How to use research evidence in your assignment to save time and get a top grade

One of the questions my students most frequently ask is…

How do I use research evidence in my assignment?

It’s a very good question.

Being able to effectively draw on research evidence is how you build a strong academic argument… and an essay built on a strong argument will always get a better grade.  So developing skills in finding and using the literature is key to your success as a student.

But, when my students ask me this question… I ask them another:

Are you picking fruit or catching fish?

Let me explain…

Be honest. How do you currently use evidence in your essays?

Do you develop an idea about what you want to say and then find the evidence that fits?

It’s easy to do – especially now we have electronic databases, pdfs… and Google Scholar.  Do you write your essay by jumping between what you are writing and Google?  Do you run quick unstructured searches to back-up the point you want to make?

If you do, you’re not alone.

And I don’t blame you.  The number of papers out there increases hourly, new journals pop up every day, and keeping up can feel like a full-time job.  Add to that the fact it seems like just to get by in today’s world we have had to develop (not always good) habits of switching from one task to the next, and back again.  We’re almost hard-wiring ourselves to use this approach.

But writing essays like this is not the way to a good grade – especially as the expectations of your markers increases with each submission as you progress through your degree.  You may pass for now – but it’s likely your luck will run out and your grades will soon start to flat-line – or even start dropping.


Because you are thinking about the literature like an orchard.

By starting with your argument and finding the evidence that fits you are acting like you are wandering through an orchard looking for the juiciest fruit (evidence) to back-up the points that you are making.  And what makes the juiciest fruit is how well it supports the points you want to make.

But, what if in your search for the juiciest fruit you are walking right past whole trees containing the key evidence in the field?  By seeking out a lonely tree in a sunny spot in the corner with a single fruit you may just miss a whole lines of trees somewhere else weighed heavy with evidence.  And rather than backing-up the evidence of the fruit you’ve picked, this evidence could contradict it.  Yet, you’ve walked by, perhaps even pretending it doesn’t exist as you pass.

But it does exist… and it’s likely your marker knows it does.

Instead of thinking of searching the literature like wandering through an orchard finding the best piece of fruit (article) to back up the point you want to make, think of it instead like fishing…

By starting with your search strategy you are casting a net over the ocean of literature.

Your search strategy is the net you’ll use to catch the fish.  So, before starting to write it’s vital to spend time on the shore tightly weaving your net before you set out.  Reflecting on your question and identifying the terms that you will use and the way you will combine these means that when you cast your net out into the ocean of literature you will catch all the fish (research papers) that are relevant and important to your question.  Plus, you’ll be confident that time spent preparing your net means that when you haul in your catch you don’t need to make several more boat trips back into the literature.  You can do it once and with purpose.  Quite different to wandering in an orchard.

But it’s when you’ve hauled your fish onto your boat and back to shore that the real work that boosts your grades begins.

You start sorting the fish – the research papers – into boxes.

By working out which ideas fit together, which research papers come up with similar findings, and which come up with different findings you’ll be able to take a step back and see clearly which areas have more evidence backing them up.  It – quite literally – shows you the balance of evidence.

Fish are piled higher in the boxes with more evidence.

Empty boxes show you which areas have a lack of evidence that needs to be filled with more research.

Now you have the starting point for your evidence-based argument.  By summarising the research in the different boxes and comparing this with the research in the other boxes you have the basis of a discussion of the breadth and depth of the evidence that’s out there.  Considering each in turn and bringing this together is an evidence-based argument that reaches an evidence-based conclusion.

Using this approach helps you to frame your answer to the essay safe in the knowledge that your argument is being led by where the evidence is.  Not the other way round where you make the argument and ‘cherry-pick’ the evidence.

So, rather than wandering around an orchard picking the fruit that fits, it’s time to start weaving a net, find a boat, and go fishing.

