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Postgraduate study skills

Finding appropriate academic material

Before you start your search for material to read, you should identify the key themes you are looking for. Also think about what type of literature would be most useful to you. If you are new to the subject then a generic text book might be a good starting place. If this is a subject area you know something about then you may wish to draw on the academic or professional literature to refine your knowledge.

You can use the OU's online library to source material; it has links to journals, articles, e-books and more.

Listen to Senior Library Manager, Jo's advice on the services on offer at the OU library, and searching for the information you might need for an assignment.

OU library services

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Jo: The library website is a really good place to start if you're looking for information. You can find all sorts of things there. There's helpdesk support available there and you can email us, you can phone. We've also got something called Webchat, where you can actually chat to a librarian online during office hours. So, that could be really useful. You’ll find lots of resources to help you develop your skills. So we’ve got something called Being Digital, which is a collection of short activities to help you get up to speed with life online. These have been designed to help you with your studies, your work and your everyday life. Being Digital covers skills for study like referencing and plagiarism and there are also activities that will help you communicate online, keep up to date and find information, which could be really useful at work. We’ve also got activities to help you decide who and what to trust online, which can really help with everyday life.

Searching online

An online search can help you get a feel for how much information is available on a topic, and may also identify sources you would not otherwise find.

Don't simply search for broad topics such as 'organisational behaviour' or 'adult psychology'. By searching on a short string of connected words you can reduce the number of hits to a more manageable and relevant list. You may need to refine the string a few times once you see what is being returned.

  • Use a Google Scholar search. By searching on word strings, Google Scholar will report sources ranging from text books to journal articles. Be aware that if you try to access the articles through Google Scholar you may find that there is a charge. However, as a registered student you can use the OU online library, which gives free access most journals articles. If you note the full bibliographic references from Google Scholar you can go into the OU library and find the articles you need.
  • Use an OU library search. Follow the links or use the Help and Support page
  • Use a web search. A general search on the internet will return a wide range of sources, not all of which are credible. A good way of testing the credibility of a source is to check the name of the author, to see if he or she has produced other academic work. Alternatively, check whether the web address ends in .ac.uk, .edu, .edu.au, or .gov - these are usually academic or official sites.
  • Use Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a reliable source of academic information, primarily because there are no checks on the academic credibility of the material that is posted there. However, Wikipedia can be a useful source of further references.

Evaluating academic material

Once you've found some promising material, try to assess whether or not it is relevant so you don't waste time reading material of little value. Ask yourself the questions listed below.

Evaluation questions

Relevance:

  • What is the introduction or overview about?
  • Does the information match my needs?

Provenance:

  • Is it clear where the information has come from?
  • Does all the information have academic credibility?
  • Can I identify the authors or organisations responsible?
  • How was it published?
  • Has it been peer reviewed?

Objectivity:

  • Does the introduction or overview describe affiliations or funding sources?
  • Is the author's position or interest made clear?
  • Does the author declare any connections that might compromise their independence?
  • Is the language emotive?

Timeliness:

  • Is it clear when the information was produced?
  • Does the date of the information meet my requirements?

Presentation:

  • Is the information clearly communicated?
  • Can you use the language, layout and structure confidently?

Method:

  • What research methods were used, and how are results reported?
  • Do I need to check how significant the results actually are?

Jo explains how to evaluate and organise the information you find online.

Evaluating and organising online information

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Jo: I think the most important skill that you can develop today is that of evaluating information, simply because there's that much more information out there to be found. You need to be very clear on what it is you're looking at, before you decide to use it in your assignment for example.

Blogs are a case in point really. These days there's millions and millions of blogs out there and basically these are online diaries that people have put on line - anybody, anywhere - you don't know who they are, whether they're the experts that they say they are.

When you're evaluating a website, the things you perhaps might like to look for are who put the information there, who published it? Does it come from a reliable source? Can you identify the company or the institution that produced the information? When was it last updated? There should be a little date on the bottom of the page. If you could see whether the information is objective enough; can you detect any um vested interests? Have they put forward both sides of an argument, for instance? Or does it come down heavily on one side or the other. If it's to do with scientific information, look to see whether the method that they've used in their research is mentioned. That's always a good indicator of whether something's reliable or not. Another thing that you might like to look for when you're evaluating a website is whether it's relevant to what it is that you want to cover in your assignment.

When you're searching for information it's really important, firstly to have a plan, but also to keep track of what you're doing, where you’re looking, and the searches that you've done, so that you avoid going back and doing the same thing all over again.

The internet today's changing. There's lot of new tools on offer to help people organise themselves and be more efficient really. One tool that I use quite a lot is something called RSS feeds, and it's a way of keeping up to date. You can get something called an RSS feed reader and, when you look for the orange button on some websites, you get and can get news snippets delivered straight to your desktop. So you don't actually have to go out looking for information, it comes to you instead.

Another good way of being organised, I've found, is to personalise my Google home page. So I have all my RSS feeds with snippets of news items and things on my Google page. I have the weather. I have games. You can have quotes of the day. You can have all sorts of things from all sorts of different websites altogether in one place, with the search box at the top. So everything I need is all in one place.

It's really, really important, when you're looking for information, to keep track of what you've found. It's important, not only to store the website using your bookmarks or favourites so that you can find them again, but also, if you're using books or journals, to keep track of all the information about a particular reference that you might have used. Because, when it comes to writing your assignment, you're going to need to refer to items that you've used in your assignment to help back up your arguments. It's very important, if you've used articles and references from the people, to acknowledge them. It also shows your tutor that you've been reading round the subject, and you've looked carefully for things that back up your arguments. It's important to cite references at the end of your assignment, so that you can show that you're not passing off other people's work as your own.

Keep track of absolutely everything you find that you might use because, when it comes to writing your assignment, you will probably have to write a reference list to acknowledge all those sources that you've used. You'll save yourself a lot of time if you keep track of it right from the start, rather than having to run around at the end trying to complete references where you've missed bits off.

You should also appreciate the difference between primary and secondary sources in academic literature.

A primary source is the original publication of information, including any 'raw' data, usually with an appropriate statistical analysis.

A secondary source is a subsequent publication that draws on the original, quite possibly for different purposes. You may have read of instances where a publication applied an inappropriate analysis of someone else's material, thus producing misleading findings. A secondary source should acknowledge where its information comes from, so readers may refer to the primary source to see how the material was originally obtained and reported.

Last updated 7 months ago