Research is a fundamental component of most work at a university, and the research skills you learn in Core 102 will provide a foundation for your efforts in future courses. In particular, Core 102 will help you develop the following abilities:

  • creating a research question,
  • creating a search strategy,
  • using non-subject-specific databases appropriately matched to the target assignment, and
  • applying critical reasoning in critiquing claims made by experts, media, or other sources of information.

Creating a Research Question.

Research starts from the impulse to find the answer to a question. It comes from the need to know something that you don’t already know. It might be the solution to a particular kind of problem, the knowledge that satisfies curiosity about something, or an explanation that clears up a point of confusion. Research may be set in motion by anything from the wish to determine whether a particular car would be both reliable and affordable, to the need to make a well-informed choice between treatment options, to the desire to cast a meaningful vote in a presidential election.

You likely will be assigned research in courses beyond CORE 102, so one purpose of this assignment is to help you develop skills that you can rely upon throughout your university career. However, as the examples in the previous paragraph suggest, research may called for whenever a person needs the answer to a question. This section is therefore intended to help you learn how to develop effective research questions not only within the classroom, but also for personal and professional reasons.

  1. What is research?
  2. Why should I do research?
  3. What is the research process?
  4. How do I pick a topic?
  5. What is background research?
  6. Are there topics I should avoid?
  7. What is a research question?
  8. How do I create a research question?
  9. What are some examples of effective and ineffective research questions?

1. What is research?

At the college level, research is much more than simply ‘looking up’ information. If you want to know the capital of Myanmar or what year George Washington died, you can simply Google that question and quickly find an answer. That’s not research. True research is more like a hunt for clues. You have an interest in a topic, and then, like the detective Sherlock Holmes, you will poke around and discover evidence that helps you learn more about your topic. A good research paper does not simply summarize what other people say about your topic, but brings together sources in a new way in order to answer new questions or solve new problems.

2. Why should I do research?

We do research because we have questions that we want to answer. Those questions may be personal, such as:

  • What kind of car should I buy?
  • What do I have to do in order to become an athletic trainer?

Or the questions could be more academic:

  •  How did the Civil War affect the economy of the United States in 19th Century?
  • What is the best way to treat a patient suffering from gluten intolerance?

Ultimately, the questions will be professional:

  • What impact will the proposed development have upon traffic in this neighborhood?
  • Which of these three software packages will best suit the needs of my company?
  • Does this individual qualify to be certified as a foster parent?

Whether your questions are personal, professional, or course-related, research is valuable for the following reasons:

  • You will learn about your topic and improve your understanding of it by locating information on the topic from reliable sources.
  • You will reach conclusions and form opinions that you can trust and defend.
  • You will strengthen the ethos and logos of your writing. By citing high-quality sources and using reliable data, you demonstrate to your reader that your conclusions and recommendations should be taken seriously.

3. What is the research process?

When you get a research assignment, you may think the process is linear—that you proceed in a straight line: choosing a topic, finding some sources, writing a paper.

In fact, the process is much messier. Yes, you start with a topic, but that topic often evolves or changes as you conduct your research. You may realize that your topic is too broad or too narrow or that you really are more interested in Y than in X. When you actually start writing your paper, you may discover that you need additional sources beyond those you had already found or that you need to cover an additional subtopic that you hadn’t realized was important at the beginning of the project.

Reversing course (and even restarting) does not mean that you are doing something wrong. Instead, this start-stop-return-and-redo process is essential. In fact, scholars and professional writers rely on the same process.

More than the topic may change during the research process. Your understanding develops as you learn things that you didn’t know before. You may form opinions about subjects you never considered before, or you may change opinions that you held previously. It is for these reasons that the research assignment places such emphasis on the importance of asking questions at the outset of the process. The research process does not begin with the certainty that you know what you will find, and you may find yourself following a roundabout route before you are satisfied that you have reached sound conclusions about your topic.

