Developing Good Study Habits for Online Courses
In This Chapter ▶ Scheduling time to study ▶ Surfing the Web with ease ▶ Reading course materials efficiently ▶ Using the virtual library ▶ Studying offline Many students taking an online class for the first time are not accustomed to the amount of self-discipline it takes to succeed. The most important habits you must establish when taking an online course are setting aside time to study and developing patterns of good studying behavior. In this chapter we provide strategies for organizing and using your time wisely.
Setting Aside Time to Work When taking a traditional, face-to-face course, having class in a physical building on a specific day and time each week forces you to prioritize class time in your schedule. Friends and family understand why you are unavailable to hang out, make dinner, or go to the movies.
Other than the occasional synchronous (real-time) session, in the online environment, you are responsible for determining the days and times you will participate in class by logging in, reading and responding to discussion,
and performing other academic tasks. As long as you meet deadlines, your schedule is really up to you. Therefore, you must have good time management skills to succeed.
Once your class begins, take time to review the workload and assignment deadlines; you can typically find this information in the documents we describe in Chapter 8, such as the course syllabus. Use this information to help you set a weekly schedule and make a commitment to stick to it. This section focuses on strategies to consider when determining how to plan your weekly study schedule.
Regardless of what you’re working on, your study time should be scheduled (not incidental) and uninterrupted.
Working at your peak times Knowing when you’re the most productive is important when scheduling study time. Studying when you’re tired can lead to frustration and poor performance. For some, peak times are mornings before the kids get up. Coauthor Susan starts many of her mornings writing and grading student papers a few hours before the family wakes up and the school-prep frenzy begins. Coauthor Kevin, on the other hand, takes time during the late morning or lunch hour to complete his academic tasks. Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, set aside time that fits your schedule and lifestyle.
Checking in every day for a short time To help you stay on top of classroom discussions, instructor announcements, and other basic course activities, set time aside to log in several times a week — daily if possible. Sometimes you only need to set aside fifteen to thirty minutes to keep up on what’s going on. During these quick check-ins, do the following:
✓ Check for new announcements from the instructor. ✓ Check the course calendar to confirm you are on track. ✓ Read new discussion posts from peers. Only respond to posts that you have time for. If you need to take longer to think about a response, print those posts and jot down a few bullet points as you think about what you want to write. ✓ Print any assignments that you plan to work on soon for reference purposes.
Calculating how much time you need to finish longer tasks Some tasks require the allotment of a significant amount of time. For example, it may take longer to compose an original response to a discussion question (not a reply to what someone else wrote), complete assignments like projects or presentations, or take online quizzes.
When we talk about estimating study time, we’re not only referring to computer time. The fact that you’re taking an online class doesn’t mean you’ll be learning only when you’re in front of a computer. You’ll complete many tasks off-line as well. What you do off-line is just as important as what you do online when scheduling your study time. (We discuss off-line activities in more detail later in this chapter.)
Be sure not to make too many assumptions when estimating study time. For example, when calculating how much time it takes to complete an essay assignment, don’t forget to count the time it takes to research the subject before sitting down in front of your computer to write it. Students often overlook these details and scramble to complete their assignments at the last minute.
