Research Like a Librarian: Using “Big6 Skills” for Better Grades! by Anne Rouyer, Seward Park Library November 18, 2013
PSSSTT! Let me let you in on a little librarian research secret: finding information at branches and online isn’t hard (anyone can do it). In fact, in this digital age of big databases, Google and Wikipedia we are on information overload. We are surrounded by too much information actually. So how do librarians research? What do we know that you don’t?
Well, we know how to evaluate information, dissect it, analyze it, reassemble it and put it to use effectively. One way to do this is through the “Big6 Skills“—a research and problem solving process, which was developed by two educators as a way to teach information and technology skills. I learned them while getting my Masters in Library Science and they BLEW MY MIND! Suddenly researching and organizing information for a paper or essay was a breeze. If only I’d learned them when I was in high school or middle school my life would’ve been totally different. I might’ve been Hillary Clinton or Simon Cowell.
“The Big6 Skills” process isn’t a shortcut. In fact, while I can guarantee your researching and writing process will be smoother, it doesn’t work if you procrastinate. SO NO PROCRASTINATING! This process really only works if you start it when you get the assignment and say, not the night before it is due (I see you procrastinators). The following steps will help you find, evaluate and use the information effectively but they won’t do the research or write the paper for you—that you have to do on your own. This is about being smart about research, not quick.
Step 1: Defining the Assignment or Project
What is it exactly your teacher wants from you? What are the requirements of the assignment? Is there anything vague you need clarified? How should you cite your sources? Before you can start the research process you need to understand what exactly you need to find out about your topic. To make sure you have it all figured it out, put the assignment in your own words and ask the teacher if you are correct. Sometimes assignments are vague. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher questions and get them to answer as specifically as possible. There are no stupid questions in the pursuit of good grades! There should be no confusion when you go online or head off to the library about what you need to accomplish. Once you decide on your topic, put a list of questions together of what you need to find the answers to and check mark which ones will require more digging by you. In the librarian world, this would be part of a “reference interview” and the more understanding you have about what you don’t know and what you need to find out, the easier your research process will be!
Step 2: Research Strategizing and Planning
Now that you understand the assignment, have chosen your topic and written down what you need to find out, you must decide how to go about finding the information you need. What books are available? Are there a lot of books available or you going to have put holds on books? What are the best library databases that will help you find the most information? What are the most useful websites (and I don’t mean Wikipedia*)? This is all JUST PLANNING! No actual research yet. Make a list of all the available resources you think will be the most helpful and if you don’t know or have question about available books and online databases this is a great time to ask a librarian for their assistance.
One key to good research are good keywords. If the world was perfect, the subject headings you seek would be simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, you need to think of all the possible ways you could find information on your topic. This is one of the reasons you needed to define the assignment as specifically as possible. Some subject headings need refining or tweaking to find the exact stuff you are looking for. This is a classic librarian trick of the trade. If we can’t find something through a known subject heading we just start word associating until something works. As your research progresses, you can look in a good resource’s record for associated subject “terms” and “headings” and these could lead to more useful sources. If you can’t think of good keywords a librarian is good person to ask!
*A quick word on Wikipedia. DON’T use it as a main source. Anyone can edit a post or post information on it. It is an unreliable research source. DO use it as a background source and to find resources and citations. It can be a good place to get an overview on a topic or basic information but it is not reliable and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Step 3: Location, Location, Location
Now that you have a solid list of resources to look at and ideas of how to look up the information, where is it? Are the databases online and available from home? Do you need to go the library? Which library? Which libraries have the most books on your topic on the shelf? This is where planning is key. I can’t tell you how many times a student comes into a library only to find that none of the sources they need are there or that they have to go somewhere else or that they could have just as easily gotten the information at home. Next to each source on your list put the location of the source. This will help you plan just how you allot your time for research.
Location doesn’t just mean where the source is located but also where the information INSIDE the source is located. In other words, the index is your friend! Very rarely are you going to find the exact book you need with the all the exact information you need inside it. Spoiler alert: you are going to have to go fishing for it. Sorry. You may find a great book about Europe during World War II but if you are just writing a report on concentration camps you don’t want to read the entire book but you also don’t want to leave the book on the shelf. You may find it has all the bits and pieces you need by going through the index looking up your search terms and keywords. Mark all these pages for reading later. Even if you end up not using the information in your report you can always use it as background information. Even if your teacher says you only need two books, check out everything that could be useful. More is always better.