4. How do I pick a topic?

Students often report that picking a topic is the hardest part of a research project, but do not be intimidated if you are called upon to decide what to write about. Instead, find ways to make sure you choose a topic that can be developed into a project that you find interesting. You may be working on the project for several weeks, and no doubt during that time you will prefer writing about a topic that appeals to you rather than one that does not.

Sometimes a course will have a theme to which your topic should relate; sometimes the instructor will throw it open to any topic of interest to you. Whichever is the case, one or more of the strategies below may help you settle upon a topic:

  • Look through the course syllabus and the readings, including assignments for future class meetings. A unit or the topic for a week or a particular reading may catch your eye.
  • Connect the course theme to something you care about, such as a hobby or your potential major. For example, if you are taking a course about diet and nutrition and you are planning to be a teacher, you could research ways to promote healthy eating to kindergarteners. If you are interested in reality television, you could develop a research question about food-related shows such as Top Chef.
  • Do background research to uncover possible topics. Reference tools like Wikipedia may not be suitable as formal sources for academic or professional research projects, but you can use them to orient yourself at the beginning of a project—to identify what is controversial, significant, or engaging about a topic in order to help you decide whether to pursue it and how to begin defining it.

5. What is background research?

Background research involves looking at sources that will give you an overview of your topic but that you won’t necessarily rely upon directly in your final paper. You may be hesitant to take the time to look at such sources because they may not ‘count’ towards your paper. That is, you probably won’t cite them or include them in your list of sources. But looking at encyclopedia entries, Wikipedia, and general interest websites will give you a better handle on your research project at the very beginning, when you are trying to orient yourself to the topic.

Background research can help you identify the main issues relevant to a topic. It also can help you determine what vocabulary, people, places, and events are associated with a topic. These terms can then be used to search databases and catalogs in order to locate sources that you can rely upon directly and that will be cited and listed in your bibliography

Background research also can help you recognize what is common knowledge about a topic. Being able to identify common knowledge, and determining whether your audience will be familiar with this knowledge, may help you decide how much space you need to spend on certain information. Being able to identify common knowledge also will help you distinguish what you need to cite from what is so well known that no one particular source deserves credit for the information.

Background research, then, helps you see the “big picture” and makes it easier to accomplish many necessary tasks: from choosing a topic to locating sources, from deciding what information to include to documenting your use of sources.

6. Are there topics I should avoid?

Your instructor may have a list of ‘forbidden topics’. Often these are topics that are so overdone that not much is left to add to the conversation. Abortion, gun control, marijuana legalization, the dangers of tanning beds—these topics may appear on lists of overdone topics. These topics also are often so complex that it’s difficult to write effectively about them in a 5-7 page essay. If you are very interested in pursuing a topic that has been written about frequently, you can talk to your instructor about finding a creative and manageable way to approach it.

Before you settle on a topic, it’s a good idea to confirm that research on it is available.  Students in the past have struggled with topics that are very current. Because research takes a while to be published, an event that happened in the last few months may not have much written about it. Topics that are very local in nature, such as ghost stories about Radford University, also could be challenging because very little may have been published.

You still may be able to write on these topics, though. You could use articles about urban legends at universities in general; or for a current event, you could look at the historical context. Ask your instructor for advice, and consult the instructional librarians, who are available to answer questions in person or via phone, email, or messaging.

7. What is a research question?

Once you have chosen a topic as a starting point and have done some background research, you are ready to zero in further by developing a research question. A research question is a focused, clear, and arguable question that will be at the center of your project.

A research question is a better approach than having just a general topic for two main reasons:

  • First, asking a question will help you enter the research process with an open mind, and without an open mind, any “research” you do will be simply going through the motions.

Let’s say you would like to buy a car and decide to do some research before making a purchase. If you set out already having decided that you want to buy a particular make and model, then you will only search for information that supports a decision that you have already made. The “research” will have been a waste of time and effort. On the other hand, if you start by asking, “Which car has the features that I want for a price that I can afford,” then you are likely to uncover information that you were unaware of before you began researching vehicle options.

