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What type of information will help me?

What type of information will help me?

  • Primary v secondary
  • Scholarly v General Interest
  • Current v historical
  • Factual/statistical information. This can be useful in providing evidence to back up argument.
  • Where will I find information on my topic? Organisational websites, government websites.

Primary sources

These could be considered as "original" or "firsthand" sources. Some examples are:

  • Journal articles, reports and conference papers which present the results of original research are termed primary literature whether they're in print or electronic format.
  • Sets of data such as statistics and lab results are also primary sources as are documents produced at the time of an event e.g. diaries, photographs, court records, newspaper reports.

Secondary sources

These interpret, analyse or repackage primary material.

  • Examples of secondary sources are textbooks and review articles. These aim to summarise and explain previously published work rather than present the results of original work.
  • Abstracts, indexes, and databases are also secondary sources. These are used to identify relevant primary and secondary literature

Where am I going to find the information?

Where am I going to find the information

Begin to test your topic by trying out some of your keywords in tools like

  • the Library catalogue
  • databases
  • e-journals
  • e-books
  • search engines
  • subject gateways

Too many results?

You will have to think about how you can refine your search. Revisit your keywords. Can you think of more specific words? Have you picked up any new words when doing your preliminary searching that you could use as a better alternative? Can you combine keywords to produce more specific and relevant results?

Try using different Boolean operators
Try phrase searching, usually expressed in quotation marks.

Boolean operators allow you to combine your keywords in different ways in order to achieve the best set of results. The most common operators are AND, OR, NOT. AND and NOT are helpful in restricting the number of results you get.

Linking words with the AND operator tells the system that all of the words must appear in the record, although not necessarily together as in a phrase search. For example, linking the phrase 'student debt AND UK' means that your retrieved record(s) must contain all these words. Using a combination of phrase searching and single word searching together yields more specific results than the search Student AND Debt AND UK.

Phrase searching is particularly appropriate when searching the Internet.

Linking words with the NOT operator excludes certain records. You may be looking for a book on "student loans" but you don't want anything that covers the U.S. Be careful though, you may exclude a really good book on student loans because it also covers student loans in the United States.

Too few results?

The reverse side of the problem. Maybe you are being too specific and have to broaden out a bit. Revisit your mind tool exercise and see if there are any alternative words you can use.

If this doesn't work try another source.

Maybe you are doing research on animal testing. You put those keywords into the Library catalogue but find nothing, so you have to broaden your search. Think of new keywords. What does animal testing form a part of?

  • Ethics
  • Laboratory experiments
  • Animal rights

Your new search might be for

animals AND ethics


"Animal rights" (a phrase search).

Remember "Boolean operators". The operatorOR might be used to broaden your results e.g. Linking words with the OR operator means that you do not mind whether you retrieve a book on say "Higher education" OR "Universities", either would be relevant to you. In practice you would then combine these words withAND to refine your search to student loans. Your search could look like this:

("Higher education" OR Universities) AND "student loans".

The brackets tell the database to perform the OR search first and combine the results with the phrase search "student loans".

Not all databases support parentheses (brackets), sometimes you just need to use advanced search options and fill out the boxes linked together with the appropriate Boolean operator.

Tip: Always take a look at any Help screens available to you when using electronic databases. Most databases rely on you typing in keywords to retrieve a set of results but they will not all operate in the same way. The way that you express Boolean operators will vary from one database to another.

For example, some may need you to connect your words with the Boolean operator AND, others will assume the space between the words is the AND operator, yet others may assume this to be a phrase search.

Also remember that the records you retrieve are driven by your keywords, so you may miss a record if you use the keyword UK and the record contains United Kingdom instead or even Britain or England. It's all about thinking up every keyword you can that might prove useful.

Check out the following links for further information on using Boolean operators to change your search results
Boolean Machine

Effective Reading and Taking notes

Effective reading and taking notes

You may have already scanned through some of your material when you selected it but now you will want to read it in more depth, to take notes or even discard it from your research if you realise it is not as useful as you originally thought.

This stage can seem long and sometimes frustrating and de-motivating, but there are techniques which will help you to do this effectively.

Effective reading

To read effectively you will need to concentrate and develop your understanding of the material. Also, because of the amount of material you will have to examine it will help if you try to increase your speed. Additionally it may help if you ask yourself the following questions.

  • What do I already know?
  • How will I apply this to my assignment?
  • What new things do I want to learn?
  • Who has written this, what are they trying to say and to whom?

Effective reading will also help with effective note taking. Try the following process:

  • survey the chapter or article, note the title and subheadings, this will give you some idea of what it is about
  • question the author's main points
  • read, with the intention of answering your question
  • repeat in your own words every couple of pages what you have read
  • go back and review a chapter once you have read it

This will also help you to select appropriate material, so do not be afraid to discard any material that you think is irrelevant.

We have a guide to academic reading has links to additional resources which will help you.

Note Taking

Note taking helps to record what you have read and should also help you to remember what you have read. For an assignment your notes should be accurate and detailed and should help you to structure your assignment. Use your plan to guide you with your note taking, identify and record the main points and check your understanding of any words or concepts that you are unfamiliar with.

Try to structure your notes in a way that will assist you with writing your assignment. The most common types of note taking are:

  • Linear: where you use key words and phrases, for example, a heading is a key word or phrase and this is followed by bullet points or numbered points which give more detail
  • Patterns: where arrows/circles/lines connect key words and phrases, making a spreading pattern e.g. mind mapping, diagrams
  • Visual information: where it is difficult to record visual information in words, you may choose to make a sketch, copy the image or use an accurate reference so you can go back to it.

There are no set rules on how to structure your notes, and finding a method that bests suits you is important, you may even choose to use a combination of the methods listed above.

Selecting what to note can be the most difficult task, your effective reading skills should help you with this, but also look at how you want to structure your assignment and try to answer the following:

  • What is the argument I am trying to make?
  • What evidence do I need to support my argument?
  • What facts do I need to include and what is irrelevant?

As you are going along, make sure you note the source of your information, this is especially important if you are going to include some quotes e.g.:

  • Journal: page number, article title, author and journal title, volume, number and date
  • Book: page number, chapter title, author and book title and author/editor, publisher and publishers' location and date

If you do this whilst you are note taking your task will be far easier, as trying to relocate references once you start writing your assignment can be extremely frustrating and it may feel like you are starting your research all over again!

Also, try to store your notes in an organised way, for example in a file, on your computer or in a notebook. It may also be useful if you date your notes.

Our guide to Note-Taking has links to additional resources which will help you.