Research 101

by | Dec 15, 2014 | Higher Education


“To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces,” said iconic investigator Sherlock Holmes.

No matter how great your ideas are or how well you can write, research is what gives academic work traction. Starting research can often be the most intimidating part of any piece of academic work. There are a lot of books out there and an incomprehensible abundance of resources online. It’s quite natural to feel rushed. You have work to do! There’s no time to wander around bookshelves or click away through the internet.
The truth is: an effective search strategy can be what makes or breaks an assignment. But where to start?


  • Establish the precise meaning of the question and purpose of the assignment as soon as possible. Know your academic question terms and what is being asked of you.
  • Identify the type of information you need: background information; specific facts / statistics; theories for analysis and comparison; current research or historical views.


  • Make sure you understand the meaning of terms or concepts in the question. Refer to the appropriate chapters in recommended textbooks, as well as books and articles on your reading list. (This is really important).
  • Consult subject-specific dictionaries and encyclopedias for any new terms, summaries of theories, and an overview of the topic.
  • NOTE: Encyclopedias a good starting point, but not the end point, when looking for information at university level. If terms are still unclear to you, consult a lecturer.


  • Find out what books or e-books about your topic are readily available. Books are a fast and convenient source of information. Books also help to put your assignment topic into an overall context.
  • You can get even more out of a useful book by taking note of relevant-looking references in the bibliography.
  • Pay close attention to journals. Journal resources will often give you relevant and current information, as well as show you have researched widely. Be familiar with how to search for journals in your library.


Know the search engine you’re using. Libraries will often provide guides which establish how databases work and what search terms are appropriate.

Find better results by:

  • Adding more keywords
  • Removing some keywords
  • Using more specific terms
  • Using more general terms
  • Combining terms in a different way
  • Limiting the results
  • Trying another database


  • Librarians are employed to assist students. Be friendly and polite but don’t be shy, they’re there to help you.


  • It’s also essential to know what resources are available to you through your library or learning institution.
  • Compile your reference list while you work – there’s nothing worse than having to gather referencing details at the last minute.
  • Know how to search. It’s been mentioned a few times but understanding how search engines work can radically benefit any student. For example, did you know that adding .pdf to a search term is a useful way to access information stored in a pdf format online? It often takes you straight to journal articles!

Hay, I, Bochner, D, Blacket, G, & C, Dungey. 2012.
Making The Grade. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

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