Though no two students require the same amount of time to complete any one assignment, here’s a list of things to consider when calculating the time it will take to complete an assignment:
✓ Understanding the assignment: It takes time to read the assignment description and absorb what’s being asked of you. More time may be needed if you have questions that need to be answered by the instructor. ✓ Prep time: This refers to the time it takes you to lay the groundwork for the assignment. For example, some instructors require that all essays be completed using a specific document structure. Therefore, you have to set up a document with specific margin settings, a title page, page numbers, and a reference page. Those less familiar with these word processing features may take longer to do this before even focusing on the assignment details. If your instructor requires you to use a specific document format for each assignment, create a template that you can use over and over again. For example, during his studies, coauthor Kevin was required to turn in all assignments using the institution’s standard document structure. This included a title page with the assignment’s title, course
ID, course title, instructor name, student name, institution name, and assignment due date. The document was also required to have one-inch margins and page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, be doublespaced, and have a references page at the end. So, Kevin created a document with all this information, leaving the assignment title, course ID, course name, instructor, and due date blank. For each new assignment, he opened the document and immediately clicked File, Save As, and saved the file in the appropriate course folder on his computer with an obvious file name. It took approximately 30 minutes to an hour to create the original template, but only one minute to customize it for every assignment. ✓ Research time: For most assignments, you can’t just sit down and write without having some background information. This involves doing research like reading chapters within your assigned textbook, conducting interviews with professionals in the field, watching a video, or conducting database searches at your virtual library. Graduate programs, especially, require you to write about more than just your opinions and experiences. You’re required to back up your thoughts with theory and research analysis conducted within the field being discussed. ✓ Editing: Editing refers to checking spelling, grammar, document formatting, and editorial style. Editorial style refers to the technical formatting in documents, including reference citations, punctuation, abbreviations, numbers, and more. Two common editorial styles are Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA). Becoming familiar with these styles can be time-consuming and require a true attention to detail; flip to Chapter 13 for more about these styles. ✓ Learning new technology: Some assignments may require you to use a technology you’re unfamiliar with. Therefore, it takes additional time to learn how to use that technology. You may have to set time aside to watch tutorial videos, practice using the technology, or read instruction documentation.
Rewarding good study habits Rewarding good study habits is a great way to encourage yourself to stick to a schedule and accomplish your goals. These don’t have to be fancy, expensive rewards — just small incentives you look forward to once you meet milestones. For example, maybe you have to schedule your study time during your favorite television show. Record the show and reward yourself by watching the show commercial-free once your homework is complete. Don’t forget the popcorn!
Blocking off enough study time each week Within the first week or so of an online class, you should establish a routine for studying. At first, set aside as much time as you can to read the syllabus, review the course calendar, and complete your first set of assignments. Make a mental note of how long it takes you to log in, navigate your virtual classroom, and complete assignments.
After the first week of class, plan out your weekly schedule, taking into account both daily check-ins and the larger blocks of time you’ll need for finishing longer tasks. In Chapter 8 we talk about synchronizing your course, work, and personal calendars. Here, we ask you to take it a step further by adding specific tasks to your calendar. For example, if you set aside study time on Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m. in your calendar, you can divide that time into parts. From 7 to 7:30 you can check in with your course, read new posts, and confirm assignments. From 7:30 to 8:30 you can conduct research for the essay assignment due next week. And from 8:30 to 9 you can develop an outline for the essay based on your earlier research.
One way to help you determine how long it takes to complete a task is to simply jot down the start and stop times when studying. This is especially helpful within the first few weeks of a course. By doing this, you can better estimate how much time you really need to set aside on your calendar. It’s amazing how little time most people think tasks are going to take.
Navigating the Web Efficiently As you become more familiar with your virtual learning environment, you’ll begin to spend less time focusing on navigation and more time actually completing assignments. This section provides some timesaving tips on navigating the Web.
Keeping multiple browser windows open When you’re quickly checking in with new course happenings and responding to peers’ posts, you may want to conduct some quick searches for resources to share. Keeping your course page open in your Internet browser while going off and searching for those resources in another browser window can help you to quickly search for and then copy and paste information from one window to another.
With most Internet browser applications, new windows can either be opened in a floating window or a tab within the existing window. Both methods are helpful:
✓ Figure 11-1 shows multiple floating windows. To open multiple windows in most Windows-based browsers, hold down the Ctrl key and press “n” for “new” (Ctrl+n). Mac users hold down the Command key and press “n” (Command+n)
✓ Figure 11-2 shows a single window open with multiple tabs. To open a new tab within a window in most Windows-based browsers, hold down the Ctrl key and press “t” for “tab” (Ctrl+t). Mac users hold down the Command key and press “t” (Command+t).We feel that the tabs are more organized and easier to keep track of.
How would you actually go about using this? Imagine reading a discussion post by one of your peers discussing a topic you recently researched for another assignment. You decide that you want to share a white paper with him that you found during your previous research. While on your course page, you would open a new browser window (either a floating window or a new tab on your existing window), locate the resource on the Web, copy the URL (Web address), return to the window with your course information, and paste the URL in your reply. This saves you from getting lost in cyberspace by having to hit the back button endlessly to find your course site.
