This section includes short discussions of a variety of issues, challenges, techniques, and perspectives that may come into play at different times during the course of a project. To read, click a topic name or icon, or scroll down this page.
The beginning is often the most difficult part of a project. Atchity (1986, p. 44) points out that this “is the hardest, the time that seems to drag on with fewest results... you must allow more time at the beginning of a project to accomplish less work.” Keep this in mind when you plan so you don’t overstress yourself with unrealistic expectations.
How To Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed
Booth, Colomb, and Williams (1995, pp.24-25) suggest the following ways to avoid feeling overwhelmed in a research project:
write as you go (write down notes, reactions, and thoughts throughout the process.)
get support from your instructor
Unless you are highly motivated, your research is likely to be of little value to yourself or to others. How do you become motivated? By working on something you care about!
English professor Ken Macrorie has written an entire book (The I-Search Paper) about research as a learning process motivated by an exploration of topics that are personally meaningful.
So if a lack of motivation is making it hard for you to get started, you may need to work on finding a topic that is meaningful to you. (See Step 2 for more information on choosing a topic.)
In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey describes a useful approach to time management. According to Covey, we spend all of our time in four kinds of activities:
Urgent, Important activities must be attended to right away. These are the items at the top of your "To Do" list.
Urgent, Not Important things ask for our immediate attention but are not important. For example, a phone call from a salesperson is likely to fall in this category.
Not Urgent, Important items are important to us but don't have to be done right away. This category is the key to good time management.
Not Urgent, Not Important activities are time wasters. For example, mind-numbing TV programs or video games.
On some days, you may be so busy with "urgent, important" activities that it is hard to find time for anything else. But even on busy days, try to set aside some time for the "not urgent, important" category, because these are the things that relate to your long-term goals. One way to find time for not urgent but important things is to eliminate the time-wasting "not urgent, not important" activities that act as a drain on your time and energy.
Try to think of ways your can set aside more time to work on your long term goals. Can you identify some time-wasting activities that you would be better off without?
Also, some time to relax is important! Don't make the mistake of the workaholic who considers relaxation to be wasted time.
Design a real-world learning project
According to Harvard researcher David Perkins (1992, p. 67-68), the most effective learning is “situated learning,” or learning in an authentic, real-world context.
Examples of situated learning include learning writing skills by producing a newsletter, or learning statistics by doing survey research.
You may already be working on a project that gives your exploration of information sources an authentic context. But if not, invent your own.
Brainstorm about ways you can incorporate aspects of your current assignment into a project of your own choosing. Write down a description of the project.
Brainstorm about other potential projects that will incorporate the skills and knowledge you are now acquiring. Perhaps you will incorporate this work into a book, film, website, blog, or business.
Beginner's mind has no preconceptions. It is open to whatever adventure lies ahead. Beginner's mind doesn't filter everything through the glasses of personal prejudice or cultural expectations. This allows the beginner to see the world with wide-open eyes.
Of course, we all have to grow up. As adults, we rely on our repertoire of experience to make intelligent decisions. But if you get stuck, maybe you are thinking too much or trying too hard!
To see new possibilities, try looking at your problem with a beginner's mind. This usually means slowing down and getting into a quiet or meditative state. For more information, see Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
Coping with large amounts of information is part of contemporary life. Much of the information is important. But David Shenk points out that a lot of it is "data smog" which he describes as “the noxious muck and druck of the information age” that “crowds out quiet moments, and obstructs much-needed contemplation" (1997, p. 31).
Data smog is not only unsolicited junk, but also that which “we crave... the Web sites we eagerly visit before and after dinner, the pile of magazines we pore through every month, and the dozens of channels we flip through whenever we get a free moment” (1997, p. 31).
After describing the massive amount of data he collected over four years of research (including visiting 1,000 web sites), Shenk notes that “from the computer’s perspective, this is all manageable. But in human terms, it is burdensome.” He concludes that “I now realize that information is only as valuable as it is useful.”
So how do we cope with this massive amount of information? Shenk suggests that we each be our own filter: that we take practical steps like
turn off the TV
limit email (to which we could add social media interactions on sites like Facebook and Twitter)
take “data fasts” such as designating internet-free periods during the day or week.
Shenk says that “each person much judge what is noise, and devise personal filtering mechanisms" (1997, pp. 188-189).
As an experiment, try limiting your own exposure to data smog by taking steps like those listed above for a trial period, say a week. See what effect this has on your ability to understand and evaluate information.
In the years since the publication of Shenk's seminal book, the issue of coping with information overload has become more pressing than ever.
Another approach to dealing with large amounts of information is to work to manage it more effectively. This issue is addressed by the field of personal information management. For more information aobut this growing field, see the Keeping Found Things Found website at http://kftf.ischool.washington.edu/index.htm
As technology continues to evolve, so do technological solutions to managing information. UNC Professor and computer scientist Paul Jones (http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog/about-paul-jones/) no longer uses email, opting instead to communicate through social media.
Another kind of information
Another kind of information
In The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben writes:
Our society is moving steadily from natural sources of information toward electronic ones, from the mountain and the field toward the television; this transition is nearly complete. And so we need to understand the two extremes. One is the target of our drift. The other an anchor that might tug us gently back, a source of information that once spoke clearly to us and now hardly even whispers. (1992, p. 10)
Perhaps these "two extremes" do not have to oppose each other. Perhaps we can do more creative, meaningful work with electronic information if our work is informed by an appreciation of the natural world.
