

Keep in mind that your teacher is the most valuable and accurate resource in this case!

Before you move on, make sure you know what is expected!

Think About What You Already Know About Your Topic

It is important to recognize that you are not the end-all, be-all authority on your subject, and that you will need to inform yourself with outside sources written by experts in the field.  That is not to say, however, that you know nothing of value.

Having a brainstorming session in which you write down all the things you already know about your subject will clarify the extent of your knowledge, help you pinpoint areas of confusion or gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in, and connect ideas that you had not fully mapped out in your mind before.


Figuring out What You Already Know:

Once you have a research subject in mind, take some time to figure out what you already know about your topic. Take a sheet of paper and write everything that comes to mind. You need not write in complete sentences or fully develop your ideas. For now, simply note what you already know. After you have written your notes, ask yourself if there are details you don’t know that would give you a fuller understanding of the topic.

Some Good Questions to Ask:

  • Is there a particular process, person, or sequence of events that is unclear?
  • How do my concepts fit together?
  • Are there laws, agreements, or social mores that govern my subject?
  • What is the history of my subject?
  • What is the social context of my subject?
  • Are there different sides of the issue?
  • Am I on one particular side of the issue?
  • Why do I feel the way I do about my topic?

Answering these questions will tell you where you need to focus your research.

Recognizing Your Biases

We all have biases. Cognitive biases are in-born patterns of thinking that deviate from logical and/or rational judgment. In other words, they are errors in perception that arise not because someone has tried to persuade us or given us bad information, but because we let our own biases cloud the information. There are many different kinds of cognitive bias. Click on the chart to see more!


File:Cognitive bias codex en.svg

Cognitive Bias

If information were easy the world would be perfect. We would rely on accurate, timely sources to inform our decision-making.  Ethically produced science that had been thoroughly peer-reviewed would guide our actions. Unfortunately, information is created, disseminated, interpreted, and used in a very complicated world. Problems can arise at any point! The one thing that you have control over is how you personally interpret and use information. But even that is trickier than it sounds. People have to overcome all manner of cognitive biases to faithfully interpret incoming information. They also have to be ethical in their approach to using and sharing information, making sure the original creator of the information is given credit. 

Other Biases

In addition to all the cognitive biases we must guard against, people may likely inherit biases from their culture, nationality, religion, politics, sex, geography, and more. The reasons our minds are so prone to bias go back so far it is almost impossible to imagine. Even in pre-human history our early ancestors, the hominids, had a pre-conscious part of the brain called the amygdala that was responsible in part for delivering fight or flight responses to a threatening stimulus, like, say, a tiger. Though this feature enabled our predecessors to survive, the amygdala is still part of the human brain and has not evolved to keep up with the information demands of modern life. For instance, our brains are hostile to information that goes against our preconceived notions. When we see a new story or a political ad that we disagree with, we literally experience a mild fight or flight or flight response. And in these cases, we debate the information (i.e.: fight) or we change the channel (i.e.: flight). So the same instinct that made us run or pick up a club when we encountered a predator in the wild a million years ago compels us to scroll on by the argumentative friend in our news feed today.


Know How to Read Actively

Reading scholarly articles can be a difficult task. Scholars have done their research and written up their results for many reasons, but not for many audiences. Although you as a student need to use the articles in your assignment, they were not written specifically for you. (No offense).

The fact is, these scholars are experts in their field writing for other experts. They are using specialized language that can be difficult for someone new to understand. So, you can sit down with an article and start reading, but you may become discouraged pretty quickly.

The tips below are to help you read scholarly articles STRATEGICALLY. These tips can help you approach a scholarly text for easier reading and better understanding. 


1. Abstract


Read the Abstract first. The Abstract will preview the entire article, makes it easier to judge whether it is relevant.

For the Sciences:

  • Titles can only tell you so much about the content of the article. The Abstract acts as a preview for the entire article, including the methods and results. By reading the Abstract first, you can get a better idea of what the article is actually about, if it relates to what you are researching, and whether it is worth your time to read the rest of it.

For the Humanities:

  • Articles in the Arts and Humanities do not always include an Abstract, and if they do, it might just be the first paragraph of the introduction. If not included, move onto the Introduction. Make sure to skim through the section headings, if they are there. This will give you an idea of the organization of the article as well as a general idea of themes.

2. Intro and Conclusion


Next, read the Introduction and Conclusion. Learn more about the topic of study and what the authors found out in the process.

Applies for both sciences and humanities:

  • These two sections give you the background information you need for the topic of the article as well as what happened in the study. The introduction also includes info about previous studies/papers that relate to the current one, which gives you, the reader, a context. By reading the conclusion you see whether the study answered the original research question and what the authors see as the next steps in the scholarship.

Literature review: An overview of previous scholarship on the present topic. Gives both author and reader a context for where the article falls in the literature. Likely to be a separate section within the introduction or right after it.

3. Data


Take a look at the tables, charts and graphs.

Get a better idea of the results of the research or analytical study. 

For the Sciences:

  • Closely look at the visual representations of the data. See what conclusions you come to and make note of them. When you read through the entire article, compare your conclusions to what the authors saw in their results and data.

For the Humanities:

  • Usually, there is no numeric data that the authors present in their results. However, there might be other visual representations of what the scholars are studying. For example, reproductions of art pieces, or excerpts from primary sources or literary pieces. These are worth looking at to see the materials being studied.

4. Read the Whole Thing


Read it! (For real this time.)

Now that you have pre-read some of the article and are sure it relates to your research topic, read the whole thing. It still might not be easy, but it will not be as hard as if you were reading it with no context.

Some more tips about reading:

  • Take notes
  • Summarize sections or paragraphs
  • Keep a subject dictionary, your textbook glossary or the Internet/Wikipedia close by. If you come across any unfamiliar terms, you can quickly look them up.
  • Keep track of the citation information of the articles you do read and want to use in your paper or assignment. This will make life a lot easier at the end of the project.