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A research task is one that requires information from several different sources. This information could be from books, magazines, the Internet, CD-ROMs, brochures, newspapers or from an interview with an expert.

Most research assignments are ‘open-ended’. You will need to decide:

  • what type of questions you will ask about the topic
  • how you will find the answers
  • how you will present this information.

In many cases, the presentation will be in the form of a report, but you may negotiate with your teacher to present in the form of a web page, a video, an audio tape, an oral presentation or a poster.  Whichever way you present your assignment, use the following process to make sure you know:

  • what information is needed
  • that the information you find is relevant and reliable
  • how to acknowledge your sources.

A research assignment should contain:

  • a cover page showing its title, your teacher’s name, your name and the due date
  • a contents page
  • the introduction
  • the body of the text
  • a conclusion
  • a bibliography

1 What is your research assignment?
Read your research topic carefully so that you understand exactly what you are expected to do. The key words will tell you:

  • the subject of your research;
  • how you should handle the topic (compare, describe, discuss, explain, outline, review or summarise, for example). For more information on this, see the explanation of key words in ‘Essay Writing’;
  • how (the form or text type) you should present your research (essay newspaper article, report, chart, talk, drama activity and so on).

Write an essay comparing your education with that of a person living in ancient Rome. Make sure that you comment on how the subjects taught, equipment used and types of discipline are different.

Underline the key words in your research assignment. What is expected of you? In this example, the key words are:

  • ‘essay’ (See information in ‘Essay Writing’)
  • ‘comparing’ (You are expected to look for similarities and differences)
  • ‘your education’, ‘that of a person living in ancient Rome’ (the topic)
  • ‘subjects taught’/’equipment used’/’types of discipline’ (sections that are important).

2 What do you know about the topic?
One useful starting point is to read an encyclopedia or textbook to get an overview. Another possibility is to use the key words to search the Internet for information about the topic.

This is likely to work best with the whole class or groups of four. Spend five minutes writing down as many words or ideas as you can about the topic. Ask yourself questions about the topic: what? where? when? why? how? The idea of the brainstorm is to pooi everyone’s thinking about the topic. No discussion is allowed and all ideas are considered worthwhile.

Build up an concept map
A concept map is a way of sorting out what you know about a topic. It involves writing down the most important ideas to emerge from the brainstorm and attempting to link these with other ideas on the topic.

You can use your concept map to help you find an outline for your essay. The concept map can also help you to see what information you will need. Looking at the chart might show you that there are questions you cannot answer at present, and that you will need to research. You could add the questions to the chart, for example:


3 What do you need to know?

Make up focus questions
Use your explosion chart to build up a list of focus questions to help you search for information. Your focus questions might include:

  • What equipment was used by students in Roman times?
  • What equipment did teachers use?
  • Were some schools better off than others? How would this affect the equipment available to teachers and students?
4 How will you find out?
The first step in looking up information is knowing what subject you are searching for. The following strategy will help you if you cannot find the subject you are looking for, or if you cannot find enough information under the subject heading.

The key word strategy
1. What subject or subjects would you look up?
      Check ‘Roman education’ first.

2. Can you change the order of the words?
      Education in Rome

3. Can you think of another word with the same meaning?
      Schools in Rome, teaching in Rome

4. Can you think of a larger subject?
      Roman history, history of Rome, education, ancient history

5. Can you think of a smaller subject?
      School subjects, discipline in schools

6. Have you explored all aspects of the topic?
      Your library will have a list of subject headings that will help you find some of these key words. The most important source of subject headings is the catalogue but other places to look are suggested below If necessary, ask for help.

Use the library catalogue
The catalogue is an index to the material in the library Look up the subject in the catalogue. This will tell you the Dewey number in the library under which that subject can be found. You may not find ‘Education in Rome’ or ‘Roman education’ in the catalogue. You may have to go to ancient history (which has Dewey numbers between 930 and 938) or Roman history or the history of Rome (Dewey number 937).

The Dewey number will lead you to the section of the library which has materials on the topic you are researching. These should include books, film strips, tapes, videos, pamphlets, computer software, charts and posters.
Use bibliographies and databases
Bibliographies are lists of books on a given topic. The library (or your teacher) may have a bibliography on the subject of your research. As well, bibliographies can be found at the back of many books and at the end of entries in encyclopedias. Look up any books which seem to be on the topic.

Your school subscribes to online databases which contain magazine or newspaper articles (amongst many others). These are particularly useful for current events.

