Research Methods for Regular Folks

All of us can learn more than ever before  with computers and the Web. It’s time to think of ourselves as researchers and add some structure to our self-education.

Take your common sense with you on the Web and get ready to learn something new!

When you take charge of your own education, you and you alone are responsible for deciding who and what to trust. So grab your bag of tricks, pack some research methods that fit, and get ready to educate yourself with computers and the Web. And don’t forget the social science-inspired essentials below.

Essentials for your self-education journey

1. Have a research plan.

How are you going to manage your information? Before you begin an education project, take a bit of time to think about how you will store, retrieve, and manage the information you collect. For example, setting up target folders with matching names in your email, bookmarks, documents, and any specialized software can help you stay organized. Using identical names reduces confusion while still allowing you to access and store your information in relevant programs so that it’s easily accessible.

2. Map out the beginning of your journey.

When you set out to educate yourself about a new topic or increase your knowledge in a particular area, it helps to have a map for your travels. Where do you need to start looking for information? Are there sources that you know you’ll need to use? Write them down, diagrams can help here too. How do the sources relate to you, to the topic, and to each other?

3. It’s often helpful to use a checklist whey you’re traveling.

First, remember the plan. Second, remember the map. Third, come up with a process for evaluating, collecting, managing, and sourcing the information you collect. If you follow the same process over and over, the information you collect and the conclusions you draw are more likely to be useful and trustworthy. Follow the process! And Again!

4. Assess the credibility of each source before you focus on the information they provide.

All information is not created equal when you’re deciding who and what to trust. What makes an online source credible to you? Are you ready to do a bit of research on your sources? Sometimes a quick search for “complaints about xzy” or “xyz scams” can tell you a great deal about a source of information.

5. Assess the validity of the information you collect–even if you think the source is credible.

Is what you found, or what you’re thinking, true? Can you find the same information from multiple, credible sources? If so, it’s often more likely to be valid. Of course, when it comes to the Web you have to use your common sense and some detection skills. Sometimes many people are just making the same mistakes, or the conclusions published in several places track back to the same source and that source may not be one you are willing to trust. The more important a topic is to you, the more effort you should put into deciding what’s true for your particular situation.

6. How do your conclusions fit the information you are finding.

Are your sources, what they say, and your approach to making sense of it, compatible? chafing? disconnected? You’ll usually want to consider several sources that present different points of view—recognized experts and regular people alike. Just be suspicious—then verify. Trust but Verify may work face-to-face, but Suspicious till Verified is a better plan online.

7. Keep track of where your information comes from plus citation information you may need later.

Once you decide that a particular bit of information is worth paying attention to, you need to know where it came from later. When you go back to make sense of all the information you’ve collected and start making decisions about what to believe, it really helps to know where the facts and ideas come from. How else will you know what to take more seriously? *

8. Consider your personal approach to interpretation–to making sense of the information you find in the context of what you already know.

We’re all subjective, feeling, interpretive creatures who might aspire to that mythical place of objectivity but are biologically incapable of actually living there. So what’s next? Since humans interpret and draw conclusions from information by default, it’s time to make some intentional decisions about your own interpretive style.

Learning is always paired with unlearning. It’s natural to view new information that contradicts your knowledge or beliefs with suspicion. Good. Be suspicious, but be curious. Curiosity is one of a self-educator’s best attributes, closely followed by interpretive skills.

9. Be careful about the information you pass along to someone else.

There’s a lot of misinformation on the Web. Be a good egg and don’t spread it around. Sound too good, or too strange to be true? Check out the topic on http://www.snopes.com/ or http://urbanlegends.about.com/ or http://www.truthorfiction.com/ and resist the urge to share unless you’re sure it’s accurate. Can’t tell? Add a disclaimer. “I found this crazy story, checked the hoax sites and it came up clean, but I’m not 100% confident it’s true. Still, you may know more or find it interesting–so here you go. Tell me if you know it isn’t true.”

*You can save time and money by using software tools that automatically capture sources as you go. Let your software record and store relevant information like web addresses, author, the webpage itself, etc. ant we will have more on some useful tools in the next post.