When viewing course information, you may come across links to external resources. When you click on these links, they may open in the same window, overwriting your course information. You can force the link to open in a new window by right-clicking (Command + Click for Mac users) and choosing either the “Open in New Window” or “Open in New Tab” option.
Avoiding time wasted by chasing links Occasionally, when navigating within your virtual classroom, you’ll click on a link and it will go to a page with an error on it. This happens no matter how hard your instructor tries to share up-to-date information or how often he tests those links before sharing them with you. It’s just one of the challenges of utilizing Web resources. Instead of spending a lot of time searching for that information, notify your instructor immediately (privately, please, to spare embarrassment; see Chapter 9 for methods of private communication) and move on to other things.
When notifying your instructor about broken links, be sure to paste a copy of the link in your message and tell him what page the link was on inside the course. The more information you can provide, the faster your instructor can address the problem.
If you’re able to conduct a quick Web search and find the working address, be sure to share this with the instructor via e-mail. You can also share this with your peers if your course is set up with a public forum for questions and answers. When posting the updated link, be sure to use language that doesn’t make the instructor look bad or place fault on the instructor. Simply mention that the link on a given page didn’t work for you and that an alternative address was found.
Using social bookmarking tools How many times have you come across the perfect resource on the Web and then forgotten where you found it? This can be very frustrating, not to mention time-consuming when searching for it again. We have an easy fix for you: Social bookmarking tools are Web-based tools that allow you to bookmark your important Web addresses and store them in cyberspace, not on your computer (see Figure 11-3). Yes, this means another login and password, but it’s well worth the effort. Trust us! Here are a few major benefits of social bookmarking tools:
✓ You can categorize your bookmarks using common search phrases called tags. Each bookmarked URL can have multiple tags assigned to it, making it easier to find in the future. ✓ You can choose to make each bookmarked address public or private. If public, other Internet users can see your bookmarked addresses; some may find you because they use the same keywords you used to tag your resources. If marked as private, only you will be able to see that bookmark associated with your account. ✓ You can get to your bookmarks from anywhere with an Internet connection. So, if you want to get some homework done while on your lunch break at work, you don’t have to worry that your bookmarks are on your home computer. A quick navigation to your social bookmarking tool will bring all your tagged bookmarks to your fingertips.
Depending on your tech saviness, you can either have your social bookmarking Web site open in a separate tab or window and copy bookmarks to that site as you find them, or you can see whether a browser plug-in is available for your browser. A browser plug-in allows you to add a toolbar to your browser whereby you can click a single button on any Web page to add that page’s address to your account.
Here’s an example of a practical use for social bookmarking tools. Imagine researching the topic of conducting business in a foreign country. As you can imagine, tons of resources are available on the Web about this topic. Some are good and others aren’t so good. As you browse the Net and find resources you want to read in more detail later, you can bookmark them and tag them with keywords (tags) such as “Business,” “ForeignAffairs,” and “BUS120” if the assignment is for your Business 120 course. Later, when you’re ready to review the resources in more detail, they’re all in one place. Carry this a step further by looking at who else saved the same URL and seeing whether they have additional resources stored in their accounts. You may find new material for your paper or project!
By the way, you may have noticed that “ForeignAffairs” doesn’t have a space between the words. This is because tags often don’t allow spaces. Therefore, you can either put multiple-word phrases together or separate them with a special character such as an underscore. If you choose the latter, your tag would be “Foreign_Affairs.” This tends to be more pleasing to the eye.
Several social bookmarking tools are available on the Web. Most of them have similar features. Two commonly used tools include Delicious (delicious. com) and Diigo (www.diigo.com). Both of these tools provide adequate bookmarking functionality. However, Diigo offers a few additional features, including highlighting Web text. We discuss this feature in more detail later in the chapter.
