Research for essays

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1. The amount of background reading and research you are required to do for producing an essay will depend largely upon the level of your studies. Don’t imagine that every essay question requires the same approach.

2. In studies leading up to and including GCSE ‘A’ level (twelfth grade in the USA), tutors will probably be quite satisfied if you demonstrate close acquaintance with the course material (the article, novel, text book, or chapter under consideration). Most essay assignments will be set to check that you have engaged with this material. You are not normally expected to deal with much more.

3. At first year undergraduate level, tutors will be primarily interested in checking that you have grasped the basics of your subject. In further or higher education, most of this subject-matter will come from lectures, text books, and possibly tutorial discussion. [Science subjects may also have ‘practicals’.] The core or set texts will be considered most important, but reading beyond this would be welcomed.

4. At second or third year undergraduate level you will be increasingly expected to range beyond the course materials as a demonstration of your own intellectual curiosity and your ability to understand and discuss the opinions of others. Secondary reading will probably be recommended and considered necessary.

5. At third year and particularly beyond into postgraduate studies, your grasp of the subject will probably be closely related to your acquaintance with the ‘literature’ of your subject. This requires wide-ranging reference to secondary and even tertiary material. You will be expected to show that you are aware of the work of others, and can incorporate their concepts into your own arguments.

6. However, in almost all subjects, the most important point is that you should be closely acquainted in detail with the primary and basic materials of your subject. This may be texts (novels, the Bible, historical studies) works of art (music scores, paintings, films) scientific work (research papers, the results of experiments), or some body of knowledge.

7. In some subjects you may be required to produce a ‘review of the literature’. That is, you are asked to summarise the views of others on a particular topic. This review acts as a demonstration that you have grasped and can discuss the issues of a subject as they are currently perceived. In this case, the range of material you discuss will be determined by what is available. [Keep in mind, however, that discussing other people’s arguments is no substitute for your own insightful reading, first hand experience, or fresh, original enquiry.]

8. How many books should you choose as background support for your essay or project? Many students make the mistake of equating quantity with quality. The strength of your essay will not be simply proportionate to the number of books you take out of the library.

9. Don’t imagine that the ‘secret’ answer to an essay question lies locked away in some secondary text, which would answer all your problems if only you could locate it . This is not true. Most essays simply require the production of a moderately well-informed argument in response to a question, with evidence to support your claims.

10. There is another essay-writing myth of a similar kind. Don’t think that success will rest on your locating the most recent, fashionable, or obscure item from the short loan collection in the library. Unless the question specifically calls for a discussion of the most up-to-date research, this is unlikely to be the case. The majority of essay questions can be answered using standard text books and traditional course material.

11. With the exception of those subjects which call for a review of current research, you should avoid turning your essay into a catalogue or summary of the views of others. An essay which is ssentially ‘X says this … whereas Y claims that … and Z points out that …’ creates a bad impression on two counts. It reads like intellectual name-dropping, and it suggests that you can’t be bothered generating an argument of your own.

12. Remember that the research or opinions of others should be used to reinforce your argument – not the other way round. You should present your own case first, then explain your argument, set out your evidence, and discuss the issues involved. Only when you have finished doing this should you bring in the work of others to support your case.

13. Some students mistakenly imagine that the solution to the problem of essay writing is to borrow as many books as possible from the library. They think ‘The answer must be in there somewhere!’ This is probably not a good idea – because in doing so you burden yourself with too much material to search through.

14. Your time and effort will probably be more effective if you select just a few books which are directly relevant to the task involved. Take a few moments to survey any book before you go to the trouble of borrowing it. If it is not appropriate – leave it on the shelf.

15. You are likely to benefit more by reading and digesting two or three relevant texts, rather than skimming through several in a superficial manner. This will be profitable to you both intellectually and in terms of producing a good essay.

16. In most subjects you should make a clear distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. For instance, in literary studies Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park would be a primary text. A critical work by A.B. Smith called Jane Austen’s Heroines would be a secondary text because it represents Smith’s opinions of Jane Austen’s work. A book of critical theory by C.D. Jones called The Ideas of A.B. Smith would be a tertiary text because it deals with Jones’s opinions of Smith’s opinions of Jane Austen.

17. You can see that each of these texts takes us one step further away from the primary source – which is Mansfield Park. This would be equally true in other disciplines such as history, sociology, and philosophy. [Some contemporary theorists such as deconstructionists would not make these distinctions. For the most radical of such people, all texts might be regarded as primary.]

18. When you are given suggestions for further reading by your tutors, these lists represent possible avenues of exploration related to the topic. These bibliographies should save you time hunting for relevant material. However, don’t imagine that it is necessary to read every one of the suggested titles. Browse through the texts in the library if possible, but select just those which you think will be most helpful.

19. Making these distinctions calls for good reading skills. You should be able to look through a book quickly, making an assessment of its value to your purpose. Take note of what level it is aimed at, how wide or narrow its scope, and what is its relevance to your task.

20. Your reading and research may also take you into the realm of electronic sources – the digital texts, databases, and on-line information of the Internet. Here too you should be realistic and selective. Don’t imagine that just because somebody has created a Web page on your subject, it necessarily contains information more important than the dusty volumes in your library. You still need to evaluate the usefulness and relevance of what you find.

21. Similarly, don’t imagine that hours and hours spent surfing is any guarantee that you will find what you require. Although a great deal of data is being made available electronically, there is still much work to be done in the digitising of information.

22. However, searching the Internet is certainly a powerful form of research. You can recover documents from the other side of the world in a matter of seconds, ‘visit’ libraries without moving from your chair, and download information which was updated only twenty-four hours ago – or less. One resource you might find very useful is other people’s bibliographies. Because the Net has such a friendly and generous population, you will discover that fellow students and academic staff are often willing to share the fruits of many hours’ labour. You might take advantage of this – and put back into the system some of your own endeavours.

© Roy Johnson 2003


Research and project links

Red button How to write scientific reports

Red button The Essence of Computing Projects

Red button Doing your Research Project


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