Try spending a day in a natural setting. See if doing this gives you some creative inspiration for your work. Take something to use to capture your thoughts, if needed.
Points of view
Points of view
Try looking at things from someone else's point of view.
"It is perfectly possible to have an overwhelming inner sense of the correctness of one's views and still be wrong."
– Richard Paul (Baron and Sternberg, 1987, p. 130
There is no single way to skim a source, but here are some suggestions:
Notice the overall design and appearance of the information source
Read the title and introductory paragraph to get a sense of the material’s content and purpose
Look at the main menu or table of contents to determine how the material is structured
Read headings. If the heading is relevant, read the first paragraph under that heading or glance at the subheadings under it
Notice the date the source was created or last modified
Identify the author or institution that published the page
Notice references to other authors and institutions
Spend enough time to get the gist of what the site is about without getting bogged down in the details of its content. Bookmark it, tag it, or put it in your database of references if the content looks useful to you.
Notes help you identify and work with information and ideas. This can include key phrases or ideas gleaned from a source, as well as your reactions to them. It is very important to correctly identify the source for each note.
Most current bibliographic software programs include a notes field, which is very helpful. Alternatively you can use another program, such as Evernote (https://evernote.com/evernote/) or Scrivener (http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php) to collect and keep notes. Many such programs allow you to easily clip information from pdf documents and web pages, which you can add to your database of notes and other information.
When you are putting together your publication, drawing on the notes you created will make the process a lot easier. You also may want to keep a journal (online or physical) to record your thoughts and ideas as they occur to you.
You may also want to create graphical notes or diagrams to help clarify the relationships between information and ideas. For more about this, see HSL's Introduction to Visual Literacy guide.
Focus vs. Flexibility
If you lack focus and aren’t sure what kind of information you need, it is easy to get distracted by the many opportunities to link to one page after another... you may spend an afternoon “surfing” or browsing and have little to show for it. This can be demoralizing.
On the other hand, if you are too narrow in your focus, you may overlook something valuable... you may even miss something that could cause you to rethink your whole approach!
So what is the solution? There is no simple solution...that is why it is a dilemma. But by being aware of this issue, you can work more productively because you are less likely to fall into either trap.
Keep in mind that when you start your research, it is to your advantage to be somewhat flexible and open. Later in the process you need to be much more focused.
The research process always includes blind alleys. This is not a bad thing to be avoided; rather, it is a necessary part of the process. The key is to recognize when you are in a blind alley so that it doesn’t become a tremendous time sink.
Example of a blind alley:
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking has been defined in many different ways. Richard Paul, a widely respected authority, distinguishes between two kinds of critical thinking:
"Weak sense" critical thinking involves reasoning and developing convincing arguments.
"Strong sense" critical thinking means being open to divergent points of view, or a willingness to reflect on and question one’s own position (Perkins, 1992, pp. 116-117).
Critical Thinking and Reflection
Chet Myers points out that an important part of critical thinking is silent reflection: part of learning involves quiet pondering--letting things “simmer” or “cook” awhile before opening one’s mouth (1986, p.63).
Critical Thinking and Communication
“It is not enough simply to accuse those who disagree with us of operating under false assumptions. For any effective communication to take place between people, there must be a readiness in those involved to try to understand each others’ perspectives” (Brookfield, 1987, p.47).
Developing Critical Thinking
An excellent current source for learning about and developing critical thinking skills is the Foundation for Critical Thinking / Critical Thinking Community at http://www.criticalthinking.org//. This site includes a discussion of the following "key ideas" for learning to think critically or "becoming a critic of your own thinking":
It is very easy to copy and paste information from electronic documents. But if you quote a source, you must use quotation marks and credit the source (to do otherwise would be plagiarism). Anything longer than a brief quotation may also be considered copyrightinfringement.
You may print a copy of a web page for your own use (this is considered “fair use”). But if you distribute copies of other people’s documents, you may be infringing on copyright.
You may also be liable for copyright infringement if you copy images to use for your own documents, unless the author explicitly states that the images are for the public domain. A safer alternative would be to create your own images or to use royalty-free sources. You can also look for images available for use under a Creative Commons license.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a well know psychologist who coined and popularized the term "flow" to describe a state in which a person can be highly creative. The flow state is closely associated with intrinsic motivation, in which a person is focused on an activity not because of any anticipated reward but because its intrinsic interest. Another reason why it is important to find a research topic that is interesting to you – you will more likely achieve a highly creative flow state if you do!
According to Harmon and Rheingold (1984, pp. 24-27) the creative process takes place in the following phases:
1. Preparation, or input mode (“... intensely examining a problem, visualizing and creating scenarios of possible solutions, learning even the most tangential facts about it, and deeply intending and desiring to solve it”)
2. Incubation, or “processing” mode (letting the ingredients “cook”)
3. Illumination, or “output” mode (a state of heightened awareness or “breakthrough”)
4. Verification (“the stage when phantasms are distinguished from inspirations, and legions of delusions are sifted to reveal the insights buried among them”)
In your current project, where are you in the creative process? Keep in mind that to make creative breakthroughs more likely, you need to give enough time and attention to all four phases.
Synthesis: breaking through to new interpretations
What makes a new piece of research truly original? Sometimes, a major breakthrough is not a result of new data, but rather consists of a new way of looking at information that already exits.