Reading Wisely Because a majority of the information you receive online is text-based, your ability to read efficiently is of the utmost importance. We’re not just talking about reading comprehension here. We’re also talking about your overall ability to navigate to and read important documents and posts quickly, as well as your ability to retain what you’ve read with note-taking and keep track of everything you’ve read so you don’t waste precious time rereading.
Finding the stuff you need to read You can save time by knowing what information is in an online course and where to find it. The following sections introduce you to the type of information you find online and gives ideas for managing that information more efficiently.
News and announcements Every instructor-led course has some kind of news and announcements section. This is often a one-way communication from the instructor to the students, and it’s required reading — no exceptions. Instructors use this feature to welcome students to the course, remind them of deadlines, share additional resources, and assure students of the instructor’s presence. (See Chapter 10 for more information about this method of communication.)
As instructors, this is one of our most utilized features within the virtual classroom. Our students should expect to read a new post at least once every 48 hours — more during the first week or two of class. However, other instructors prefer other methods of communication like e-mail or posts within discussion forums. No matter what method your instructor uses, it’s important that you read his posts and respond if necessary. You may be thinking that this could be a lot to manage, but usually these types of communication don’t require response and are for your benefit. Checking in with your class on a daily basis, as we suggest earlier in this chapter, and developing good tracking techniques can really help. Tracking techniques include filing messages in folders in your e-mail and marking discussion posts as read (a feature found in most course management systems).
Discussion postings The heart of any online course is the content discussions. For example, one activity we use to engage students is to assign each student a discussion question pertaining to the current module’s content. Students are required to respond to their assigned question, read other students’ posts, and respond to at least two different student posts. Students are encouraged to read all posts, but only respond to those that interest them.
Using this example, simple math tells you that if you’re in a class of 20 students, there should be a minimum of 60 posts at the end of this activity. Our experience says that there will be closer to 200 posts. This is a good thing, assuming the posts are evenly distributed and don’t come from 4 or 5 boisterous students. It means that students are engaged and dialoguing about the topic. However, it can be quite overwhelming if not managed correctly. Here are a few tips to consider when participating in such an activity (see Chapter 10 for additional information on discussions):
✓ Focus on your assigned question as soon as possible: As soon as you know your assigned question, begin reading, researching, and formulating your response. The sooner you do this, the more time you have to focus on reading and responding to your peers (and the more time your peers have to respond to you). ✓ Set time aside to check in and read new posts: When possible, take 15 minutes every day to check-in and read new posts, as we suggest earlier in this chapter. ✓ Respond to posts: If it’s easier for you, based on your time schedule, respond to two students in one sitting. ✓ Check responses: Take time to check and see whether anyone has responded to your initial post and whether a reply is needed. Also check the threads you responded to and determine whether further discussion is appropriate.
Most discussions occur while you’re working on other course assignments in the background. Be sure to schedule enough time to manage both.
At times, you and/or your peers will want to discuss things that don’t relate to the course content. Most courses have a social forum for this purpose. This keeps off-topic discussion from interrupting the flow of content discussions. This can be a great resource, but don’t feel bad if you’re too busy to read any new posts in this forum. Feel free to ignore them. You can always go back and read them later when you have more time.
Assigned readings Just like in the face-to-face environment, each online course uses a variety of course materials to support the curriculum. You may be asked to purchase one or more textbooks, download Internet-based resources, or link to “lectures” written by the instructor. It’s not uncommon to be asked to read 60 to 100 pages per week. We estimate that our students need to dedicate approximately 2 to 4 hours to reading the assigned materials in an eight-week, three-credit course. If you want to succeed in your course, don’t skip these readings! Be sure to block off plenty of time in your study schedule for them, as we suggest earlier in this chapter.
Depending on the course structure, you may find course readings in the syllabus, course calendar, or at the beginning of every module. For example, in our course, you would find the readings in two places: in the syllabus and in
an introduction page at the beginning of every module. This allows our students to read ahead if they want (they have access to all the readings in the syllabus) without being able to post discussions early (content modules are opened one at a time as needed).
