2. How to start?

When you have a project work assignment or a problem to be solved the first step is to define the task to be accomplished. Unfortunately following this instruction might not be so easy. Here are some tips to help you start your project effectively and productively!

Define your task:

 
Activate your memory: What do you know about the topic already?

Very often you already have some kind of previous knowledge about the things that you are learning about. It is always helpful to activate your memory: to gather all the facts, beliefs and conceptions that you have before you actually start finding any new information. This is important because learning is always based on your previous knowledge: learning might add something new to your "data storage", learning might change your conceptions about the topic in some ways, and learning might contradict your previous ideas.

If you can talk about your assignment with someone: that might give you new ideas also. And the other person is also a mirror to you showing how your knowledge relates to his/hers.

You can use several techniques to "brush up" your memory:

  • Listing all relevant things that come to your mind
  • Drawing a picture or a mindmap
  • Brainstorming with your group
  • Writing a short text, just to start

If you use one of these methods to activate your knowledge you probably also discover gaps in your understanding and things that you need to find out. So activating leads you to find out what you want to know or need to know about the topic.

Example
  What do you know about your topic "Nuclear energy" from beforehand?
Nuclear energy is an important source of energy in many countries. Nuclear power plants produce energy efficiently but at the same time nuclear waste which decomposes slowly. Nuclear energy is used in many European countries, because they do not have oil or other sources of energy, apart from Norway.
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Find a personal interest

After figuring out the knowledge that you already have it becomes easier to continue with the assignment. Do you have a personal interest in the topic? Is there any aspect that you find interesting and would like to know more about? It is always more motivating to work on a topic that you are genuinely interested in. So if possible think of an interesting aspect about the topic you can concentrate on!

Example
  Which aspect of the topic Nuclear energy do you find most interesting?
More and more energy is needed all the time and at the moment nuclear energy is the most efficient way to produce energy. Fossil fuels will run out eventually and they are big pollutants. The effect of nuclear energy on the environment, humans and animals interests us about the topic. How many leaks are there in reality and how destructive are they? What actually happened in the Tchernobyl nuclear disaster when hundreds of thousands of people received a large dose of radiation and the offspring of those exposed risk mutations owing to the radiation? It would be nice to have more information on the production methods of nuclear power and the reprocessing of nuclear waste.
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Ask questions about the topic

Defining your task means also that you have to try to formulate a whole picture about your task. What are the essential facts, concepts, theories related to your topic? What kind of problems and questions you would like to find answers to? Finding research questions as a basis for your work is essential: otherwise you might just be listing facts found from different sources!

Sometimes, if you really do not know anything about the subject in advance, you have to find more information about it in order to restrict your own topic. So you might proceed to finding basic information about the topic and then return back to defining your task and making your own research questions.

The following list of questions might help you:

Who?
Describe the phenomena
What?
Where?
When?
Why?
Explain the phenomena
How?
What is the result /
consequence of it?

First four questions are about facts. They are important in describing the topic you are working on. But the latter 3 questions will help you understand the phenomena you are studying; so try to concentrate on questions that give explanations to phenomena rather than just describe it.

Are there different viewpoints to your task? Usually things can be seen and interpreted from different points of view. Try to incorporate different aspects to your work and evaluate those from your own point of view!

Example
  What kind of questions / problems are you setting out to find the answers to? Does your project entail different points of views, perspectives to be seen from?
As the project progressed we understood that there is no single correct view on nuclear energy. Nuclear energy undoubtedly has advantages but the disadvantages should also be taken into account when nuclear power plants are built. Is it possible to develop nuclear technology enough to push the risks down to a minimum or even to non-existence? Can nuclear waste be made harmless? Are there alternative forms of producing energy that could replace nuclear power and be safer?
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Make a hypothesis

Sometimes you might be able to try to invent the answer to your problem-solving task ahead: make a hypothesis or a working theory about the phenomena. Guess what the answer might be! Then when you learn more about the phenomena you can check where you had the right impression and where you went wrong in your thinking!

You might discuss your working theories with someone to evaluate it critically: what is it that you really have to find out to validate your ideas or come up with new theories?

Example
  What kind of explanations for your questions would you imagine to find? Do you have any expectations as to what kind of results you could find?
Our expectations are quite modest since we know next to nothing about the subject from beforehand. The greatest expectation is to find a view of our own on the subject of nuclear power because so far it has been rather hard to form due to ignorance. We also expect to find grounds for both the views on nuclear energy, in other words why some people so strongly oppose nuclear power while others are so firmly in favor.
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