  • Second, a research question may help you refine your topic so it is manageable. In CORE 102, you may be writing papers that are only 5 to 7 pages long. That’s not nearly enough space to fully explore a broad topic like “obesity in children” or “violence and video games.”  Entire books have written about these issues, so for a much shorter piece of writing, you will need to focus on something specific—in other words, something that you can do justice to in the limited space and time that is available.

8. How do I create a research question?

Background research is again your friend. It will help you answer preliminary questions like the ones below, and the answers to the preliminary questions will help you zero in on an even more specific research question.

  • Why is the topic significant? Who or what is affected?
  • To whom is the topic important?
  • Why is the topic controversial?
  • What issues do people raise as they debate the topic?
  • What proposals have been made in response to the issues?
  • What arguments have been raised for the proposals?
  • What arguments have been raised against the proposals?

Imagine a biology class in which one topic is stem cell research. As a topic, stem cell research is huge—much too big a subject for a 5-7 page paper! But if you do some background research, you will discover information about techniques for creating stem cells, about current attempts to use stem cells to treat disease, and about the people who may benefit from stem cell therapy. Having learned these facts, you can formulate a research question, such as “How have researchers responded to federal restrictions on the use of fetal stem cells?”

Ideally, you will come up with a number of possible research questions, and then you will be able to ask yourself what question will allow you to explore the aspect of the topic you personally find most interesting.

Once you have settled upon a research question, keep in mind that your project may evolve over time. As discussed in an earlier section, change is part of the research process. Do not be surprised, then, if you find yourself modifying your research question from the one you started with. As the project—including the research question—evolves, be certain to check in with your instructor to make sure you stay on track for the assignment.

9. What are some examples of effective and ineffective research questions?

Ineffective:  Is obesity in children harmful?

This ineffective research question is unclear. What is the definition of “harmful”? This question is an invitation to a catalogue of vague and sweeping generalizations about how obesity is ‘bad’.

Effective:  What school programs result in the greatest decrease in obesity among elementary school children?

This effective research question is clear. It specifies a category of children (elementary school age), identifies a particular agent of change (the schools), and pinpoints an action (programs for decreasing obesity).

Ineffective: Do violent video games make people violent?

This ineffective question is unfocused. This area of research has thousands of articles and many books; you could never do it justice in a short paper or presentation.

Effective: Do violent video games desensitize teenagers to violence?

This effective question is focused. It narrows the topic down to a specific outcome (desensitization) and a specific audience (teenagers).

Ineffective:  Should Americans eat healthier?

This question is ineffective because most people would find the issue not worth arguing about. Most members of your audience would say that, of course, Americans should eat healthier.

Looking at it from your point of view, would answering this question help you learn something that you don’t already know? Like asking whether obesity in children is harmful, the question calls for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, and from the start of the project you would know that the answer is ‘yes’.

Effective:  Would a tax on soda lead to decreased obesity in Americans?

This effective question is open to argument. Would taxing soda really decrease the amount of junk food Americans consumed, or would Americans find equally unhealthy alternatives to soda? Or would the soda manufacturers find ways around such a tax law? The question about taxing soda is worth exploring.

Creating a search strategy.

You will be most effective at research if you start with a plan for carrying out your project. The following two questions will help you develop plans that can be used for nearly any library research project you are assigned, either for a college course or as part of your professional responsibilities.

  1. What is a search strategy?
  2. How do I create a search strategy?

1. What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is your research plan. It describes how you go about find the sources for your paper. A search strategy should answer the following two questions.

  • What tools will I use to search for sources?

There are different types of sources, and the tools you use will depend upon what type of source you are trying to locate. Being able to choose and make use of the most appropriate search tool is major element in successful research.

  • What words and phrases will I use as I search for sources?

You need to come up with a list of words and phrases to use with the tools that you select. Generally, at the outset of a project you want to search using keywords. These are words or phrases that you believe are likely to turn up in relevant sources.

