There is often, unbeknownst to students, a secret syllabus. The syllabus may require that you find an article, but beyond finding useful information the purpose of the assignment is to expose you to the databases and the challenges of research. Sometimes, in the effort to challenge the students by requiring them to work through difficult research questions, professors end up challenging librarians as much as the students.
Recently, an assignment for a 300-level education class ended up challenging all the librarians. The professor tasked the students with locating peer-reviewed, scholarly articles dealing with the “reading endorsement competencies” that Florida uses to gauge the progress of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
For example, the students were expected to find an article discussing how writing enhances the development of oral language.
This is not a particularly easy topic to research because the there are only a few key terms, and they’re somewhat vague. However, for this RQotW I’m not going to spend a lot of time leading you through the databases to find suitable articles. Instead, I want to write a little bit about some search strategies to keep in mind when you’re faced with a challenging assignment.
FRUSTRATION – Research is often frustrating. I’ve been researching for many years and I still find myself occasionally frustrated. One of the things I’ve learned is to trust the process. I’ve done enough research to know that the early parts of researching any topic are filled with dead ends. This is part of the process. There is a maze you have to work your way through, and you’re going to reach moments where it’s clear you need to go back to the beginning start again. If you know this, that the early parts of your search won’t bear any fruit, then you can plan accordingly. Keep your frustration to a minimum by starting your research early.
READ – There’s no getting around it. You are going to have to read. And, you’re going to have to read things that don’t make it into your final research project. If I were in the education class I’d start doing some background reading if I didn’t start finding peer-reviewed, scholarly articles pretty quickly. If I looked through 3 databases, and spent at least 10 minutes in each, and didn’t find some good research, I’d realize I needed to take a step back and do some background reading.
SYNONYMS – While you read to gain background knowledge and familiarity with the topic, you also read to pick up different ways of phrasing your search. You want to look for synonyms and alternative keywords. While you read look for unique terms that will help you with the next spin through the database. Names of researchers can often be useful search terms. Sometimes you can generate more terms by exercises like mind-mapping. I frequently use the subject headings for all the articles I find during my searches to help me find new terms. The richest resource for ideas on furthering your search is reading through articles. Sometimes you have to read, even if you don’t end up using those articles in your research. There’s no substitute for a working knowledge of your topic.
One secret of research is that you almost never find the perfect article right off the bat. You find something close, and then use that information to find another source that’s still closer, and then use that information to get to the information you’re looking for.
Research is a skill. And, like any skill, it can be improved with repetition. Eventually, when you’ve mastered the art of research you’ll have confidence in your ability, and dead ends and false starts will be less frustrating. Just keep in mind that there is a process, and if you trust the process, you’ll eventually have success.