Research, Step 4: The Data
This five-part series details individual steps in effective research—useful in answering complicated questions, pinpointing the best solution to a problem, or creating a detailed analysis of an issue. When assigning a research project, explain all the steps to your students.
One reason assignments need deadlines is so students will have to call an eventual halt to reviewing and experimenting. Although we tend to equate procrastination with never starting, many researchers stall somewhere between “the beginning” and “the end”—and the main-procedure stage, where a person can feel productively busy without actually being held responsible for results, is a popular place for indefinite delay.
Hopefully, you’ve been guiding your class through the research process and checking individual progress near the end of each stage. This is particularly important as stage 3 moves into stage 4. The line between collecting and analyzing data isn’t always obvious, but the key connecting point is organizing data.
While it’s possible to record research sources and results on any old scrap of paper, it’s far wiser to sort them, alphabetically or in chart form, as you go. Scribbling things down helter-skelter will make it far harder to see where the data are pointing, and probably will result in some information being lost completely. If your students are beginners, you may even want to provide blank charts (or bibliographic data fields) they can fill in as their work progresses.
Traditionally, researchers used index cards—one per source—to record authors, publication information, notes, and quotes. These days, students are much more likely to rely on smartphone apps. But whatever the method of choice, it’s important the researcher be able to mark key points, quickly locate specific notes, and visualize a running idea of where the data is leading.
You may or may not want to have your student researchers follow a specific bibliographic style, but make sure everyone has access to a reference sheet showing the general format.
Once all data is collected, students will choose the most important points and make outlines to present these in logical order, each major point with its supporting data. If data have been plotted on a chart, the final organizing will be in graph form.
Most graphs come in one of three basic formats:
- The line graph: Useful for research depending on interactions between two main types of data (e. g., time and temperature). Points of data intersection are plotted on a grid of squares, then the dots are connected to indicate patterns of change or stasis.
- The bar graph: Common method for comparing two or more demographic categories. Colored bars, placed side by side, are used to indicate respective quantities and degrees.
- The pie chart graph: Used to show how resources (such as money or work hours) are divided among multiple categories. The format is a circle (pie shape) divided into triangular “slices” (usually in different colors) sized according to the percentage of resources they use.
Once the data are in final order and the implications evident, the last step in research is to draw conclusions about what it all means.