Teleri (telerib) wrote,

On Research

Figuring out your subgoals can be challenging. If it helps, consider it your self-assigned homework.

Really, school bears a striking similarity to a pre-canned, paint-by-numbers research project. And if you consider that the idea in both is to get you to learn new things, that makes sense.

For your average class, your teacher starts by assigning you some reading in your textbook. You may not understand all of it, but it gives you an introduction to the material. That's your literature search.

Next, the teacher will present the material from the reading assignment in class. She'll pick out the most important bits, highlight causes and effects, or work through a formal proof. This is your email, phone call or casual conversation with an expert in the field. You've read enough in your literature search to ask intelligent questions and to understand the thrust of the answers. But the literature is vast, and so you ask someone to give you a shove in the right direction.

The teacher might open the material to a class discussion. This can be a lot of fun, if your classmates are into it. The ideas bouncing around might not all be fully sound, but you're brainstorming so that's okay. You're thinking on your own, and you're going to come up with a few clunker ideas before someone hits on gold. But your newness to the field can be an asset, too, because it brings a fresh perspective. This is your conversation with your fellow researchers, sharing ideas and sources.

Your first homework assignment for the new unit is likely to be something simple: rote math exercises, or reading comprehension questions. The emphasis is on just getting the hang of the new material. This is your practice session or focus paper, when you learn about one new thing all isolated from everything else.

But by the end of the week, you probably have something more complicated assigned: a word problem or an essay. You are expected to take the thing you've practiced and use it in context, and also use skills and knowledge you've previously acquired. A class project or term paper is the same idea, but with an even wider and deeper scope. Here's your A&S project and possibly your documentation.

Finally, the teacher gives you a grade. Hopefully, it includes some comments like, "Good point here!" and "Support this assertion" so you know what you're doing well and what you're not doing so well. This is your feedback, whether it comes from an A&S judge, your Laurel, or your own honest appraisal of your work.

So if it helps, when you start a new research project, pretend that you are a teacher assigning yourself work. Decide what your "unit" will cover and what kinds of "homework" you'll need to do to convince the school administrators that your student has mastered the topic (at a level appropriate to their skill and interest). Assign yourself a final project, due with documentation at a near-future A&S competition, and enter it. If you feel very brave, ask the A&S coordinator to help you find a skilled artisan in your field to look over your entry and give you some personal feedback. Ask your expert to tell you, if they can, two or three things you did well and two or three things you need to improve.

Take your two or three things that need improvement and form your next "unit" around them. Wash, rinse, repeat!

Addendum: When assigning your own homework, remember your "why" and your "what." I have a late middle school-level interest in textile arts and a graduate-level interest in Anglo-Saxon performance. My "assignments" to myself for textile arts are along the lines of "Read this handout, answer these reading comprehension questions and do this simple project." I will confidently place my narrow wares alongside any eighth grader's in Atlantia. (And a really motivated eighth grader will probably beat me all to heck.) And I'm comfortable with that, because that's about as far as I want to go with that project right now.
Tags: research, sca
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