Pause for Thought
Take some time to think about how you approach writing an essay. Do you create an argument and then find the fruit that fits? Or do you adopt an evidence-based approach and cast a net over the literature and work out where the balance of evidence lies, and base your argument on that?

About the Author
Dr Richard G Kyle is a Reader and Director of the Nurses’ Lives Research Programme in the School of Health & Social Care at Edinburgh Napier University.


RGS-IBG Conference 2016 – Call for Papers: Reconceptualising spaces of health and wellbeing through nexus thinking

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2016: 30 August – 2 September, London

Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group sponsored session

Health and wellbeing exists as a continuum along which people oscillate through their life. This continuum is characterised by multiple intersecting nexuses of interconnected places, people and events that can forcefully collide or flow together as a confluence in ways that may be (un)conducive to health and wellbeing. In this session we are seeking papers that explore spaces of health and wellbeing as nexuses and, particularly, contributions that reconceptualise spaces of healing, therapy and social well-being by engaging nexus thinking. By this we mean an explicit recognition of the creative or destructive collision and confluence of places, people and events on individual, community or societal health and wellbeing. Specifically, we are keen to encourage critical discussion around (intersections between) three nexuses: ‘healing spaces’ (e.g., physiotherapy clinics, doctors surgeries) typically sought out by those facing ill-health, traditionally positioned as nursing and medical spaces; ‘health-enabling spaces’ (e.g., spas, retreat centres) encountered by individuals in their everyday environment that enable people who regard themselves as healthy to buffer stress and build resilience over the longer term; spaces of social cohesion and wellbeing (e.g., men’s sheds, community-based heritage groups, community gardens) created or occupied by individuals less for their health-enabling qualities, but ‘self-built’ to cultivate social wellbeing. Some of these settings might be individually constructed as healing/therapeutic/health-enabling, some relationally (e.g., at the household level) and some at the scale of the community or society as a whole, with each influenced by broader socio-cultural narratives of what it means to be well. Moreover, alongside consideration of scale, contributions are especially welcome that consider the transient nature of such spaces and their shaping and reshaping through transit of people and ideas through processes of migration and translation, that can introduce, through collision or confluence, new narratives of health and illness that might challenge existing norms and practices and open up new nexuses of health and wellbeing to geographic enquiry.

Please provide author name(s), author affiliation(s), author email(s), paper title, paper abstract (~200 words) and an indication of which author(s) will be presenting. Please submit this information to:,; and by Friday 12 February 2016. The convenors will notify all authors of whether their paper can be accommodated in the session by 16 February at the latest (this will allow the conference deadline of 19 February to be met).

BMC Pediatrics Paper Published

Rates of children’s emergency admissions in the UK continue to rise, and there is considerable variation between Primary Care Trusts (PCTs).  In a previously published paper we reported that in Greater London the highest emergency admission rate was four times greater than the lowest for the three commonest medical presentations to emergency departments (i.e., breathing difficulty, feverish illness and diarrhoea).

Over recent years short stay unplanned admissions in particular have increased substantially.  But, until now, there has been no exploration of whether disadvantage is associated with short stay unplanned admissions at PCT-level.

My latest paper – Relationships between deprivation and duration of children’s emergency admissions for breathing difficulty, feverish illness and diarrhoea in North West England: an analysis of hospital episode statistics – published in BMC Pediatrics examines this association.

This paper emerges from the Moving Care Closer to Home study conducted at The University of Manchester.  It explores associations between children’s emergency admission rates for common childhood conditions and two measures of disadvantage: the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2007 and the Local Index of Child Well-being (CWI) 2009.

The paper reports two key findings:

  • Differences between rates of the more common shorter (0 to 3 day) hospitalisations were not explained by disadvantage at PCT-level; only emergency admissions of 4 or more days were associated with indices of multiple deprivation and child well-being.
  • The same pattern was also evident in infants under 1 year old.

