Monday, May 7, 2007

If you are going to cram for the final, Here's a few hints,

OK, the steps to pass a final and get a good grade in a class are:
  • Attend all your classes,
  • Do all your assignments on time,
  • Take good notes and study them,
  • Complete all reading assignments,
  • Ask the professor for help with anything you don't understand,
If you have done these things these next few weeks are not going to be overly stressful. However, there may be a few of you who did not make it to class as often as you could have, your notes don't really make a lot of sense and are spotty, your dog is at the vet from ink and paper poisoning, and your text book makes a cracking sound when you open it. Tomorrow is your final. You are going to have to cram.

Again this is not about how to learn anything or to do well in a class. This is about how to do what you can to pass your final.
  • First look through your notes and see if there is anything underlined or that has stars or arrows next to it that you may have put their to remind you that it was important. If it is a word or a phrase look in a high quality dictionary, the glossary in your text book, adn the index in your text book and read up on the note,
  • Next most text books start with an introduction that summarizes what the chapter is about and ends with a conclusion that does the same thing. Go through your text and read the first and last paragraph or section for each chapter,
  • Most quality text books do not add images or charts arbitrarily, but use them to emphasize important points. As you go through the chapters look at the images and charts and study the captions, if necessary read some of the text until you understand the point they are trying to make,
  • If your text has a glossary study that next, you can record your reading and listen to it the next day before class if you have time,
  • If it is an essay final after completing the steps above, look up your topic in a good encyclopedia like Britannica, thoroughly learn the entry about President Lincoln or the Cold War or whatever your topic is, you can also record this to listen to before class, there are few if any professors that will expect you to know more than what is written in Britannica unless it is a very specific or arcane topic, if you can write the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry for an essay exam, you will most likely get a decent grade,
For those of you that have book reports due the next day on 600+ page books that you have not read and there are no cliff notes you may still have a chance.
  • Again Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter,
  • Read any image captions,
  • Look in article databases for other reviews of the book, You must not copy these reviews but they can guide you to the major themes of a book,
Get some sleep, eat some healthy food and get some exercise like a relaxing walk. Studies have shown that material reviewed just prior to sleep is often transfered to long term memory and processed by the brain while you sleep. Exercise and healthy foods also increase brain power. Following these steps may make the information you need accessible during the exam the next day.

I make no promises about any of this working. The only way to be sure is to do the work when you are supposed to as first mentioned in this post. However, if you have to cram this systematic approach may be your best hope.

Good Luck

Monday, April 23, 2007

Skewed Survey's: or Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

MSNBC has put up a web page entitled "About our Live Votes and surveys: How 1,000 people can be more representative than 200,000"

This is an important addition to the discussion about information literacy. It is a concise and informative article about how polls, surveys, and online votes can differ greatly in results even on the same topic and with the same questions. It is also gratifying to see a major media outlet not only to be so circumspect about how they present information, but to also be open about it with the public. Some of the more interesting statements include:

One week in the middle of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, more than 200,000 people took part in an MSNBC Live Vote that asked whether President Clinton should leave office. Seventy-three percent said yes. That same week, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 34 percent of about 2,000 people who were surveyed thought so.

To explain the vast gap in the numbers in this and other similar cases, it is necessary to look at the difference in the two kinds of surveys.

While a poll of 100 people will be more accurate than a poll of 10, studies have shown that accuracy begins to improve less at about 500 people and increases only a minor amount beyond 1,000 people.

Random selection of those polled is necessary to ensure a broad representation of the population at large.

To begin with, the people who respond choose to do so — they are not randomly selected and asked to participate, but instead make the choice to read a story about a certain topic and then vote on a related question. There is thus no guarantee that the votes would reflect anything close to a statistical sample...

This is a good and brief explanation about statistical sampling and reliability that I think would be useful for everybody to review. It is a good reminder of things we tend to forget. To many of us these may seem obvious, however it is easy when reading an article, book or web site for us to just accept the statistics offered without considering the way they were collected and the context in which they are delivered. With plethora of information providers both ethical and less ethical it is now more important than ever to check the sources and verify information with separate and independent resources.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ten Hacks to Raise Your Research Paper Grade

1. What's Your question?
The most important step you make is defining what you are trying to find out, or in other words what question will your research answer. This is called Task Definition. An example of poor Task Definition would be "I need some information on drugs". The question needs to be more specific to focus your research and keep it manageable. An example of good Task Definition would be "What are the health risks of steroid use by high school athletes?" It is clear what question you are going to answer and this will help make it clear what sources you need to get. Next take the main concepts of your question and use them to make a list of keywords for your searches.
  1. health risks or: side effects, dangers, complications, consequences
  2. steroids or: performance enhancing drugs, illegal drugs, banned substances
  3. high school athletes or: amateur athletes, young athletes, school sports, football, basketball

2. Favorite Article,
Once you find some sources, you can take the best source and search the library catalog, article databases and Google Scholar for other sources by the same author. You can also look at the bibliography or sources cited and use some of the sources the author used.

