Research Tips

5 Skills to Hone Before College

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Research skills are useful both inside and outside the classroom, as these skills help you think carefully, identify core issues, and develop resilience/grit. Take a look at our list of five research skills you should start developing as you prepare for the next stage in your educational journey.

Succeeding in college doesn’t just mean sitting in class, taking notes and doing well on exams. Once you’ve taken your core/foundational classes, most courses will ask you to conduct research in one form or another, and many professions require you to assimilate and apply both historical and novel information. Possessing highly transferable research skills will help you be successful inside and outside the classroom, and beyond. To begin working on these skills, pay attention to how you approach research problems in life and in school, and start applying these principles.

Ask good questions

Before you begin your research, you should be able to write your research question or thesis in a single sentence. Your question should be specific, which means you may need to do preliminary research so you are aware of relevant subtopics and supercategories. Your question should also be reasoned; you should be able to succinctly explain why you’re interested, why your question is important to others, and how your question will lead to deep research.

Know how to find and evaluate sources

Finding sources may be challenging if you are researching an old or obscure topic, or conversely, a brand new or novel topic where not much is known. In addition to internet searches, you should become familiar with using academic search engines. If your mentor is not reviewing this skill with you, you should be able to find instruction at your local public or university library. Don’t be shy to ask for a lesson–librarians are excited to teach young people how to access information! Once you have found a source, you should evaluate its trustworthiness. You can do this by asking the following questions:

  • Is the source recent? 
  • Is the source authentic?  Check that the source is not paid advertising or phishing for information.  
  • Does this source address the right scope or level of problem? 
  • Is the source doing a broad review of your topic, when what you need is a deep-dive on a subtopic? Or is it too detailed, when what you need is a high-level overview of the supertopics related to your question?
  • Is the source authoritative? Was it written by experts in the field? Do the authors have credentials that you trust?

Know how to thoroughly search for answers

As you search for answers, you should aim for breadth and depth of information.  When looking for answers, don’t stop at one source or fact; you should always find a minimum of 3 valid sources that agree. If you find there’s a divide, be sure to document each side and address both in your evaluation.

You should purposefully research opposing opinions or views, so you develop a global understanding of the issue. Keep in mind that both sides may not have equally strong arguments, and be sure to address the quality and quantity of evidence supporting each.

Develop your resilience

As any researcher will share, you never arrive at an answer the first time you try. If this sounds surprising or confusing, it’s likely for one or both of these reasons: (1) Hollywood tells us about difficult journeys with a slick montage or timeline edit, and (2) researchers present their studies in a simplified narrative so their audience doesn’t get sidetracked. If you attend a conference or read a research article, you’ll get a single-line path from question to results. But all research suffers from fits and starts. True crime podcasts are a perfect illustration of how research really works–lots of hard work and meandering false paths, followed by more hard work and eventually, maybe, an answer.

If you can’t find the answer to your research question, you can try the following steps:

  • Tweak your question and try again–it may not be specific or reasoned properly.
  • Mind-map and ask questions surrounding the issue you’re researching. If your question is on a new topic that has not been researched, this approach can help you develop some hypotheses.  
  • Ask your network of teachers, friends, and mentors how they might approach your question to get fresh eyes on it.  

Understand info-sharing vs. plagiarism

In the age of remixes and sampling, appropriation and appreciation, it might be confusing to figure out when information-sharing crosses the line into plagiarism. When in doubt, cite the source of the idea you are sharing. It is only plagiarism once you’ve submitted others’ ideas without crediting them. For an in-depth discussion of plagiarism and tips to avoid it, please refer to our “Avoiding Plagiarism” guide.

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