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Information Literacy Framework for Students: Identify

Researching Efficiently

We have access to an incredible amount of information. Students often encounter the negative aspects of this when approaching research. They frequently become lost in a sea of sources about a potentially limitless number of topics. This effect is a direct consequence of not spending time planning out a research topic. In order to be an efficient researcher, you should begin by planning. 

Finding a Topic and Establishing Scope

Many students dive into the process of research too quickly. Identifying topics and areas of exploration was easier when the only resources available were books and articles at your local libraries. Entering a topic into a good search will often produce millions of results, requiring students to approach research with some beginning steps in order to narrow possible topic areas. 

  • Education
  • Management styles
  • Student Debt
  • Nonprofits
  • Cybersecurity

Each of these topics are too broad, and will produce too much information for a student to read. An easy way to narrow these large topic areas is to provide a context like a geographic region, a timeframe, or a group/community affected by the topic. Each of these example topics are narrowed below:

  • Education policies in North Alabama
  • The evolution of management style from 1970-2009
  • Student debt trends among first generation college students
  • Nonprofit presence in the American South
  • Recent trends in cybersecurity

Each of these topics now has a context, and that context provides you with a scope. A research scope allows you to ignore sources that do not directly relate to your topic. For example, a source about homework policies in Limestone County is within the scope of the first topic above. A source about uniform policies in Northern California is outside the scope of this project. 

Identify Needs and Asking Questions

After settling on a general topic, it is important to think about the kinds of sources you might need in order to progress. Even a somewhat narrowed topic like "student debt trends in first generation college students" is still a large area to explore. This is a great time to take stock of your own knowledge as it relates to the topic. A great way to do this is to to generate a list of research questions. These questions help guide your research by articulating what you know, don't know, and need to know. 

For example, many students know that loan debt is a problem, but many may not know about the federal laws governing student loan debt, the history of student loan debt, and the different kinds of loans available to students. It is perfectly okay to not know this information as you begin a project. The goal is to use sources in order to learn about the topic. Use research questions to help prioritize your research and to fill in knowledge gaps.

Example Research Questions:

  • How is education policy in North Alabama different than Southern Tennessee? 
  • What were the predominant management styles in the 1970s?
  • Do first generation students acquire more debt than their peers?
  • What are some major nonprofits operating in the American South?
  • How has cybersecurity changed over the past 5 years?

Note: These questions are not making arguments or staking out a position, but are rather asked in order to learn important information about a topic. 

Getting Started with Research and the Research Strategy

After you have a list of questions, it is helpful to generate some subjects and keywords that will be present in databases. This will minimize time spent aimlessly wandering through thousands of results and allow you to emerge from the research process with a set of useful sources. 

You may have encountered the presentation below during HU 321. Move through the slides quickly for some visual information on how to use our databases to create a list of subjects and keywords.