Saturday, 31 March 2007

I don't know

Next time you observe a survey result notice how few respondents vote 'don't know'. It says a lot about us, but two things strike me in particular: Firstly, we are a people of extremes: Yes or no, left or right, us or them. Secondly, we are a people of too many answers and not enough questions.

Am I right? Yes? No? Not sure? Maybe?

Friday, 23 March 2007

Thinking through Writing

The arenas of knowledge are many;
the engaging book, the active discussion, the scenic mountain.
For all, the mighty weapon is one;
wield its ink and yield your thoughts.

Like the young Imam Nawawi,
commenting on every lesson attended,
noting explanations on each book read,
making an eternal mark in but a short stay.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Tackling a Literature Review

A literature review is an organised, critical appraisal of published attempts to answer a question.

Therefore you have to start by knowing and understanding the research question; have it in mind so that you are not reading irrelevant material. Have a plan and structure of how you aim to go about the literature review.

The Foundation
How will it be organised? Chronological; Thermatic (models; results etc); Methodological?

The Phases
Phase One: More searching, less reading, little writing.
Phase Two: More reading, less searching, little writing.
Phase Three: Mainly writing, with some re-reading.

If you do phases one and two right the literature review will almost write itself. Keep the writing in draft shape until it is to be incorporated in the final thesis. You don't want to finalise and chop material too early.

The Search
With an abundace of material available, one vital resource is often forgotten... people! Continue to talk at all stages; not just to your supervisor but to others who can help and recommend papers.

Information Mapping
Such methods do not take very long to draw yet structure thoughts excellently.

Getting Stuck In
Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion of a paper first. Straight away. Then decide what parts of it need reading in depth.

Reading and Note-taking
Read papers with a defined purpose. What are you reading this for? Decide! It will help you focus. Read from a hardcopy whenever possible. You can't concentrate so well looking at a screen.

Reading with a purpose
Devise a set of questions for yourself and answer them as you read the main parts of the paper.

Information Management
Have some sort of filing system. Remember that the best ones are the simplest.

Writing the literature review
This should now be the easy bit. Don't forget to cite yourself, as and when required. The trail may need to be followed by fellow researchers. When in doubt... cite!

The Outline
  • Introduction - The research question and why it's important. Summary of previous attempts to answer it.
  • Body of the review - Headings according to your chosen method of organisation.
  • Conclusions - Where are the gaps? Are they worth filling? Who has made the best attempts to fill them? How do I intend to fill them? What do I intend to do?

Writing techniques
Rough drafting first! Remember, it's private. There's no need to beautify it... yet. What is said is more important here than how it is said. Also, in terms of writing order, it is best to leave the introduction to the end. It will then be brief and you'll be clearer on what lies ahead.

Refine your rough drafts
Wait! Leave it for two or three days at least (between drafting and editing). And make that final check in hardcopy.

Efficient Reading

Active Reading
Be selective and critical. Talk to other people: Before reading, ask, "Is it worth reading? All of it? What parts?" Whilst reading and after completion, discuss the content with others for further clarification and better understanding.

Make Notes
Techniques that work for some: knowledge & information mapping (graphs, brainstorms etc), highlight key words/points, paraphrase sentences, compare with other related work, compose a critical appraisal.

Some tips: Set specific goals, schedule realistic work spells, read at the right time, read in the same place, read from paper rather than a screen, use your knowledge map.

Some possible reasons: Sub-vocalisation, regression & backskipping, finger-pointing, interruptions, low light & discomfort, fatigue, poor vocabulary/comprehension.