Novice researches are commonly confronted by gaps in their knowledge. Knowing how to locate, define and address these gaps efficiently can significantly streamline your research and learning process.
Identifying the Gap
Have you ever started writing an assignment only to discover you have a gap in your knowledge? Perhaps you do not really understand a concept beyond a basic definition; maybe you cannot explain why something happens, or under what conditions. Whenever you hit a wall like this, you have found a knowledge gap. This suggests that the best way to identify your knowledge gaps is to try to communicate ideas in your own words by writing or speaking. The assignment drafting phase is an obvious opportunity, but you could also try the following to identify your gaps:
- Write summaries of important new concepts, including the what, when, why and how (as applicable). Make a note of any aspects you don’t fully understand.
- Try to explain the concept to a friend. You will soon discover what parts you are fuzzy on. A study group is a good opportunity for this, because you will get immediate feedback.
- Daydream about how you would teach the concept to someone younger and less experienced than yourself. Only when you understand a concept fully can you simplify it.
Defining the nature of the gap
Once you know you have a gap, you need to understand its extent, so that you can address it in a targeted way. If you took some notes during the ‘identifying’ phase, you are half way there!
Try phrasing your gap as a set of questions that need answers. Can all of your questions be answered through further research alone? (If you are an undergraduate, you should be able to fill most of your gaps through further reading alone; however, you need to appreciate that not everything is known. Indeed, if you stumble across a gap that the literature doesn’t seem able to fill conclusively, you have found a research gap, and a possible future Masters or PhD project!) Using your prepared questions as a basis for further reading, you can ask yourself ‘does this answer one of my questions?’ as you search for information to fill your gap. This helps you to check that you are on the right track, reducing wasted research time.
Filling the gap
Some good places to start in answering your knowledge gap questions are:
- Your prescribed textbook or readings
- Any suggested readings provided for your course
- Some Google searches (to provide background information, as a springboard to locating more reputable sources).
How to dig deeper:
- Boolean searches of academic databases or Google scholar
- If you are unsure how to turn questions into effective searches, you should arrange to attend a library-hosted tutorial on this skill ASAP. All Australian university libraries offer this service.
- A search of your university’s library catalogue.
- If your unit has an online discussion board, you could post your questions and initial findings for discussion with your peers and tutor. This may give you some clarification and point you to further resources.
- If you are studying on campus, you could raise your questions in tutorials at the appropriate time. If you don’t get the opportunity, you could try speaking with your tutor, or starting conversations with other students before or after class.
By actively searching for, rather than ignoring, your knowledge gaps, you will accelerate your learning, while also developing some stellar researching skills. Phrasing your identified knowledge gaps as questions will allow you to search for the necessary information in a targeted manner. You can also use your questions as the basis for discussions with your fellow students and tutors. As an active participant in your own learning, you will set yourself up for success, both in your academic life and beyond.
Updated: 27 May 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How can I master a subject?
A: One of the best ways to increase your true understanding of a topic is to actively seek to ‘know what you don’t know’—that is, to identify your knowledge gaps. There are a number of strategies to explore here—which is most useful to you may depend on your learning style. You could try the classic method of writing essays on a topic (many courses make past exam papers available—this may be a valuable source of relevant essay-type questions). You could also write detailed summaries of important new concepts when you hit them—honing in on the what, when, why and how. If you prefer ‘talking it out’, try explaining the concept to a friend or study group, or pretend you have to teach it to someone new to the field. You’ll soon discover what parts you are fuzzy on.
Q: How can I fill a knowledge gap?
A: OK, so there’re things you don’t truly understand about a topic. You could ignore this and hope for the best—maybe that question won’t come up in the exam? Worse, you could attempt to convince yourself and the world at large that, actually, you know everything there is to know. Alternatively, you could take charge of your learning and set yourself up for success by actively defining and filling that gap. Door Number 3? Congratulations, and we have a strategy for you to follow. First—formulate your knowledge gap as a series of questions. This has a way of focusing and grounding your inquiry. Second—read, read, read. Don’t be too concerned if you don’t get everything straight away—hang in there while your brain ‘library’ builds shelves where you can stack and rearrange ‘books’—ideas, and how they’re linked. Alternative sources will approach and discuss topics in different ways, and this may help you make those connections. Third—now you’ve made a solid start, if there’re things that still aren’t making sense, seek input from fellow students or tutors. Options for this include tutorials, making an appointment with a lecturer/tutor, study groups, or online discussion boards/forums. Good luck, but you won’t need it. Following this strategy will allow you to accelerate your learning while developing some stellar research skills.
Q: What should I read to learn more about a subject?
A: Start with your prescribed course textbook and readings. There is a reason why your lecturer / course coordinator chose these—they are likely to offer a comprehensive, easy-to-follow introduction. They may also include a list of other references that deal with particular aspects you have identified as knowledge gaps. Lecturers also often distribute additional recommended reading—this should be your next port of call on the journey to filling your knowledge gaps. After this, do some legwork of your own—search your university’s library catalogue, or dig deeper by conducting Boolean searches of academic databases or Google Scholar. Learning how to search an academic database is a fundamental research skill—definitely one you should invest in—so if you’re unsure on how to do this, contact your library and book in for a tutorial—all Australian university libraries offer these regularly.