3. Do not cite encyclopedias,
As Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia said "For God sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia,". Encyclopedias are useful as a general guide to familiarize yourself with a topic but it is not a research destination. You can familiarize yourself with anew topic, and use the bibliography and look for other sources by the article's author but do not use it as a source. If you do use an encyclopedia use the Encyclopedia Brittanica on Steen library's web site. It is a more authoritative source than Wikipedia which has at least a 42% error rate. To get an idea of the problems Wikipedia is facing go to their "Community Portal and look at their Help section. It lists thousands of errors, corrections and changes that Wikepedia community itself knows needs to be addressed.

5. Specialized Encyclopedias,
Sometimes you can use a specialized encyclopedia as a source. Some examples would be the Encyclopedia of New Media: An Essential Reference to Communication and Technology, or Environment Encyclopedia and Directory 2007, these are sometimes the best and most efficient sources for Specialized information.

6. Gov. Docs.,
Government Documents are a goldmine of information. Unfortunately finding anything in them and then accessing them can be as hard as mining for gold. However, if you locate a government document in the library catalog that is relevant, then ask a librarian to help you locate the document. Quote a piece of it in your paper and cite it correctly. You will have to use the style manual to find out how. Online citation web sites for the most part do not cover such esoteric sources. A correctly cited quote from a piece of government microfiche makes any bibliography look good. It also makes the researcher appear to have left no stone unturned.

7. Primary Sources, including interviews, personal conversations, correspondence and emails,
Primary sources are an excellent way to improve your bibliography and your grade. It is getting the information straight from the horse's mouth. Often we think of primary sources as old documents or diaries in the archives, but depending on your topic many things can be considered a primary source. If you are writing about the Great Depression or WWII and you talk with an older relative about their experiences and memories during those events, that conversation is a primary source. If you quote and then cite the conversation correctly, it shows initiative and attention to detail. If you have an email or snail mail correspondence with a witness or participant in an event, the originator of an idea, or the author of the book you are reviewing, those are also considered primary sources. However, you will have to check your style manual and cite it correctly or you will loose all your brownie points.

8. Spell Check Grammar Check, even if you have to cut and paste from different program,
Use the spell checker and grammar checker in Word or some other program. There is no point in losing points for something the computer can do for you. If these checkers are not turned on you can usually activate them with an option under the Tools menu.

9. Let your Mac, or MS Word or Adobe PDF read your paper to you,
Avoid typos and grammatical mistakes by listening to your writing
reported in Lifehacker Listen to your writing. That's right you can get your computer to read your paper back to you. This is extremely helpful because after you have proofread a paper several times you start seeing things that aren't there. Often you mind will fill in a word that you meant to include but you never typed. It also helps to identify awkward phrases and wording. The links above can show how it is done.

10. Visit the AARC Writing Desk
Finally visit the AARC writing desk. You can always use a fresh set of eyes to look over your paper. Especially if those eyes have a brain behind them that got an "A" in English. The desk is free, you don't need an appointment, and all it can do is improve your grade. Take the time, make the time, and take your draft to the writing desk.

Putting off doing the work till the night before or even a couple of days before the deadline does not leave much of a chance of any of these suggestions making a difference. Your best options in that case are to ask for more time, ask a librarian for help, and visit the AARC desk. Obviously there is more to writing a research paper than these ten hacks. However, these hacks can improve your grade if you have not neglected the other work.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

They day the Nacogdoches Rollergirls Made Hisory

I know this is off topic but it is just too awesome too pass up. The Rollerderby bout was awesome last night, maybe even turbo cool. Madame Furrie from the Iron Maidens in the NRG has a great post with some good comments at her blog "Strange Fruit" I'll quote from her blog because she is as great a writer as she is a skater.