These findings have important implications:

  • The association identified between longer (4 or more day) admissions suggests that deprivation adversely affects illness severity.  The lack of association between short stay (0 to 3 day) admissions may mean that parental anxiety, professionals’ admission decisions, local hospital admission and discharge policies, and service organisation masks variation in rates of emergency admission associated with deprivation when analysed at PCT-level.
  • Findings relating to infants build directly on our earlier work in London which found that emergency admission for breathing difficulty was not associated with childhood disadvantage for children under 1 year old.  By including information on length of stay this paper demonstrates an association with longer but not shorter admissions among infants.

Taken together these findings could be used by PCTs and local authorities (whose boundaries across the study area were coterminous) to identify areas where resources could be redirected to develop interventions to reduce the risk of prolonged hospitalisation, particularly among infants.

BMC Pediatrics is an open-access journal.  The full paper can be read online or downloaded here.

Trials Paper Published

More than 500,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 years have been diagnosed with cancer during their working lives.  The number of people of working age diagnosed with cancer is likely to rise due to trends of increasing incidence, decreasing mortality, and proposed incremental increases in the state retirement age. 

People with cancer can often experience changed workplace replations or employment prospects following diagnosis or during treatment, with negative financial and psychosocial consequences.  It is known that individuals change jobs, leave paid employment or experience a decline in earnings.  However, there are few services to support people to remain in or return to work after cancer and no associated randomised controlled trials to assess their impact.

To our knowledge, the protocol published in TrialsVocational rehabilitation services for patients with cancer: design ofa feasibility study incorporating a pilot randomised controlled trial among women with breast cancer following surgery – is the first study to determine the feasibility of a randomised controlled trial of the effectiveness of vocational rehabilitation services for people with cancer.

Trials is an open-access journal so the published study protocol is available here.

Health and Place Paper Published

What could (auto)biographical methods offer to the study of the health geographies of voluntarism?  The potential contribution of (auto)biographical approaches to this emerging research field is explored in my paper published in Health and Place this week – Unpacking Stored and Storied Knowledge: Elicited biographies of activism in mental health.

This paper forms part of a special section of Health and Place on ‘Health Geographies of Voluntarism’ and reports findings from the Placing Voluntary Activism study conducted while I was at Lancaster University.

This article draws on (auto)biographical narratives gathered from mental health activists in Manchester, UK and Auckland, New Zealand. These narratives traced the trajectory of each individual’s lifetime of activism from its trigger point to the time of the narrative.

This paper argues that these biographical narratives provide insights into activism that more conventional research methods might not reveal. Specifically, we suggest that such approaches can unpack:

  • Repeated inter-sectoral shifts during an activist’s life, something we call the ‘cross-sectoral dance’;
  • Individuals’ narration of identity, and how this is contextualised and changes over time;
  • Places and times that facilitate or restrict activism.

Finally, the paper presents some of the strengths and challenges of the (auto)biographical approach and the researcher-participant encounter through which narratives are (co)created.

The paper is available here.  However, as with any of my publications, if you are unable to access this, please contact me and I’ll happily send you a copy.

Editorial published in British Journal of Community Nursing

Cancer survival rates are improving due to earlier detection and more effective treatments.  Governments across Europe are taking steps to increase retirement ages.  In the UK George Osborne recently announced an increase in the state pension age to 66 for both men and women by 2020 and further incremental increases to 68 are likely to be implemented more rapidly by the Coalition.

Because of these trends remaining in or returning to work during and following cancer diagnosis and treatment is likely to be increasingly important.

In an Editorial published earlier this week in the British Journal of Community Nursing I explore the challenges and opportunities living and working longer with cancer presents for community health professionals, particularly in relation to the organisation and delivery of vocational rehabilitation services to support people remain in or return to work.

The Editorial is available here.  However, as with any of my publications, if you are unable to access this, please contact me and I’ll send you a copy.

