Step 3: Gather data (read and make notes)
Do you read fiction for pleasure? Maybe you read detective novels or action thrillers. What makes you turn each page? What questions do you ask? If the story is exciting or it captures your imagination, you probably ask, ‘What happens next?’ or ‘Who is the murderer?’, and you read on to find answers to your questions.
The experience of reading a text book or a journal article is usually quite different from reading fiction, but when you read for study purposes rather than for pleasure it is just as important to ask questions. When you’re reading to gather information for an essay, instead of asking, ‘What happens next?’ you ask, ‘How does this point relate to my thesis statement?’ or ‘How can I use that point in developing an argument to support my thesis statement?’
Reading as an active experience
To make reading for an essay an active experience, you need to:
Always remember your purpose in reading: gathering information to support your thesis statement with evidence and argument. Here are some details of how you might carry out each of the five activities effectively.
Following are examples of notes taken from three fictitious texts. These notes will be used in the next section (Step 4). The red text represents comments and thoughts regarding these notes.
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- Note the title, writer’s name, date and place of publication.
- Read the abstract.
- Read sub-headings and first sentences of paragraphs.
- Read any summaries within or at end of the text.
- Pick up main ideas, key words (words that tell you who, what, when, where, how many, and how much).
- Check that the text is relevant to your thesis statement.
- Be clear about the purpose of your reading (background reading for overview or context, close reading for detail, and so on)
Turn the title, headings, subheadings into questions:
- What is the author’s thesis or ‘big idea’?
- What does the author have to say that I can use in supporting my thesis?
- What connections and relationships does the author identify/develop?
- How does the author structure and develop their ideas/support of their thesis?
- Are there any words, expressions, technical terms that I don’t understand?
- Always record bibliographical details of the text from which you are taking notes (keep a record of all texts you consult).
- Focus on understanding sections (or individual paragraphs) of the text before you start making notes.
- Highlight sections which seem important to you and take down notes of important details.
- Be selective; don’t overload on data large quantities of information can be hard to organise and process.
- Use headings, subheadings, diagrams, and/or mind-maps in your notes.
- Leave space for later comments and cross-referencing on the points noted.
- Identify, underline, colour code main ideas and supporting points.
- Number points where applicable.
- Paraphrase rather than copy verbatim (except for ‘quotable quotes’, which must be copied meticulously).
- Keep notes brief but full enough to make sense to you when you read them later.
- Record page numbers for all notes (helps you to refer back to original if necessary).
Make notes to create your own synthesis
- What you read should inform your own critical thinking about a topic it should not be a substitute for your thinking.
- Always keep your thesis statement in mind.
- Write down from the text key words that relate to your thesis statement.
- Compress your notes into your own words and focus on integrating an independent understanding.
- Identify patterns and themes as they emerge.
- Leave spaces within your notes for rethinking, cross-referencing, comments, connections.
- As you make notes, think about how you will use them in your essay.
- Consider using a mind-map (see Step 4)
- A summary picks out the main points the writer makes that relate to your thesis statement.
- Writing a summary allows you to test yourself on your understanding of the text and its relevance to your thesis statement.
- A summary provides you with a compact account of the text for use in your essay.
- The process of summarising turns source information into developing knowledge.
- When you’ve finished a note-making session, review your notes and reflect on their relevance to your thesis statement and to the case or argument you will develop to support your thesis statement.
- Go back to the text and check that your main points are actually the main points raised by the author.
- ‘Ruminate’. That is, put the article aside and think about what you have read. If anything you have read remains unclear, go back to the article to clarify your understanding of it.
Feelings: Many people feel interested and challenged at this stage. The agonizing part of choosing what to research is over and the task of finding the specific information you need is more like solving a puzzle or going on a treasure hunt. If any part of this process is going to be fun, this is the part.
Thoughts and Actions: Follow the steps below to get an idea of things you should be thinkingabout and doing, and some of the strategies which will help. Note the type of information search you should be doing at this stage.
Your information search at this stage is focused and specific, and you're keeping a careful record of what you find. Instead of the square mile of land to explore, you've roped off half an acre. You're walking it systematically, bending down now and then to pick up something and chuck it in your backpack, then recording in your notebook what you found and where you found it.
4.1 Info Search - finding, collecting and recording
This is the step most people think of when they think of "library research." It's a hunt for information in any available form (book, periodical, CD, video, internet) which is pertinent to your chosen focus. Once you know the focus of your research, there are lots of tools and strategies to help you find and collect the information you need.
Your information search should be focused and specific, but pay careful attention to serendipity (finding, by chance, valuable things you weren't even looking for). Keep your mind open to continue learning about your focused topic.
Now is the time to carefully record your sources in the bibliographic format required by your instructor. Every piece of information you collect should have bibliographic information written down before you leave the library. See the links to Citing Sources for information on how and when to use quotation, paraphrase and summary and how to conform to the required styles of citation in different fields of study. You should also pay attention to the quality of the information you find, especially if you're using information you find on the internet. See the linked articles about Interpretation and Evaluation of Information.
Now is also the time to learn the details of using search engines. Many of the sources you will want to use are online, whether in the library or on the internet. See the Info Search section and specifically the Skills for Online Searching article.
4.2 Think about clarifying or refining your focus
As you gather information about your focused topic, you may find new information which prompts you to refine, clarify, extend or narrow your focus. Stay flexible and adjust your information search to account for the changes, widening or narrowing your search, or heading down a slightly different path to follow a new lead.
4.3 Start organizing your notes
Start organizing your notes into logical groups. You may notice a gap in your research, or a more heavy weighting to one aspect of the subject than what you had intended. Starting to organize as you gather information can save an extra trip to the library. It's better to find the gap now instead of the night before your paper is due (obviously!).
Look through the articles linked under Organizing Information, which includes taking notes, outlining and organizing by mapping, cubing, etc.
4.4 Think about what your thesis statement will be
The thesis statement is the main point of your paper. The type of thesis statement you'll be making depends a lot on what type of paper you're writing—a report, an issue analysis, an advocacy paper or another type. As you gather specific information and refine your focus, intentionally look for a main point to your findings. Sometimes, a thesis emerges very obviously from the material, and other times you may struggle to bring together the parts into a sensible whole. The tricky part is knowing when to stop gathering information—when do you have enough, and of the right kind? Seeking a main point as you research will help you know when you're done.
Read the linked articles on Thesis statement for guidance.
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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz