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HWC Student How-To: Get Started on Your Research

College-Level Research Skills

Information Management Overview

Most people encounter new information, don’t see immediately how it will be useful to them, but think, “This is probably important, or will be, so I better hang onto it,” and then they put it on a corner of the desk and watch in despair as the pile grows beyond their ability to manage it. This is a symptom of something called information overload. Information Overload happens when you have access and exposure to so much information that you can no longer make good decisions. It happens for a couple of reasons:

  1. The exact information you need is lost in an endless sea of other information that you don’t need.
  2. The information sources you are exposed to offer conflicting ideas, making it difficult to chart the best course of action.

The surest strategy for combating information overload is having a system in place to get organized. Developing your own information management strategy will help you stay focused, organized, and efficient. This system can be as basic as setting up three files or folders and naming them IMMEDIATE, SHORT TERM, and LONG TERM, or it can include categories and subcategories that help you keep everything separate. I suspect that if you start out with a simple system, it will gradually grow more complex as you learn what helps you produce optimal results.

When You Encounter New Information: Evaluate, Prioritize, and Organize!

Evaluate Incoming Information for Time Sensitivity, Relevance, Credibility, and Usability

The most basic organization strategy has three files: Immediate, Short Term, and Long Term. Everything that does not go into one of those files goes into the recycling bin. In a bit you will learn how to arrange and organize your files to make it easy to retrieve your information when you need it, but first, you’ll need to know what to throw away and what to keep.

1. Time Sensitivity

Some information gets top priority because you have to use it right away. This may include nightly or weekly class assignments, new projects at work, bills you have to pay, or any other thing related to your life that must be done as soon as possible. There is no need to set up an elaborate filing system for these items. Simply do what you need to do to get these things done as soon as you can. A great tip a colleague gave me a few years ago is to always do the thing you’re dreading most first. He postulated that the longer you put it off, the harder it becomes to actually make yourself do it. Moreover, doing it quickly frees up your emotional energy for other tasks. Not only will you feel better for getting it over with, you will be less preoccupied by it as you do the other tasks you have set for yourself that day.

2. Relevance

Before investing a great deal of time and energy regarding new information, make an honest assessment about its relevance to your life. If you are pressed for time, consider if what you are reading, watching, or listening to will help you achieve your goals. It might be interesting, fun, or even educational, but if it is not what your assignment calls for, best to put it away for later. Keep in mind that if something is not relevant now, it might be relevant later, so you don’t have to throw it in the recycle bin just yet.

3. Credibility

Even if something is about a relevant subject, you shouldn’t necessarily keep it. Make a determination of credibility before you incorporate new information into your understanding of the subject. Very briefly, you need to determine the source’s authority, objectivity, timeliness, and relationship to other sources in the field.

4. Usability

Not all information is usable to you at this point. For instance, the raw data in a research study will likely not be useful to you until they have been analyzed and synthesized by the experts in that field. Medical researchers discussing chemical reactions and cellular biology will not be useful to someone seeking more general information about the causes of a disease, just as a doctor searching for a cure is unlikely to find anything of use in the newspaper.

Short-Term and Long-Term Storage

Information that is not used immediately or thrown away should be categorized as a short-term or long-term need. Information to be used for a project due in a couple of weeks, next month, or later in the semester should be considered short-term. Information that you think may be useful to you in the distant future should be filed under long-term. Examples of this are articles or chapters you find that influence your thinking about your major or future career; articles you plan to read after your studies have prepared you for the material; and/or interesting readings that you expect to return to later. After using something for an immediate need you can decide which folder it belongs in. Do you need it again this semester? Does it contain information you can foresee wanting to revisit again in the future? Or if you are unlikely to ever need that particular information again, you can feel free to recycle it.


Filing System Basics

When you file something away it will be hard to retrieve unless you have some way to keep track of where it is. For instance, if you put materials for five classes in one folder called “Short-Term Need,” you will end up with a very organized folder full of very disorganized papers. Within that folder you will need several sub-folders. For instance:

ims 3

This is a pretty simple configuration that will still help you stay on track.

Once you have completed a task and are done with the associated materials, you may choose to recycle the papers, delete the files, or move them to long-term storage in case they will prove useful again one day.


ims 4 If your life is generating LOTS of paperwork, you may consider fleshing your system out a bit more. You can add as many subcategories as you need.

A good habit to get into is to skim through your files each night and check on upcoming dates and projects. This will ensure that you are not surprised by deadlines and that you remain focused on your tasks.

A Manual Filing System

The advantages of a manual filing system are that such a system requires no technology, can be kept close at hand, and is inexpensive. The main disadvantages are that the information is not as easy to retrieve and is considerably less portable. A temporary filing cabinet, manila file folders, and sticky notes can be bought at any office supply store.. A creative student may find any number of efficacious solutions for information storage, so long as they allow for separate categories of information and a way to tell easily where one category ends and another begins.

Make sure to write categorical information in each tab, for instance your tabs could read:

Biology 101: Group Project

Biology 101: Midterm Study Guide

A deeper level of detail within each folder can be achieved by placing sticky notes on important pieces of paper within each folder:

Mitosis Explanation

Meiosis Explanation


Using Online Solutions

Some drawbacks to using a manual filing systems is that they take up more space, are less durable, and are inherently harder to sift through. If you are already using computers and accessing the internet, there are a many advantages to storing things online, including portability (anywhere there is a computer and the internet!), durability (as long as you save backup copies on a timely basis!), and reduced clutter.

You will no doubt be able to find ample documentation online about using Google Drive, OneDrive, Evernote, or any of the other cloud-based or device-based storage systems, each of which has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. I recommend that you try them out and see which works best for you. Keep in mind that it will help you stay organized if the system you choose will allow you to create separate folders. Be sure to name the files you create, it could be the class and assignment name, the document title, etc.