Deciding whether to print online reading material Printing is not a requirement when working online. If you feel comfortable downloading everything to your computer and reading it from there, go for it. Portability is probably more important. If you’re one of those students who likes to read whenever you get a free minute, printing will definitely help. Printed documents are easier to take on the bus, stash in your backpack or briefcase, and pull out during downtimes. Printed documents are also easier to highlight and jot notes on. As a mother of two very on-the-go children, coauthor Susan is well-known for reading between chauffeur duties and during athletic practices. (We have more to say about working offline later in this chapter.)
Feel “green” with guilt? For the more environmentally conscious, simply print on recycled paper and print on both sides. You can also print everything in “draft” form and save ink.
Increasing the font size in your browser to help you read more easily In an effort to get as much information on a page as possible, some Web designers use smaller fonts. Internet browsers allow you to expand the text size so that it’s more manageable to read. You may have to use the scrollbars more, but that’s better than eyestrain. Figure 11-4 shows how to zoom your text inside a Web browser. In most browsers, the zoom feature is under the View menu in the application’s toolbar at the top of the screen.
Taking notes on what you read Taking notes while reading helps you organize your thoughts, recall information, and reduce the amount of rereading. Here are some guidelines for this task:
✓ Get the main ideas: As you read, take note of the main ideas presented in the materials. Paraphrase this information in your own words and quote anything that you use directly from the materials. ✓ Test your knowledge: While taking notes, ask yourself why you are reading this chapter and see whether your notes are able to provide you with a correct answer. Still not sure? Read the abstract or conclusion, which summarizes the material. Then go back and reread for more details. ✓ Note your opinions and experiences: As you read, if you have an opinion about something or recall an experience that relates to the information, write it down. ✓ Decide whether to write in your book: If you plan to resell your textbook, remember that highlights and handwritten notes in the margins decrease its resale value. Consider purchasing a notebook for each course for the purpose of taking notes while reading. ✓ Bookmark Internet resources: As you search the Web, bookmark articles you may want to reference again. Bookmark Web sites even if you decide to print the information (see the next section). Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find an article you remember reading last week. ✓ Save articles and citation information: When conducting database searches within your virtual library, you won’t be able to bookmark results pages. Therefore, it’s important to download the actual article if possible and/or document the citation information for future reference. ✓ Keep track of reference information: Don’t forget to write down the source information based on your instructor’s preferred editorial style, such as APA or MLA. You’ll need this information to give proper credit when referring to concepts and ideas gleaned from the source. We say more about citation tools in Chapter 13.
By this time, it should be no surprise that there’s a digital answer to note-taking. For those who prefer to read everything online, you can use products that allow you to highlight and annotate documents, including PDF files and Web pages. Some of these tools even allow you to make your notes public for others to read. Figure 11-5 illustrates an example of a Web-based program, Diigo (www. diigo.com), that allows highlighting. Diigo has a browser plug-in that adds a toolbar to the top of your browser. One of the tools is a highlighter tool that allows you to highlight text on the Web page you’re currently browsing.
Keeping track of everything you’ve already read In the earlier section “Checking in every day for a short amount of time,” we discuss the need to establish a pattern of logging in. Well, this is where it really pays off. To give you a little perspective, we want to share with you the number of discussion posts alone that make up our classes. After eight weeks of teaching, an average of 2,500 posts have been submitted by students and the instructor. This includes discussion posts, announcements made by the instructor, and social conversations held in the virtual student lounge. As you can imagine, it’s important to know how to determine what’s new and how to track what you’ve already read.
Most course management systems have an information section on your course’s home page that alerts you to any new information posted since the last time you logged on (see Figure 11-6 for an example). This summary usually includes links directly to that information. Once you click on the link, it takes you directly to the unread information. The system automatically tracks where you have clicked and updates the new information summary accordingly.
Other course management systems provide you with more control by requiring you to manually mark information as read or unread. Either way, find out how your institution’s system identifies newly posted information and take advantage of this feature. To find out whether your system has this feature, review the support materials often found by clicking on a help button on the screen, contact technical support, or ask your instructor. Because your instructor must be able to manage a lot of information within the system (student posts, assignment submissions, and so forth), he’s probably fairly versed in using the tool efficiently.
