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Researching essay topics

Two of the common areas parents ask teachers for help with are research and essay writing. Students start researching from an early age and writing essays or extended responses from Stage 2.

Learning effective research skills will help your child throughout their schooling. Being able to research and identify reliable and accurate information is also a valuable skill for life after school.

Students research to complete assignments or assessment tasks, as well as to add to their knowledge of topics studied.

Starting a research project

The first thing to work out is if there is a set task for the research or if the purpose is to add to existing knowledge, such as adding to a summary. If there is an assignment sheet or question, work with your child to highlight the key words to narrow the focus of the research. Assessment tasks should include marking criteria to indicate what will be assessed so direct your child’s attention to what the marker is looking for.

Another good tip is to encourage your child to keep a log or journal of their research – this will encourage them to keep track of sources found. As well as recording referencing information – author, title, date and place of publication – a log can include the steps taken during the research and a note of decisions made. This can save time when they are putting all the research together into a presentation. Several Stage 6 subjects require students keep process logs or diaries of major works as part of their HSC studies.

Where to research?

The obvious place your child will find information is on the internet. However, you should help them understand the difference between accurate, reliable information and that which isn’t authentic. Other useful places for research include:

  • libraries, including the growing number of virtual libraries
  • subject matter experts such as industry professionals
  • TV programs and podcasts including documentaries, news and current affairs programs
  • newspapers, magazines, industry journals
  • surveys and questionnaires.

Using the internet

When helping your child use the internet, it is good to remind them the internet is not always reliable. Anyone can create a website and pass information off as true or their own. A ‘wiki’ such as Wikipedia is not reliable as anyone can add or change information. It is essential to encourage your child to use multiple sources and cross-reference information to gauge reliability.

Taking note of the URL can help in the assessment of reliability. Consider:

  • a .edu site is an educational website
  • a .gov is a government site
  • a .org is usually a non-commercial or non-profit organisation but more and more commercial organisations are using .org now
  • sites with .com are commercial or business sites
  • the country of origin, such as .au for Australia, .cn for China and so on.

Who owns the site, such as money-making businesses, advocacy groups or government, and where it is based, can have a big impact on the type and reliability of information. See sources for more information on reliability.

Libraries

Books, magazines, newspapers and so on are excellent sources of information. Published works have a thorough content edit which can mean the information is more reliable. However, data in published works can date, new evidence is found and theories change so looking at the date of publication and cross-referencing any material with multiple sources is essential.

For younger children researching a project, libraries often have posters, kits and multimedia resources that can be used.

More and more libraries are increasing their digital resources, with scans of journal articles, old newspapers, pictures, maps and some books being easily accessed online.

Sources

Any research task requires students to use multiple sources. Assignment instructions may give a minimum number of websites, books, people to be surveyed and so on. Even if the task doesn’t state a minimum number, encourage your child to research widely – use multiple sources, at least 4 to 5 for junior students, and weigh up what is learned to form an opinion. Some facts may only be available from a government body. However, as with all sources you must consider the context. Some things to help your child decide on the reliability of the sources they are using is to ask:

  • Where does it come from?
  • Who wrote it and when?
  • Who was it written for – the audience?
  • Why was it created or written?
  • What information has been used to create it?
  • Is it fact or opinion? Look for things like ‘it’s possible that …’; ‘some experts believe …’; ‘the most likely explanation is …’; ‘there may have been …’ to indicate opinions rather than facts.
  • Does it contain bias or exaggeration?

As well as reliability, students need to decide if the information they find is useful. This is where you guide your child to focus on the task and the key words they highlighted. It is easy to get distracted by interesting facts that aren’t relevant to the task at hand.

How to use sources of information

To work out if a source is useful, it is best to start by skimming it, focusing on the purpose of the research. Some of the ways to quickly scan a page or source includes:

  • looking at the title, subtitles, headings, subheadings, words in bold print and illustrations
  • reading the first sentence of each paragraph
  • reading the first and last paragraphs.

As your child skims the website or book, encourage them to take notes in their journal or log. The first thing they should do once they have decided a source is going to be useful is to record the information needed for referencing. Most assessments will require a bibliography or list of sources used in compiling the assignment. There are several different ways to reference.

  1. Commonly used in humanities subjects:
    1. Author, Initial., Title of publication, Publisher, Place of publication, Date published
  2. Commonly used in sciences:
    1. Author, Initial., (Date published), Title of publication, Publisher, Place of publication
  3. Used for websites:
    1. Title of website <URL> (Date published – day, month, year)

These are only suggestions of commonly used formats. Always follow the task details as to the preferred formatting – the most important thing is to make sure you do include a list of sources used during the research.

Plagiarism or copying

Plagiarism is using someone else’s words or ideas as though they were your own. It is cheating and looked upon very seriously, with heavily penalties. From a young age it’s important to help your child understand the importance of acknowledging others’ work by citing where they got their information.

Students must use quotation marks when using another’s words; acknowledge when paraphrasing or referring to the ideas or theories of someone and always include a bibliography of sources consulted. These are not only the sources they have quoted from but those they have used to get a better understanding of the topic. Individual task details will explain whether your child will need to footnote or provide endnotes; a reference list or other methods of attribution.

By keeping a record of all sources it is less likely your child will plagiarise.

Before starting Stage 6 studies, all NSW school students must complete the NESA – All my own work program to ensure they have a thorough understanding of how to correctly find and use information.

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