The phrase “research plan” suggests that a search strategy is something you devise at the outset of a project. Remember, though, that research projects may evolve. So, too, may research strategies. Be prepared to change your search strategy—to return anew to generating keywords, to trying different search tools—as you refine your search question or discover that additional subtopics must be addressed.

2. How do I create a search strategy?

Once you have a research question, make note of important keywords and phrases. Some of those keywords will be found in the question itself.

Research question: How does pet therapy help children with autism?

Keywords and phrases: pet therapy, children, autism

Here is where background research comes in handy, too. As you were settling upon your research question, you probably became familiar with a number of words and phrases that may be useful as additional keywords. Refresh your memory by revisiting sites, and even search out additional sites. For the example above, you could add terms like “therapy dogs” and “therapeutic horseback riding” to the list of keywords. Include “animal assisted therapy” as a possible keyword, and make a note of the fact that “Asperger’s syndrome” is a term related to “autism.” Background research also will help you start to identify the names of key organizations and experts with relevant knowledge.

Along with developing a list of keywords, determine what tools to use by familiarizing yourself with resources at the library—its staff and its shelved and online collections. Your search strategy should include paying a visit to the library’s homepage. From there you can search the library catalogue and its databases to find books and articles on your topic. Your strategy should also include consulting with the instructional librarians either in person or via computer or phone. The instructional librarians can offer suggestions for searching effectively and can answer questions about how to access material, whether it is shelved in the library, accessible via full-text database, or available via interlibrary loan.

Another part of your strategy should be using each source to identify additional sources. Take note of newly discovered keywords and phrases and use them to re-search the library catalog and databases. In addition, pay attention to the documentation in each source. The citations and reference lists may identify other articles and books you can use.


Using non-subject-specific databases appropriately matched to the target assignment.

Students sometimes attempt to rely on Google as their sole method for finding information. Google is fast and easy to use and generates a huge number of hits. The high number of results is actually a problem, though. Anyone who uses Google knows what it’s like to wade through thousands of options to find a few useful, quality sources. You can become a more efficient searcher by using library resources to help you separate the quality sources from the trash: sources that are biased, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. This section will help you understand the way that McConnell Library and its staff can help you research more effectively. It will provide answers to the following questions:

  1. What is a library database?
  2. What is the library catalog?
  3. What is SuperSearch?
  4. How are SuperSearch and the library catalog different from Google?
  5. Why should I use a library database?
  6. How do I get help with library research?

1. What is a library database?

A library database is a searchable collection of articles, books, or other media. Each item is indexed by an expert who tags it with subject headings. In some databases, summaries or descriptions of sources are provided as well. These summaries or descriptions may be very useful in helping you determine whether particular sources will be suitable for your project.

McConnell Library pays hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for over 250 databases. These subscriptions provide you with full-text access to resources that you would have to pay for out of your own pocket if you relied upon Google alone—assuming of course, that you even discovered that the resource existed.

Most databases tend to specialize in a particular discipline: ERIC is for Education, PsycINFO is for psychology, CINAHL is for nursing. The library also subscribes to a number of general interest databases, like Academic Search Complete. Think of the general interest ones as the Walmarts of databases: you can get a little bit about just about everything in them. If you want to do more extensive searching or if the project is in your major, then look towards the ‘boutique’ databases: the ones that were tailored specifically for your field.

Please note that if a database returns a hit that is not full text, you may still be able to access the source via Interlibrary Loan. This service is both free and simple to use. When your search of a database turns up a source that is not owned by the library or is not available on line, you can bring up an interlibrary loan request form that has the necessary information pre-entered. With only a few keystrokes, your request will be submitted to the interlibrary loan staff.

2.  What is the library catalog?

On the McConnell Library homepage, choose “Catalog” is you want to limit your search to books, DVDs, or CDs that are part of the McConnell Library collection. For the most part, these are objects that are housed physically in the library building. In addition, a search of the McConnell Library catalog will locate e-books on your topic. The catalog can be searched by keyword, but also by title, author, or subject (the formal library classification).

If you also wish to locate articles in journals or periodicals, your starting point probably will be a tool called SuperSearch, which also is available on the library homepage.

