Level Up: Strategies for Scholarly Research
Resources for Upper-Year Students
Build on your learning with scholarly research
In your first years as a university student, you may have been confused by or unsure of the scholarly research process. By this point, it is likely you feel more comfortable searching for sources and using them to support your writing. It is important to build on your research skills for advanced upper year courses because they require you to have a broader view of field, which requires you to assess sources beyond a quick determination of their relevance to your topic. Take time to evaluate each source, and consider how it reflects the multiple perspectives and approaches in the field. Over time, you have developed a strong foundation of knowledge in your subject, and good research should expand on that knowledge, not just reinforce it. In short, avoid selecting only sources (and quotations) that support your preliminary thinking. Take time to discover and explore your topic for a deeper and more nuanced analysis.
Research with intention
A vague search on a broad topic will often lead to frustration as you stare at a list of thousands of mostly irrelevant articles – or a page that reads “no results found.” Academic literature is very focused, so general or broad search terms rarely offer any useful sources. Take time to focus your thinking. It is good to begin by identifying your objectives and questions for research. Understand your task; what kind of paper do you have to write and how will you use sources to support this work? What is your topic; how is it related to your course learning? What do you already know? What do you want to know (more about)? How does this topic fit into the course learning objectives? Your existing and growing knowledge of theory, method, context, and important scholars, studies, or texts in the field will help you to create a research plan that directs your search.
Good research helps you to understand and narrow your topic to make it manageable and analytical. Beyond presenting merely presenting facts, your writing must present your analysis of these facts and an explanation of how they all fit together to address your research question. You may begin with a general question to begin, but you can narrow it with discovery and inquiry. As you research, your questions can become more analytical – moving from the who, what, when, where to explore the how, why, and so what. This means that your research and writing process isn’t easily defined into simple stages; one informs the other – as you find and read, you begin to think and write (even just preliminary thoughts or rough points), which leads to more questions and more sources. This process can take time, so we discourage leaving research to the last minute.
Your past years of study have introduced you to the types of evidence used in your discipline; your topic and research question also lead you to relevant sources. Some disciplines permit only research from empirical articles published in peer-reviewed journals within a 5-7 year time frame, while others expect a broader range of sources that might include scholarly monographs, professional publications, government reports, oral traditions or visual media. Let this knowledge help you as you search for sources; start with the subject guides at Trent’s library to find relevant scholarly databases that index peer-reviewed articles and use Google Scholar to widen your search, making sure to link the university library so you can access great articles you find. Go to the websites of professional associations and government and non-governmental agencies to find grey literature. It is also helpful to look to course readings, making note of the important authors and journals studying this topic of this work and reviewing the sources listed in the bibliography, which often lists important texts on the topic. Talk to your professor about your research topic and they may offer suggestions for key works or direction in finding good sources that can be harder to find. And don’t forget to meet with a librarian; they can help you to level up your research by teaching you how to best use the tools available to you for research. LINK – Library
Managing sources and taking useful notes
Research projects in upper-year courses often require many sources, so it is important to carefully manage your references as you select sources. Keep a working reference list or bibliography that includes all the sources you have selected. You may choose to create your own list or use citation management software (e.g., Zotero, Mendelay, OneNote). Learning to use this software can take a bit of time, but they are powerful tools that can make your work more efficient and organized.
As you take notes on your sources, it is important to be clear and brief, taking care to track ideas and words original to the author and to note context of evidence and key points. Return to your questions and consider your intention with each source – why did you select it, how does it relate to your question, how does it relate to other sources. You may decide to write short summaries for each source, similar to an annotated bibliography along with a few quotations or detailed pieces of evidence (for which you should include page numbers for later reference). Alternatively, you may find it helpful to take notes in a table that includes prompts and categories for your notes; an excel spreadsheet can be quite effective for this approach. Try this note template for your research notes. No matter your notetaking approach, one key element to include is your response to the ideas presented by the source. Explain why the idea is interesting or important, what it might be missing, how it relates to other sources, and how you might include it in your paper. These responses are your critical thinking in writing and they form the basis of your critical writing.