Creative research ideas

These are some ideas to make your research process more interesting. They won't give you advanced skills in specialist subjects but they could be inspiring if you are starting a research project, if you haven't done much research in your subject or if you need a fresh angle.

The most effective researchers:

  • take time to plan
  • find a question that is both challenging and possible, both open and focused
  • check their research doesn't beg a question*
  • explore many kinds of sources, not just textbooks
  • learn how to speed-read
  • get quickly to relevant information
  • think analytically and imaginatively about what they find
  • store their notes in efficient and interesting ways
  • collaborate with others and take on other people's views
  • present their final ideas in inspiring and effective ways
  • use what they find to solve a problem or make a difference

*begging a question means that the process of questioning is lacking a key piece of information or a key concept.

These ideas are just a beginning. If you have more ideas to share, please send them to us at learning@bl.uk

Make a map

At the start of a project, when you aren't sure where to draw the boundaries, get a huge sheet of paper and make a map or diagram of all of your questions, associations, sources and leads. Mark your most compelling thoughts in a strong colour. Mark the main links to those ideas in that colour too. Don't throw out the weaker or isolated thoughts, but this map will help you know their place. You could make another map later in the project when you feel there is too much information.

Archive your questions

It is common to archive quotes and extracts but we forget to keep a record of our questions. Record who originally asked the question and leave a space by each one to record answers or places to look for answers. Highlight the questions that you find most challenging, the ones that wake you up. Archiving questions will encourage you to articulate them well. If you form your thoughts as questions, it will help you realise what you need to research. (Of course, some questions will be very specific which might not be interesting to archive separately.)

Teachers - there is no minimum age for this. Help younger children make a book, chart or post-box for their questions.

Switch mode

Refresh yourself by exploring different types of source. If you've been reading history, find out about Sound Archives so that you can listen to some oral history. If you've been studying art, break out by exploring poetry or music that relates to the period or place. How you switch depends on what you normally do.

Walkabout

Find a way of using a walk to gather information for your research. Go with other people so you can talk. Look at buildings, get on a train out of town, do a survey, take photos and sketches, watch people, collect samples. Make a creative record of the walk – use mobile phone cameras, i-pods, GPS waypoints, survey forms, a long scroll of paper or notebooks. Finish the day reviewing your findings over refreshments.

Blog it

If you're confident to share your research in its raw ongoing state with others, you could post summaries of your findings and questions on a weblog. This could be a group or individual blog. You could ask for site visitors to suggest further reading, new research methods or to answer your questions.

Use del.icio.us

This is free online service that lets you store and organise everything you find and like on the web. For each page you store, you can write comments and tag them with keywords. You can also see how many other people like that page and see their comments on it. If you cut and paste web content into your research notes and essays, but forget to note where it came from, del.icio.us helps you keep track.

Talk it over

If you have to write an article or essay, but you can't get started with writing or there isn't enough published information, it helps to interview someone else who is interested or informed on the subject. Ask them questions you really want the answers to. Make it a real conversation. Make sure you record it.

Read at speed

If you want to practice speed-reading, be competitive about it. Set timed challenges with a friend or a group. Read an article or chapter at the same time. When you've finished, each write down the three most interesting things in the piece. Look on the web for tips on speed reading.

In the margins

Sometimes research is effective if it is analysing or interpreting one book, article, theory, design, poem or work of art. Buy a copy of the book or photocopy the document you need. Have absolutely no qualms about writing and drawing all over it. Devise a system for yourself e.g. with colours or symbols to mark words you don't understand, references to follow up, questions, opinions and so on. Fill it with post-its and book-marks. Keep it with you. (Please remember not to write in library books!)

Stationery fetishist

Some people just get more motivated by real paper and handwriting. If it helps you collect and organise your thoughts, then why not make or customise a book. You could add more pages of different colours or textures, put graphs or photos in, stick different kinds of envelopes or wallets in, stick in larger sheets or maps that you can fold back into the book. Enjoy it.

Get real

Make a product, or think about an application, even if your project doesn't require one. If you feel that your research is too abstract or you're not motivated enough, think about how you could apply it or explain it to others. Could it lead to a new invention? Could you write a book with this? Could you make money from it? What would it be like if it was translated into a TV programme or an exhibition? How might you use it to influence an organisation to change its practices?