Use the Internet
Concerned about students wasting vast amounts of time using the Internet for research, educators such as Bernie Dodge and Tom March with Web Quest, and Jamie McKenzie with Module Maker have suggested structured approaches that guide student research on the Internet.
Web Quest is available at:
Module Maker is available at:

Use periodical indexes
If the topic you are researching is concerned with recent or current events, you may not find a great deal of information in books. Magazines, journals or periodicals can provide this. The most common index for magazines in school libraries is Guidelines. This is published every month, with the monthly booklets being combined into a single book for the year. You will need to search each available issue to find all the articles on the subject of your research. This will direct you to the magazines which have contributions on your subject.

Look for specialised reference books and works of fiction
Libraries contain many reference books including encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases. They also contain yearbooks, which provide updated information, and specialised dictionaries (such as the Dictionary of Geography, the Dictionary of Environmental Sciences and the Dictionary of Surnames) and specialised encyclopedias (such as the Australian Encyclopedia and scientific encyclopedias).

Novels and other works of fiction often provide valuable insights into important topics, in particular into those dealing with social issues or life in other times and other places. Often, libraries will have fiction bibliographies so that you can look up your subject and find some useful books. Otherwise, ask your librarian for recommendations.

Other sources of information
The most important source of information will be your school or community library Sometimes it may be necessary to use your state reference library Community and business organisations and government departments are often happy to supply information. These may be located through the Internet, telephone directories or lists of such organisations in your library The webpages of all state, territory and federal governments can be reached through

Keep a search sheet
It is worthwhile keeping a record of your search, especially if you have difficulty finding information. Write down the subjects you have looked up, the magazines you have consulted and the Internet sites you have visited. Note their Dewey numbers and other reference details.

5 How do you decide if a resource will be useful?
There are two questions to be considered here:

  • How accessible is the information?
  • How reliable is it likely to be?

If it is a book, check the list of contents (at the beginning) or the index (at the back). Look in alphabetical order to find relevant information in an encyclopedia.

With audiovisual material, check the accompanying notes.

With an Internet site, consider its authenticity and reliability carefully:

  • Who produced the page?
  • Is this an authoritative source or another high-school student who has published a website?

Then ask yourself:

  • Will this resource help me to answer any of my focus questions?

Select only those materials that will help you to answer the focus questions. Sometimes you have to add to your focus questions as a result of your reading.

6 Using a resource

Efficient readers use different strategies, such as those suggested below, to read for different purposes.

1. Skimming
This involves quickly glancing through a text, looking at the headings, subheadings and illustrations. You can also look at the first and last paragraphs and perhaps the first sentence of each paragraph in between. Skimming tells you if a text is worth reading more closely.
2. Scanning
This is useful for finding one specific piece of information. It is the method most readers use when consulting dictionaries, telephone directories, timetables and classified advertisements. To find a particular spelling in a dictionary, you first skim it using the word guides at the top of the pages to establish the general location of the word. Then you scan the text, moving your eyes systematically and quickly down the two columns.

Use the same technique to read an encyclopedia or textbook for a specific piece of information. First, you use the index or chapter headings to establish its general location. Then you scan the text, looking only for the key words that show you have found the information you need.

Keep details for your bibliography and referencing
Each piece of research you do needs a bibliography, the list of the books and articles from which you obtained information and ideas. (For details on how to develop your bibliography, see Referencing.)

You must acknowledge your source whenever you:

  • quote someone else’s exact words
  • use an idea or information directly based on another writer’s work
  • summarise something written by another person.

Not doing this is plagiarism and is regarded as cheating. (To see how to acknowledge a reference, see ‘Referencing’.)

7 Evaluating information
When you look at the information you have gathered, you should ask yourself the following

• Does it help to answer the focus questions?
• Does it present more than one side of the issue?
• Whose viewpoint seems to be most favourably presented?
You may wish to look for more information so that you understand as many shades of opinion on your topic as possible.

8 Presenting information

  1. Re-read the notes you have made and gather together the information you have collected.
  2. Think about the requirements of the research assignment. Use the explosion chart (updated, if necessary) to help arrange your material in a logical order.
  3. Turn to the section ‘Essay Writing’ and use that as a guide for planning and writing your assignment.

Source: Peter Forrestal, The Active look It Up!, (second edition, 2006) Melbourne: Thomson Nelson.

Last up-dated 12 November, 2012
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