3. What is SuperSearch?

SuperSearch is available for the McConnell Library homepage. When you use SuperSearch, entering a word or phrase into a single box allows you to simultaneously search most of the library’s electronic and print collections. In one step, you can search the articles, books, DVDs, CDs, and e-books in the McConnell Library catalog while at the same time searching the majority of databases subscribed to by the library.

SuperSearch is an excellent starting point for a research project. It is helpful when you are not certain which specialized database to use, and it is useful when you are researching a topic that cuts across disciplines so that you need to consult more than one database.

To help you make the most of this tool, the library has an online guide for using SuperSearch.

4.  How are SuperSearch and the library catalog different from Google?

Google is a free service that indexes websites from around the world. A Google search retrieves sites from individuals, organizations, governments, corporations, etc. This indexing is done by computers, not people, allowing Google to be much bigger than any library database.

A Google search allows users to access websites whose owners are eager for traffic, such as companies who want to reach potential customers. However, because Google (and Google Scholar) are free services, users have limited access to the full texts of copyrighted articles that must be paid for by someone. Under the current system, publishers charge libraries millions of dollars every year for subscriptions to those articles, and if they were available online for free, the publishers would go out of business.

Google is great for background research, for accessing older books and articles that are no longer copyrighted, and for accessing reports from the government or corporations; it is less useful for current articles and books—in other words, Google is less useful for accessing the most up-to-date noncommercial sources.

5.  Why should I use a library database?

Google can provide great information but some of its results point users to information that may be outdated or not appropriate for academic use. If the library databases are either Walmarts or boutique stores, think of Google as the biggest yard sale in the history of the world. If you have patience, a lot of time, and a discerning eye, you likely will eventually find some worthwhile items—books and articles that are the equivalent of the rare finds featured on Antiques Roadshow. However, if you just choose the first few websites you run across, chances are that the quality of your sources will be uneven.

The library has an annual budget of $1 million. The librarians use these funds to purchase or subscribe to the best possible sources, both online and in print. You still need to evaluate the sources you find through the library, but on the whole the quality and appropriateness of these sources tends to be better than the quality and appropriateness of sources returned by a Google search.

6. How do I get help with library research?

The library reference desk is staffed by instructional librarians: friendly experts who are happy to assist you. The desk is on the main level in the middle of the building. You can stop by personally, make an appointment, call, e-mail, IM, or text for help.

AIM: RULibSpot
Yahoo: RULibSpot
MSN: RULibSpot@hotmail.com

Applying critical reasoning in critiquing claims made by experts, media, or other sources of information.

When you’re conducting research, it’s not enough to find sources. The sources have to be quality sources: ones that provide correct information and are appropriate for your topic. This section will show you how to evaluate the quality of your sources and how to take notes from them that will be useful as you write an essay and prepare a speech. It will provide answers to the following questions:

  1. How do I know if a source is credible?
  2. How do I know if a source is appropriate for my project?
  3. Who is an expert?
  4. How do I decide if someone is an expert?
  5. How do I decide if someone’s expertise is relevant?
  6. How do you know if you should trust the expert?
  7. What is bias?
  8. How can I read all my sources?
  9. Why should I take notes?
  10. How does note-taking help me to understand a text?
  11. Which aspects of the text should I consider when taking notes? 
  12. How does good note-taking help me to avoid plagiarizing?
  13. How should I approach taking notes?
  14. What strategies are available to me when taking notes?

1.   How do I know if a source is credible?

A credible source is one that you have reason to rely upon. One way to determine whether a source is credible is to apply the concept of ethos.  Is the source trustworthy? Is it authoritative? Is it fair?

Questions like the following can help you judge the whether a source is trustworthy, authoritative, and fair.

  • Is the source published in a scholarly journal or by a reputable press?
  • Is the author an expert? What is her educational or professional background?
  • Does the author cite expert sources?
  • Does the author cite up-to-date sources?
  • Is the author familiar with different opinions?
  • Does the author accurately report arguments with which she does not agree? with?

