Thursday, October 11, 2012

Assignments: defining what information you need

Are you writing assignments at the moment?  How do you go about finding and using the information you need to write a good assignment?

One possibility is:  Define -- Locate -- Select -- Organise -- Present -- Assess

Over the next week we are going to look at each step and consider how you can apply it to your assignments.  Today, we are looking at how we define what information we need.

When we are looking for information, it is important to start with a clear idea of what we are looking for.  This might seem obvious but, in a time of information overload, it is easy to get swamped or diverted by irrelevant information!

When we define the information we need for our assignment, we think about the type of information we are looking for.  This is particularly useful when we work in pairs or in a group.  For instance, let's imagine my assignment title is: discuss the impact on network security when Wi-Fi is made available to users.  

1. Select our keywords or search terms
We need keywords or search terms in order to search for information, e.g. in an online database search engine or in the index of a book.  Search terms are usually the main topics or subjects within our assignment title; in this example our search terms are network security and Wi-Fi.

When we input a search term into an online library database, it looks for journal articles that contain that search term.  Therefore, including search terms such as users or impact will not make our search results more relevant to the main topic or subject of our assignment.  Stick to searching for the main topics and subjects in the title!

The terms users and impact are important context words: we should keep them in mind when we are browsing our results list.

2. Consider alternative search terms
Sometimes a variety of words can be used to describe the same idea; every author might not use the exact same terms as your lecturer.  So it is useful to consider synonyms, or similar words, for your search terms.  This ensures that you don't miss an important article or book chapter as you search.

For instance:
network security = firewall maintenance = network integrity
Wi-Fi = wireless internet = wireless broadband

If I search for information on Wi-Fi and I do not find many results, I can search for a similar term such as wireless internet.  Some subjects, such as Business and Computing, have a lot of buzz words and changing terminology.

3. Be able to broaden or narrow your search
Sometimes you will retrieve too many results.  You can narrow your search results by choosing a more specific, or narrower, search term.  For instance, if you search for network security and retrieve hundreds of articles, you may decide to search for a more specific, relevant term such as anti-virus software or authentication.

Sometimes you will not retrieve enough results.  You can broaden your search results by choosing a wider, or broader, search term.  For instance, if you search for network security and don't retrieve very many articles, you may decide to search for a broader, relevant term such as network administration.  You can then browse these results for relevant articles.

Defining the information you need for your assignment will help you to find relevant information.  It's a great way to start!

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