Another feature your system may have is the ability to have new information e-mailed to you. Depending on your personal preference, this can help you keep up with new information as it’s posted, or it can be a distraction from your daily activities. To find out whether your system has this feature, again, review the support materials often found by clicking on a help button on the screen, contact technical support, or ask your instructor.
Visiting the Library During the course of your class, you’ll be expected to complete assignments that require you to conduct research and summarize your findings. Trust us when we say that searching on Google is not enough. As a matter of fact, most graduate courses are now adding a “No Google” clause in their syllabuses to discourage students from citing sources that are not reputable.
So, you have a choice: Jump in the car and drive to your local library, or sit comfortably in your PJs at your computer and log in to your institution’s virtual library. Don’t get us wrong, we love libraries and feel they’re an asset to any community. However, as an online student, you may need access at times when your local library isn’t open. Knowing where your local library is and its hours of operation is a great backup plan, though.
This section explains how to access your online institution’s library, provides some basic pointers on using an online library for research, and clues you in on the value of library tutorials.
You should access the library whenever you need external resources to support opinions or positions and/or to provide cited materials as required by the instructor. Your experience helps you apply theory to practical situations. However, you shouldn’t rely on your experience alone. Instructors want you to reference course readings and external resources so they know you understand the materials.
Accessing the library Each institution has a different way for you to access the library. Some have a link to the library on their students’ home pages, while others have links to the library in every course. If you didn’t learn how to access the library in any of your orientation materials and it’s not obvious within a few minutes of looking around, ask your instructor. When you find the link, it will most likely take you to the library’s own home page or portal. Depending on how the institution connects to the library, you may or may not be required to log in using a different username and password than the one you use to access your class. Figure 11-7 provides an example of an online library portal. Notice there are sections with tutorials, databases, and information specific to distance education students.
The nice thing about libraries today is that most of them provide 24/7 access to their online databases and resources. Therefore, the times that you can access the library aren’t controlled by strict hours of operation. However, if you think you may need help, knowing the availability of help staff is important. Libraries use a variety of telecommunication devices to provide support to students and faculty. For example, coauthor Kevin’s favorite method for contacting help from his institution’s library is via the text-based, instant chat messenger. If he has a question when browsing the library site, he simply clicks on the “Chat with a librarian” button, which immediately connects him to a live person.
If your library has a chat button, it’s usually on the library’s home page or a static section of the site that follows you from page to page, such as the header or sidebar navigation menu. Most live chat buttons use text to tell you whether a librarian is available. For example, when available, the button may read something like “Chat with a Librarian Now,” but it may say something like “Chat is currently unavailable” when staff are not logged in. Sometimes the button disappears completely when librarians are unavailable. Check your library’s home page for hours of operation. You can usually find staffing hours, including live chat hours, there.
Doing research online As an online student, you’re going to need the library primarily to conduct research for papers and projects. You may be surprised by the similarities between a virtual library visit and a visit to a physical library. You determine the kinds of materials you need, you search for them through databases and the card catalog, and then you determine what’s worth checking out to take home. These processes require decision making and knowledge of what makes a source credible and useful.
Begin the research process as early as possible. Just because you have access to the institution’s online database doesn’t mean everything you want will be available in a format you can download immediately. You may be required to have materials mailed to you, get them from other sources such as your local library, or find an alternative resource. This process can take time.
Figuring out the type of material you need Before you begin to search for resources for a course or assignment, consider the type of material best suited for your research. Scholarly literature is often most appropriate for college-level research, so you should be able to identify it.
Scholarly materials appear in journals. They’re academic or scholarly in nature and may be available in print or online. Scholarly journals can be easily accessed through academic library databases and usually have at least some of the following features. They
✓ Have long articles (5 or more pages). ✓ Are written by scholars or authorities in their fields (and aren’t anonymous). ✓ Have a bibliography, references, citations, or footnotes. ✓ Contain jargon (language that pertains to the field). ✓ Often (but not always) contain graphs or charts. ✓ Report original, scholarly research. ✓ Are written to relay information to other scholars in the field. ✓ Are often peer-reviewed or -refereed. This means that the article must go through a review process of scholars in that particular field to be accepted into the journal.