The concept of logos also is useful for determining whether a source is credible.

  • Does the source rely upon rational arguments?
  • Does the source rely upon relevant evidence?
  • Does the source rely upon sufficient evidence?

Finally, consider the role that pathos plays in the source:

  • Is the source’s reliance on emotion kept within reasonable proportions?
  • Does the source use emotion without being manipulative?

2.   How do I know if a source is appropriate for my project?

To determine whether a source is appropriate for this project, you should be able to answer ‘yes’ to the following questions:

  • Is the source credible?
  • Is the source geared toward an academic audience?
  • Does the source add to what I already know about my topic?

3.  Who is an expert?

An expert is someone with substantial experience and also, typically, formal education in a particular field of study. Whether or not experts are highly educated, they use what training they have on a daily basis, building up experience over time.

A focus on a particular field of study is a necessary element in the development of expertise. Nobody can become an expert in everything. Instead experts specialize in an area that interests them, learning as much as they can and building up their experience in that area.

Keep in mind that no matter how highly educated and experienced a person is in one field, that doesn’t make them an expert if the issue at hand is outside his area of expertise. For example, you wouldn’t see a neurologist for the treatment of skin cancer; nor would you want your dermatologist to treat a broken spine.

4.  How do you decide if someone is an expert?

When you’re evaluating someone’s expertise, you’re judging that person’s credibility, including her ethos. Why is that person worthy of being accepted as an authority on a particular topic? You start to answer this question by evaluating her credentials:

  • What is her highest degree?
  • Was her highest degree earned at a respected university?
  • Is her education in the same field of study as the topic she is discussing?
  • How much professional work experience does she have?
  • Is her work experience in the same field of study as the topic she is discussing?

For this project, you are generally looking for a level of expertise that includes a graduate degree (master’s or doctorate) in an area of study that is relevant to the topic. If the person has a graduate degree but the degree and her professional experience are unrelated to the topic, then the person is not necessarily an expert. In any field, a layperson is someone who is considered to be a ‘man-on-street’ without particular authority or expertise on a topic. A neurosurgeon is an expert when it comes to brain cancer but a layperson when it comes to rocket science because her education and experience are unrelated to that topic.

5. How do you decide if someone’s expertise is relevant?

A person’s field of study and experience are crucial in determining whether someone’s expertise is relevant to your project. Dr. Linus Pauling was a very well-known scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. He was definitely an expert in chemistry, with graduate degrees and extensive experience in that field. However, there came a point in his life where he began promoting Vitamin C to treat cancer and prevent the common cold. In spite of the PhD that entitled him to put a ‘Dr.’ in front of his name, he wasn’t a medical doctor, and medical doctors viewed his advocacy for Vitamin C as mistaken, misguided, and harmful to the people who believed him and took high doses of the vitamin.

When you evaluate your source’s ethos, think about what field of study most directly applies to the issue you are researching. Does the person you are evaluating have a strong education in that field? If the educational credentials are good, has the person been using them as part of his or her professional work? If the answers are ‘yes’, then you probably can rely upon that source. If the answers are ‘no’, then his or her opinion is no better or worse than a layperson’s.

6.  How do you know if you should trust the expert?

A hallmark of a trustworthy expert is the willingness to pursue the truth. Trustworthy experts don’t let themselves be swayed by biases, their own or those of other people. They don’t rely on opinion. Instead they rely on valid, well-designed research studies, and they acknowledge any limitations or flaws in the studies they use.

7. What is bias?

The word bias refers to a slanted view of an issue, one that ignores facts that would be inconvenient to the person holding that view. Bias results when someone becomes financially or emotionally invested in a particular situation. They are less interested in finding out the truth than they are in having their existing opinion be confirmed as correct.

