It can be daunting to begin a large research project on an abstract topic, especially if finding search terms and keywords doesn't come easily to you. Using explanatory course materials such as syllabi can help you build a conceptual scaffold with concrete terms, and delve deeper into the course content into the bargain. Some strategies that work with syllabi include:
1. Parsing the Course Description.
Some professors write longer course descriptions than others, but in general, you will find many terms and phrases you can use to begin your research no matter the description's length.
Take the nouns and noun phrases--such as "democratic change," "individual rights and community responsibilities," "organizational change," and "teacher unions"--from your EDU 506 syllabus and decide which are larger, more abstract concepts and which are more concrete, specific concepts. You can then try mixing and matching an abstract concept with a concrete topic in your favorite, subject-specific database to see what kinds of results pop up. The search "organizational change teacher unions" in the ERIC database, for example, brings up many articles, one of which, "Teachers Unions and the War Within: Making Sense of the Conflict" by Mike Antonucci, looks like what I need. From there, I can use the subject terms or descriptors attached to the article to find other, similar articles. The descriptor "Teacher Associations" gives me another term that suits my research better, so I'll add that to my list above "teacher unions," which is a narrower term.
This technique will often also work with the course's Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and assignment descriptions.
2. Trawling the References.
The Required Reading section of your syllabus, and in some cases Suggested or Recommended Readings sections too, list ready-made research aids since search term lists are often built into the learning materials themselves. If the book has an index, scan once again for pertinent terms, looking for abstract and concrete words and phrases that could help you think through your research project. Use these terms to refine and reorganize your search process, as discussed above.
If there's no index, as is usually the case with journal articles, use the document's Reference list or Bibliography to see what concepts are being explored--the titles of the articles or books will help you. See which authors cover the topics you're most interested in and do an author search in the library's catalog to see what other works are available. With the EDU 506 syllabus, you have the added benefit of a list of salient authors in the Course Description as well.
Antonucci, M. (2015). Teachers unions and the war within: Making sense of the conflict. Education Next, 15(1), 28-35.
Using graphic organizers are a good way to keep your focus as you do your research. Constructing your own graphic organizer based on the assignment is also a good way to think through your project and often helps you discover more efficient, effective ways to do your research. Asking yourself questions about the assignment can help you decide what kind of graphic organizer you'll need. With compare/contrast tasks, the first question should be:
1. How many items are to be examined?
There have to be at least two items for any compare/contrast paper, but sometimes you can have three or four. Be sure you account for all the items that need to be discussed. In your research paper for EDU 506, for example, you are told to choose two. So you should have at least two columns or bubbles or other shapes that are equivalent to each other so that you always keep in mind that these are the central items to be discussed throughout your paper. Write down in these two spaces the items you will be discussing, and move on to the next question. You might need to do a bit of research to determine what two items to start with--for EDU 506, that would be two different democratic social movements--one historical and one contemporary. You can start by using the techniques from the "Gleaning Search Terms from Course Materials" box above, talking to your professor, and getting research help at the library.
2. Are you comparing, contrasting, or both?
Some tasks only ask you to compare--discuss the similarities. These kinds of papers often look at very dissimilar items. Some tasks only ask you to contrast--tell me about the differences. These kinds of papers often look at very similar items. Some tasks want both. Based on the task you've been given, create a column for compare, or contrast, or one of each, with three spaces per column for ideas. If you're using bubbles, draw three smaller bubbles in orbit around the two item bubbles--or six, marking half "similar" and half "different." Three is a magic number in English: if you find at least three examples, you usually have enough to continue on to the next step of your research. With a compare/contrast paper, you might end up needing only two ideas for each, but if you start with three each, and one comparison proves too difficult to support, you still have two to work with. For your EDU 506 research project, the elements to compare and contrast have already been given to you: organizational dynamics, key people and events, and the ultimate outcome. Based on the two items you wrote in the central bubbles or the first column, identify specific examples for each of these elements. This is phase two of your research. Once you have these ideas recorded in your graphic organizer, you're ready to determine what aspects of each can be compared or contrasted and how you can prove it.
3. How many pieces of evidence do you need for each comparison drawn or contrast discussed?
Depending on your audience of course, you usually need some good, solid evidence to support that the parallels or the dissimilarities between the items being discussed are what you say they are. Once again, three is a magic number: add three bubbles to each of the "similar" and "different" bubbles. If you used columns, you might have a new column with a cell split into three cells (if you write really, really small), or you might begin a new table with a column for the elements to be compared and contrasted, and three new columns for each to put the evidence in. It doesn't really matter how it looks as long as you can see which ideas should be given prominence in your paper and which ideas are of equal weight to each other. For the EDU 506 paper, for instance, the two social movements you choose should be prominent throughout the paper. You should discuss each of the three elements (organizational dynamics, key people and events, and the outcomes) equally, and the evidence you have to support what you've shown to be similar or dissimilar should be roughly the same amount across the specific examples of each as well. You'll then add quotes, citations, statistics--or whatever other kinds of data are suitable to your logic structure and your audience--to these bubbles or column's boxes. Finding the evidence will be the most intense phase of your research and the most important to record carefully since it involves using others' work accurately and ethically. For help searching the library's databases, or citing your evidence using APA, schedule a research tutorial today.