Accessing online library databases Databases are electronic collections of information. Periodical databases provide citations and full-text articles for journal, magazine, or newspaper articles. Online catalogs are also databases that allow you to search for materials in a library by author, title, subject heading, keyword, or call number.
When your instructor assigns you the task of finding a journal article in your discipline, look first in a database specific to that field. In most cases, your institution’s library portal will have specific links to find different types of resources, such as books, articles, reserves, and/or media, directly on the home page. These links will take you to a search form that often allows you to search by keywords and subject. You will also have an advanced search option that will allow you to search by other variables, such as author, journal title, year, and so forth.
Conducting searches by subject or keyword When you search for materials on a specific topic, you’ll most likely need to begin with a subject or keyword search.
✓ When you search by subject, you’re searching for items that have been identified with a specific and standardized heading. If a subject heading is available that is closely related to your topic, this will often produce more useful and relevant results than a keyword search. Subject headings are usually generic field titles such as Business, Education, Engineering, Physical Science, Social Sciences, and so forth. ✓ Searching by keyword allows you to use a combination of keywords that may appear in any of the fields within a record. The keywords you use might appear in the titles, authors, subject headings, publishers, or abstracts, so your results will usually be broader and may be unrelated to your topic. Keyword searches are more flexible, though, and subject headings may not always exist for your topics. When doing a keyword search, it’s very important that you use only the most relevant keywords for your topic. Don’t include words like “effect,” “cause,” “relationship,” “pros and cons,” or prepositions (like “of,” “at,” “to,” “in,” and so forth), because these will ineffectively limit your search. For example, imagine you need to research the current state and perceived effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s best to focus on the act itself and leave out the extraneous details in your search. Figure 11-8 illustrates an example of a keyword database search on this topic. Notice how the words “No Child Left Behind” are in quotes. This means that the search will look for and display results that have the words in this exact order mixed with the word “Act.”
Determining the quality of your sources When conducting research, you’ll find several sources of information about your topic. However, don’t just accept information at face value. As you search the Web or library databases, critically evaluate each resource to ensure its quality. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help assess the quality of the resources you find:
✓ Accuracy: Are there footnotes, citations, and/or a bibliography? Is the information free from error? ✓ Authority: Is there an author? What are his credentials? Is the author well-known in his respective field? ✓ Objectivity: Is there a minimum level of bias? Is the author trying to sway the reader’s opinion? Why was the document created? ✓ Currency: When was the document created? Is the information up-todate for the subject?
✓ Coverage: Is the information in-depth? Is the information valuable for your topic? ✓ Readership: Who is the intended audience? Is the material appropriate for college-level research?
Watching tutorials on the library site Most libraries have links to tutorials that provide additional tips on how to conduct database searches and check for quality. Take time to review these tutorials. The time it takes to review the search tips alone will be returned two-fold in the time they save you when conducting research. Pay attention to tips and tricks on searching using Boolean commands and truncation methods of searching. These help make searching more efficient and help you get the information you want by reducing the number of unnecessary search results.
Working Offline The fact that you’re taking a course online doesn’t mean that you’re learning only when you’re logged in to your class. As a matter of fact, you may find that you spend more time thinking about your class and working on assignments off-line than online. Working off-line has a lot of advantages:
✓ Reading offline: Printing documents or reading texts away from the computer allows you to take documents with you when you’re on the go. It also saves on eyestrain from reading your computer screen. You can also take notes more easily on printed materials. ✓ Writing offline: Some course management systems time out and cause you to lose your connection if you sit on the same screen too long. This means that you may lose all your hard work if you take too long to write a discussion post before posting it. Therefore, we recommend that you first type all your assignments, including discussion posts, in a wordprocessing program of your choice. By doing this, you can save as you go and then paste the final product into the course management system when you’re finished. This process automatically creates a backup copy of all your work. If for any reason the system fails to accept your post, you can quickly repost by opening your document and copying and pasting the information again.