The Art of Research and Critical Thinking

This entry was posted Saturday, 30 August, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Children's Dream LibraryI remember when I was studying, I had to battle many sneering remarks from Business Science students asking me what I’d do with my B.A. And then my Honours degree. And then my MA… I got all the ‘oh you’re getting a “Bugger All” degree’ and then the  ‘oh so now you’re the “Master of Bugger All”‘ type reactions, followed by the quizzical and somewhat sceptical  ‘so what can you actually do with that?’

When I started studying, I had a general idea of what I’d like to focus on (writing, teaching, English) but didn’t have a ‘career’ job in mind. And as I carried on studying, more and more what I realised was that I was learning some of the most important skills I would use in all aspects of my life: critical thinking and research skills. Literary analysis may seem pointless to many, but it teaches you to dig deeper, think wider, look at subtext and context, and examine your own reactions. It teaches you to think about the meaning of what the author is saying. It teaches you to love the complexity of language and increases your vocabulary. And while I was studying, I also learned how to do proper research and to really think about the information I found. It made me realise the importance of not just believing the first thing you come across, and it also taught me that there can be many interpretations and opinions, as well as theory to understand information.

Improving Your Research Skills

One of the first things to do when researching a topic is to consider the purpose for the research, as well as who it’s for. You can then start to narrow your research by creating a research question. So what exactly does that mean? A research question is a clear, focused, arguable question that you can centre your research around.  This allows you to

  • save time
  • focus your research and analysis
  • create the  main problem/issue that your thesis will resolve

Think about what makes the most sense in terms of your topic. For example, if you’re trying to find out how to reduce absenteeism due to repetitive stess injury in your workplace, your research question might be “how do we reduce RSIs in an office environment?” or “what equipment will help reduce RSIs?” Once you have your question, do some preliminary research (case studies, examples, terminology). Next, collect and consult a variety of sources (don’t just use Google – talk to people, go the library, etc.). Next, start reading your sources and take notes. Record your sources as you go. And then hypothesize. Where do you think your research will lead? What is your planned argument? What will you do if your research doesn’t support that planned argument?

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

When you’re gathering your sources, look at how reputable they are. If, for example, you’re researching a company, don’t just look at the company website, but try to find independent information about that company. Look for publication dates to see if the information is up to date. And when you’re looking at the sources, see if you can find clues as to what else to look for/what other sources to consult. Sometimes even the URL of a website can show you whether it’s a credible looking source or not. Then, as you go through the information you’ve gathered, look for coherent data to support your argument (or contradict it). If you have to put together written documentation to support your argument, then look for quality quotes you might be able to use. Take more notes. Research the authors. Keep asking questions. And don’t just look at the first page. Dig deeper. Then, take a step back, and try to see the bigger picture. What have you learned? What is still missing? And finally to quote Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It may seem extremely elementary (pardon the pun), but if you’re going to be an effective researcher, you must  go beyond Google. Be curious. Think. Ask. Question. Reason. And follow your instincts. If it doesn’t seem right, it may not be. By having to write and research papers, I learned how to sift and how to select. I learned how to create well reasoned arguments and how to put together information. I think it’s also helped me read people better and has vastly contributed to my communication skills.  It made me a better writer, a better teacher, and, I hope, a better thinker.

 

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