Research is core to the academic experience
But that doesn't mean it comes naturally. Often, your teachers will assume that you know what an appropriate source is, how to find it, and how to use it to inform your argument. This can be challenging when no one has ever taught you the fundamentals.
Good research is an important part of your education at university or college. If you're uncertain about research, or feel like this area is dragging down your grades, follow the tips below to improve and gain confidence:
1. Research doesn't come after writing!
A common mistake students make at the start of their degrees is coming up with an argument then trying to find sources to back it up. This is the wrong way around. It's great to have an idea of what your argument might be (called your hypothesis) before researching, but being too attached to this notion could introduce biases and errors into your work. If you are only searching for confirmation of your hypothesis, you will miss out on persuasive counter-arguments or evidence that might change your mind.
On this note, assume that your research process could take a while and schedule accordingly. Strong students factor in the time it will take them to find appropriate sources, read them, and extract relevant information. Don't underestimate how much time you will need to spend on fundamental research before you draft your essay.
2. Learn to recognise a reliable source
Academic research is all about the reliability of your sources. The bulk of your research should be based on peer-reviewed, academic sources. These are texts written by trained academics who are experts in their field and double-checked by a group of their peers to ensure accuracy. They will also come from reputable academic publishers or be in academic journals.
If you're feeling unsure about a source, an academic librarian will be happy to help you recognise if it's reliable and scholarly. Most library databases also allow you to filter search results to show only peer-reviewed items. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to make these distinctions for yourself.
Reliable academic sources also have in-depth referencing and long bibliographies. This is because good academics are aware of other scholarly work on their topic. For this reason, a reliable source can put you on a good path towards finding more quality research. Have a look at the references that a scholar uses. Chances are, there will be some sources that stand out as relevant (and reliable) for your own project.
3. Stay focussed with a research question
Because research can be quite overwhelming, it's important to have some kind of anchor. This is why junior units tend to set very clear and specific essay questions in order to give you some research structure. As you progress in your degree, you may be asked to develop your own research question. During postgraduate study, the development of your own question is a must.
No matter who sets your research question, it's vital to have one. A research question gives you structure and direction. It might ask you to explore a controversial question or appraise sides of a debate. You could be asked to summarise a historical period or show your knowledge of how a scientific method was developed. Whatever it is, pay careful attention to the question and don't stray too far from it.
It's important to be realistic about the scope of your research. A 2,000 word essay will have a smaller and more simple research question than a 20,000 word thesis. Make sure you know the expectations of your essay and how to structure it. While it's great to be excited about your topic as a whole, remember to always ground yourself with the specific requirements of your assigned question. Your assessment instructions will often tell you how many sources are expected in order to answer your question properly, which is a great way of knowing how much research to conduct in order to come up with a satisfactory response.
4. Have a sensible system for taking research notes
A big mistake students make is assuming that they will retain all of the information that they read. This just isn't realistic when you're dealing with detailed academic sources. You will be bombarded with complex language and nuanced ideas. It's impossible to remember every fact, and every page number, that you will need for writing up your research.
This is why you need some kind of note-taking system. The tool you use is up to you. Many students benefit from an annotated bibliography, which is a list of core sources with commentary. This commentary includes a summary of the source, an analysis of its content, and a note on how it might be relevant for your project. Others write down their findings in a notebook or add them to a digital file. Choose what works best for you.
The most important thing to aim for is indexing the main ideas relevant to your research question, including any quotations, and keeping track of the page number they belong on. And while you're at it, make sure you're comfortable with referencing so you know how to cite this information properly when you write up your essay.
5. Don't let research get you down
Once you become comfortable with it, research can become an enjoyable and rewarding process. It can be very exciting to see how a range of people have interpreted a topic and then add your own voice to the mix.
The more you practice, the more natural this process will become. It's very normal to feel confronted by your first big research assessment - especially if you have never had a chance to learn or solidify core research skills beforehand. It takes time to get familiar with finding sources, analysing them with a research question in mind, then writing up your findings into an argument of your own.
As with any academic skill, the more time and effort you dedicate - the more this will pay off with strong essays and good grades. It's possible to go from someone who doesn't know what an academic source is to someone who can put together a very impressive bibliography and weave a persuasive scholarly argument as a result.