The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Reading research papers efficiently and effectively

With so much relevant reading material out there for teachers and other educators, it’s no wonder we can, at times, feel overwhelmed by it all. Optimus expert, Elizabeth Holmes, outlines techniques and strategies to ensure you get the most from your research.

Think before you speak. Read before you think. Fran Lebowitz Trying to keep up with the latest research and thought provoking literature takes time and energy and that’s not always in plentiful supply. Sadly, this can leave us vulnerable to the interpretations of others. It’s not uncommon to read or hear discussion about an author’s work that seems far removed from the original and yet we can only spot this when we are familiar with it. Relying on reported summaries will never be sufficient for giving us a true understanding of an author’s work and thinking. Rehashing those summaries is even more problematic, and yet it happens.

Techniques and strategies to implement

Applying a few techniques to reading new material can help us to gain the most from it as quickly as possible. I frequently remind myself of these tips:

  • Skim first to prioritise: It’s useful to skim a paper to see if you want to give it further time for a careful read. Skimming will never be adequate as a way of truly comprehending what an author writes, but as a way of helping to prioritise reading it can work well.
  • Read critically: All reading should be critical, despite the style of the author. Some will write with an assumed authority and others will have a far more inquiring approach. All should be approached questioningly, for example:
    • What is the author saying?
    • What problem are they attempting to solve?
    • What have they covered?
    • What have they omitted?
    • What method have they used?
    • Does their argument seem sound?
    • How have they used data?
    • What would you do differently? Why?

This list of questions is by no means exhaustive but is a good start.

  • Make an initial judgement: Identify positive and negative elements of the paper. What’s good? What’s not so good? Make brief notes if it helps.
  • Compare: Draw comparisons with the work of others writing in the field if possible. This is a great way of helping you to summarise what you’ve just read.
  • Be aware of biases: What is your reaction to the paper? And why? Is this influenced by any existing biases? Be alert to conflicts of interest or biases of the author, too.
  • Re-read: If the paper is of use to you, read it slowly and several times. Look up anything you’re not familiar with. Aim for clarity.
  • Question conclusions: Are the author’s conclusions appropriate for the paper? Would you reach the same conclusions? Outcomes and results are important. You need to be able to identify what they are in the article and then make some assessment of their significance. Compare what you conclude with what the author concludes.
  • Explore peer reviews: Seek out reviews of the research. What are others saying about it? Do you agree? Do they highlight valid issues?
  • Continue learning: Do you have questions about the research? Engage directly with the author. Contact details are usually included on published research. If not, researchers are often to be found on social media sites such as Academia.edu and Twitter.

There is only so much critical reading we can do when in the thick of a term. Having excessive expectations of ourselves will usually be counterproductive. But applying a few strategies such as those listed above when we do have time to read will usually help us make the most of our time.

Related resources

Having trouble accessing the resources above? Why not find out how Optimus supports schools with their CPD provision and request a demo of In-House Training and Knowledge Centre or take a free trial.

 

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