Step 4: Exploring, Evaluating and Extracting
Okay, this is finally the moment you have been waiting for—the actual researching! You know what you need to find out thanks to Step 1, you know how to look for it thanks to Step 2 and you know where to look for it thanks to Step 3 so start reading, viewing and listening to whatever information you are gathering. I call this exploring for a reason. Oftentimes, you will be researching a topic you know nothing about—exploring unexplored territory (for you anyway)—so give yourself time to evaluate the information you are discovering as you go along. Is it the right information? Is it useful? Does it answer your questions? You may discover that the questions you were asking in Step 1 are wrong and you need to ask new ones or different ones. You may discover that another aspect of your topic is more interesting and you want to research that instead. You may discover new search terms you hadn’t thought of before. Whatever the case, this is your time to explore and extract all the relevant information you need for your paper or project so think critically about the information you are finding.
As you explore you are taking notes and making notes of key ideas and passages. The method of note taking is up to you. In college, I devised a complicated system of post-its and notepads that worked for me—the point is, your system is your system—as long as it works for you, it’s all good. However, what is important is that you are not copying word-for-word from a text. Do not plagiarize! Even if you think you won’t get caught it is wrong. Period. You may think it’s a short cut but the cons are so much greater than the pros so just don’t do it. If you find a passage, in a source, that you think is worded too perfectly to ignore you have two options: 1) you can quote the passage and source with a footnote or parenthetical reference or 2) summarize the information in the passage in your own words and then integrate it into your paper that way. The choice is yours. And please make sure you cite all your sources in your bibliography. Even if you just use a book or article as background information for your paper—cite it. Your teacher should see all the sources you used/read to write your paper.
Tip: In college, I learned that my papers were better if I gave all my sources a full read-through first and then went back a second time to extract the information that was relevant. Oftentimes, I discovered I missed something during the first read. Yes, it takes longer but my paper grades definitely improved.
Step 5: Information Fusion
Fusion, a.k.a. the process of mixing or combining two or more things into a single entity. Now that it is time to write it’s time to combine all those carefully taken notes into an amazing research report. This is where all your time and effort pay off. All the careful planning, reading and note taking should make this easier. Begin by organizing your notes and brainstorming about what information you will include in your paper (and where). Put checkmarks next to everything you are going to use, put a star next to the maybes. Assign each bit of information to a different section or paragraph and then organize it into an outline. An outline is not set in stone (nor is the structure of it) but it does help you organize your thoughts and what information is most important and fits best together. Once you have an outline it’s time for the first draft. The first draft should be all about how the information flows together and how much you understand your topic—not so much about punctuation and grammar (that’s comes later in the revision process). Remember in the beginning when I said you couldn’t procrastinate with your research—you can’t procrastinate with this step either. You need time to write a first draft and then to revise, revise, revise… you get the picture. The more revising you do the better your paper will be. A good tip is to have someone else (someone who is a good writer) be your editor. Behind every great writer is an even better editor. So it doesn’t matter if you give your paper to a friend, parent, teacher, tutor or librarian just as long as you have a second pair of eyes read it. In high school, my mother was my editor. She slashed and burned everything I wrote but I became a better writer because of it and you will too!
Tip: Remember when you are writing this paper you are not just regurgitating information or just summarizing the ideas you found. If that was the case, a monkey could do it. No, this is about you thinking critically about the information you found, coming up with many of your own ideas and presenting the information you found in your own way. The facts are the facts but the ideas should be mainly be your own.
Reminder: Bibliographies are important. A bibliography and citing your sources is the only way your teacher will know what resources you used and read. Make sure they are presented as requested by your teacher. Teachers and college professors often have a preference for how a source is cited (usually MLA or APA) so please make sure that you are citing a source correctly—this is something you should get confirmed during Step 1. You are lucky that you live in the 21st century, most online resources come with the correct citation structure or there are websites devoted to the subject (see below).
Step 6: Assessment
This is your chance to step back and evaluate your paper and your research process. How does your paper look? Does it fulfill the assignment? Does it answer the questions you laid out in Step 1? How was it finding sources? Which ones worked best? Were you able to find books on your topic easily? Is the paper more than just a summary of other people’s ideas? Do you provide some of your ideas and conclusions? Is it presented correctly with the right type of citations? Did you plan well and give yourself enough time for the entire process? What will you do differently for your next research assignment?
Each assignment and research project that you do allows you to refine your own research process so that the next time is even easier for you. You may spend 5 minutes on this step or 60, that is up to you but do spend some time thinking critically about it. A librarian will evaluate their process each time they answer a reference question especially if it is a complicated one. Did we use the right database, the right key words? Was the book we found useful? How could we have been more successful in helping a patron? Always think about what you have done, what you have accomplished and how you could have done better.
So that’s it. All the “Big6 Skills” steps. Are you thinking about information and research differently yet? Work through these skills and steps for your next research project and I guarantee you will.
Oh, there’s one last unofficial step: BE PROUD OF YOURSELF! A research paper or project is no easy task and you should feel proud that you did it!