But back to NRG. The Iron Maidens and the Brick Street Brawlers hit the rink raring to go. We basically skated as fast as we could and hit harder than we ever had before for the first five minutes. And then - exhaustion. .... Miss Glad Ass suffered a major injury in the first five minutes and was out for the rest of the bout. Today, we found out it was a broken collar bone.

... those last two minutes were brutal! Goody Nuff and Bad Apple were our last two jammers. The Maidens were ahead, but not by much, and the Brawlers weren't giving up without a fight. And what a fight it was! An all out kamikaze mission on quads and I'm surprised we didn't have more broken bones. But when the buzzer sounded and the smoke cleared, the final score was Brick Street Brawlers - 94; Iron Maidens - 107.

I am chalking last night up as a success, NRG's finest yet. And trust me - they are only going to keep getting better.

Love, Madame Furie
It was a blast we completely sold out of tickets

Friday, January 19, 2007

So what is the point with Wikipedia and Britannica?

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Jimmy Wales "founder" of Wikipedia warned students about Wikipedia. He goes on to say "For God sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia,".

When deciding to use Wikipedia or Britannica the first question is which can you get to? If I am at work at the library I will use Britannica. However if I am off campus and have to go through some kind of proxy verification or other hassle I will use Wikipedia. I would not use the free version of Britannica because of the excessive amount of advertising and the information provided is barely as much as you would find in a good biographical dictionary.

The problem is that this is not why I posted on Tuesday, December 5, 2006 The Tao of Searching: Wikipedia Britannica and missing the point. Or why even the Journal Nature missed the point. The point is: Encyclopedias are not a research destination. Encyclopedias are a starting point or a roadmap for research. Over the last few years web gurus have been using the term sticky (see Make Things Sticky) to describe a good web site. They don’t want users to just visit a page and then leave the site. They want them stay on the site. One problem with Wikipedia and Britannica is that they have great designers that adopted this philosophy. They too offer up more and more choices and links to keep the user on the site. The problem is when you are doing research you do not want to get stuck in an encyclopedia.

At Cornell University they put together a brief introduction on how to do research called “The Seven Steps of the Research Process”. Step two is: Look up your keywords in the indexes to subject encyclopedias. Read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles.

This is how to use encyclopedias. If you will notice they specifically mentioned “subject encyclopedias”. Subject encyclopedias focus on one discipline or area of knowledge and therefore usually will cover a topic to a greater depth than a regular encyclopedia. It is also likely to be more authoritative in that particular field than a general encyclopedia. The quick and dirty way to find them at the library, is to go to the catalog and do a keyword search for “encyclopedia psychology” (or geology, religion or whatever your topic is). Then look for books with the word encyclopedia and your subject in the title Once you have a couple of call numbers, go to that section of the library and look at the encyclopedias you picked, also look at the books nearby. They will be on the same topic and there may be another book that will work better for you. Or you could just ASK A LIBRARIAN.

If you are on the web you can go to Google and type in “encyclopedia philosophy” (or whatever your topic is) and you should get a lot of results. When looking at the results you will want to look at the URL to see if it is a .com .org or an .edu site. A .com will probably be trying to sell you something. You will also want to read the description. Then visit a few of the sites and see which ones will work best for you. Better yet would be to go to The Open Directory Project (ODP) and type in encyclopedia and look at their collection. Or you could just ASK A LIBRARIAN.

Ultimately the only books that people claim inerrant are the Qur'an, Bible, and The Book of Mormon. Therefore, we may assume that everything else may have some errors and problems. Britannica has fewer errors by a wide margin. It is written and edited to professional academic standards, and it has years of experience in publishing encyclopedias. Unfortunately only a small portion is free, unless you have access through an institution like a library. This may involve proxy access or passwords or IP verification that may not work so well at your location or with your device. Of course you can buy access but an experienced researcher can probably find the equivalent amount and quality of information they need using the web, maybe even through Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is accessible from almost any type of web access device. It is free and is easy to use, and you can get sucked into editing entries on some of your favorite topics. It is surprising how enjoyable it is to contribute to or edit Wikipedia. On the downside any idiot like me can contribute or edit Wikipedia. It does have an unacceptable number of errors to be considered authoritative or equivalent to Britannica.

Despite the characteristics described here, the point again is that “the encyclopedia is not a research destination. Encyclopedias are a starting point or a roadmap for research.” It’s the things you discover along the way, the sense of accomplishment for finishing an assignment, or mastering a new area of knowledge, that is the destination.

Next maybe we will talk about how to pick out a book and then maybe how to evaluate information on web sites.

R Philip Reynolds