Having a financial interest in an issue is a frequent source of bias. In the late 1990s articles in medical journals promoted Oxycontin as a less addictive alternative to other narcotics for the treatment of pain. The journal articles appeared to describe very respectable medical studies, but the acknowledgements revealed that the studies were paid for by Purdue Pharma, the drug company that manufactures Oxycontin. Since the company sponsoring the studies had a financial interest in the outcomes, the medical studies may have been biased as a result. We may not know for certain that the funding caused the studies to be biased, but we should always be concerned when we notice that the sponsor or author of a study has a financial interest in the results.

Other times people may be biased because of their belief systems. Beliefs—religious, political, or philosophical—may be held like cherished possessions, regardless of whether the beliefs are supported by sound reasoning and evidence. Some people would rather deny facts and reject reasoned challenges rather than modify their beliefs because they are emotionally invested in those beliefs.

8.  How can I read all of my sources?

Students often think that the proper way to read a source is to start at the beginning and slog through to the end. Effective researchers, however, employ various reading tactics in order to cover large amounts of material in the most economical way possible. After all, it is obvious that you can’t read ten books, in their entirety, in order to write a 5-7 page paper that is due in two weeks.

Fortunately, scholarly books and articles are organized in a way that makes partial use possible. Make use of that organization to streamline the reading process.

  • At the beginning of each book, use the table of contents to identify chapters most relevant to your project.
  • At the back of each book, use the index to look up keywords, synonyms, and related terms in order to locate pages most relevant to your project.
  • In scholarly articles, look for section headings that point to the material most relevant to your project.

9.  Why should I take notes?

Note-taking is an invaluable strategy that can help you

  • identify important ideas,
  • identify ideas that you need to clarify,
  • identify the way in which one source responds to another,
  • determine whether you need to seek additional sources, and
  • document your sources.

In order to take good notes, you need to slow down and read actively. In other words, you need to mark or write down important ideas and make note of any questions you have.

Some students rely heavily on highlighting as a form of ‘note-taking’. However, if you highlight, remember that you have only flagged passages that may be important; you have not actually sorted out the ideas in the passages. Highlighting alone does not put you closer to summarizing main and supporting claims, comparing ideas across sources, or making note of issues that need to be clarified by locating additional sources. In these respects, highlighting hardly qualifies as ‘note-taking’.

10.  How does note-taking help me to understand a text?

One of the objectives of CORE 101, the course preceding this one, was to help students develop their ability to “analyze a multifaceted issue in writing.” The introduction to that section of the Handbook described how the act of writing can help us focus our thoughts about a subject. We may think that we understand something but then find ourselves unable to put our ideas about it into words—and if that is the case, do we truly understand?

Taking notes can be a form of writing like any other; writing the notes forces us to put a source’s ideas into terms that we can understand. Oftentimes, we may realize that the notes we have taken don’t adequately represent the text’s ideas. Then we know that we need to try again, testing out different words or phrases until we feel comfortable that we truly grasp the material.

11.  Which aspects of the text should I consider when taking notes? 

Most obviously, it’s important to understand what the text is saying:

  • What is its main claim or thesis?
  • What are its supporting claims?
  • What evidence is offered in support of its claims?
  • How do the claims or arguments relate to the claims/arguments in other texts I have read?

In addition, consider what aspects of the text are most important for you as a researcher. Think about how the text relates to your own work and ideas.

  • Which ideas or evidence might help me clarify my own thinking?
  • Which ideas or evidence could I use to develop my own argument?
  • Which ideas do I agree with in full?
  • Which ideas could I accept with qualifications?
  • Which ideas might I to challenge?

12.  How does good note-taking help me to avoid plagiarizing?

You may want to browse the web in order to get ideas about a topic before you write about it, and in fact earlier in this section of the Handbook browsing the web was recommended as a way of coming up with a list of keywords. However, if you aren’t careful about noting where you have obtained information, you may end up forgetting where you found it. Without realizing it, you may even type sentences or portions of sentences that you have read online. You may then find yourself in a very difficult situation—perhaps even facing charges of plagiarism and academic misconduct. To avoid such a situation, record full information from all websites you visit:

  • specific words, ideas, and facts as you encounter them,
  • the name of the page,
  • the sponsor or author of the page,
  • the name of the site if the page is not a homepage,
  • the URL or address,
  • the date the information was posted, and
  • the date you accessed the page.

Similarly, from the very start, keep good records about the articles and books that you locate in databases. Do not promise yourself that you will go back later to gather the necessary information. At best, you are wasting time retracing your steps; at worst, you may not be able to relocate one or more sources.

As you write your paper, be sure to cite all sources immediately after you make use of them. If you keep good notes, citing as you write should be easy; and it safer and more efficient than the alternative. The problems you may run in to if you fail to cite at once are similar to the ones you will encounter if you do not keep good notes in the first place: at best, you waste time going back through your sources; worse, you may not be able to relocate the passages you were relying on; worst of all, you may have to answer to plagiarism and academic misconduct charges.

Another problem that may occur if you fail to take cite immediately is that you will forget or overlook a section of your paper that should have been documented. If you cannot relocate the passages you were relying on or if you forget to cite sections altogether, the paper grade likely will be lowered as a result. Again, you may have to answer to plagiarism and academic misconduct charges.

Another issue to consider as you take notes is the need to carefully distinguish between your words and the words of your source. If you quote, clearly label the material as quoted and place it within quotation marks. These steps will eliminate the possibility that you will mistake quoted material for paraphrases of your own creation.

Finally, when you paraphrase, make certain that the ‘paraphrase’ is not itself a form of plagiarism. To avoid plagiarizing under the guise of ‘paraphrasing’, review these sections under the Approaches to Written Argument assignment in CORE 101: “What is effective paraphrasing?” and “When does paraphrasing become plagiarism? Under the same assignment, you may also find these sections helpful:

  • What is plagiarism?
  • Why should I cite?
  • How can I avoid plagiarism?

13.  How should I approach taking notes?

Think about which approaches you would like to use when taking notes. You may want to experiment with different ones in order to figure out which approaches work best for you. Some of the possibilities to consider:

  • Should I read a hard or electronic copy of the document?
  • Should I write in the margins?
  • Should I underline?
  • Should I highlight?
  • Should I rely upon a mix of underlining and highlighting and writing in the margins?
  • Should I copy quotations at length?
  • Should I take notes by creating a separate page or file than the original?

Whatever approaches or techniques you adopt, always include the correct and complete documentation in your notes so that you won’t have to hunt for it later when it’s time to cite the source in your paper and document the source on your reference page.

14.  What strategies are available to me when taking notes?

Several strategies exist for taking notes, and you may want to consider two in particular.

One helpful strategy is keeping a “double-entry journal.”  In the double-entry journal method, you draw a vertical line down the center of a blank page. To the left of the line you quote or summarize important ideas from the source, including the page number where you found that idea. To the right of the line, you list your responses and reactions to those important ideas, which may include answers to these questions:

  • What strikes me about the ideas in this source?
  • How are the ideas in this source similar to ideas I have encountered in other sources?
  • How are the ideas in this source similar to ideas of my own?
  • How are the ideas in this source different to ideas I have encountered in other sources?
  • How are the ideas in this source different to ideas of my own?
  • How might I use or respond to the ideas from the source in my own essay?

With especially difficult sources, the “reverse-outline” can be a helpful note-taking strategy. A reverse outline emphasizes the organizational structure of the text. In this approach, you either utilize the margins of the text or draw a vertical line down the center of a separate page (like in the “double entry journal” method). Then, follow these steps:

  • Locate and either write out or underline the main argument or idea of the essay.
  • Move paragraph by paragraph through the essay.
  • On the left side of each paragraph, concisely paraphrase its topic.
  • On the right side of each paragraph, explain how it contributes to or supports the main idea of the essay. Does stating the main idea? Support the main idea? Explore the significance of the main idea?

Like the double-entry journal, the reverse-outline encourages active reading in which you sort out the ideas of the source. In addition, the reverse outline also is an excellent strategy to use with your own work—a way to take stock of what you have and determine what needs to be moved, clarified or elaborated upon, or deleted.



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