Antipode article published

Activists are adept at strategically negotiating sectoral boundaries by switching between public, private and voluntary sectors throughout their lives in order to pursue their social goals.  But what part do universities play in furthering their activism?

Some answers to this question are found in my article published earlier this week in AntipodeThe Tertiary Turn: Locating ‘The Academy’ in Autobiographical Accounts of Activism in Manchester, UK and Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

This paper emerges from the Placing Voluntary Activism project conducted while I was a researcher at Lancaster University.  Part of this study involved asking activists in the UK and New Zealand to recollect the story of their activism from its trigger point to the present.  The 46 resulting autobiographical narratives provided fascinating accounts of how activists strategically manoeuvred within and between campaigns, movements, organisations and sectors at different moments to fulfil their aims.

This article explores the role of universities in these life stories of activism.  Initially, we unpack the ways in which contact with individual academics and academic institutions supports and sustains activists while legitimising and professionalising their activism.  In doing so we identify three interlocking dimensions of an event in these activists’ trajectories which we call ‘the tertiary turn’:

  1. a reactive turn by the academy towards activists;
  2. a proactive turn by activists towards the academy;
  3. a turn towards ‘acadivism’ as activists’ seek to turn tertiary education itself by becoming academics or developing their praxis if they are already located in the academy.

This case material is then used to set out a vision for an academy that is amenable to activists and activism – something we call the ‘activersity’ – that rests on the ardent defence of four integral aspects of the academy that are increasingly under attack:

  1. access;
  2. critical pedagogy;
  3. radicalism on campus;
  4. the role of activist-academics.

The paper concludes that this vision of this ‘activersity’ serves as a crucial counterpoint to the current construction of universities within knowledge economy discourse and provides a vehicle to refashion ideas of knowledge transfer to ensure that universities are responsive and responsible to the communities within which they are embedded.

The full article is available here.  However, as with any of my publications, if you are unable to access this, please contact me and I’ll send you a copy.

Archives of Disease in Childhood paper published

Health and healthcare use in childhood are associated with disadvantage – this we know.  What is a little more uncertain are the mechanisms through which deprivation affects children’s health.

My paper – Childhood disadvantage and emergency admission rates for common presentations in London: an exploratory analysis – published earlier this week in Archives of Disease in Childhood sheds new light on this issue.

This paper is the product of work conducted with clinical and academic colleagues in Manchester and London and was completed while I was a researcher at The University of Manchester.  It explores the relationship between children’s emergency admission rates for common childhood conditions (breathing difficulty, feverish illness, diarrhoea) and two measures of disadvantage: the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2007 and the recently published Local Index of Child Well-being (CWI) 2009.

Two important findings emerged from this work:

  1. Housing and environmental factors were associated with children’s demand for hospital admission for breathing difficulty, but not for children under 1 year of age.
  2. There were no associations between admissions for feverish illness and diarrhoea and the aspects of deprivation measured by the IMD or CWI.

These findings have important policy implications.  The CWI can, for example, be used alongside the IMD to identify communities in which interventions to improve children’s housing and reduce exposure to air pollution could have specific public health benefits for respiratory conditions.  It could also help plan healthcare services to meet the increased needs for respiratory care of children over 1 year of age who live in areas with poorer housing and air quality.

The full paper is available here.  However, as with any of my publications, if you are unable to access this, please contact me and I’ll happily send you a copy.

Soaring Through Word Clouds


For a while now each time I’ve seen a word cloud published in the press (usually following a speech by a prominent politician or the publication of a government report) I’ve been wondering about potential applications in academia.  So, this evening, struggling with writer’s block, I’ve been using Wordle to create some clouds using the text from a few of my recent publications.

And in doing so it has struck me that there are (at least) two useful applications of text visualisation for academics.

First, on a purely practical level, if you are like me and sometimes struggle to capture the content of a paper through the selection of just a few key words, creating a word cloud from the complete text quickly identifies those words that are used most frequently helping complete this task.

Second, and perhaps most importantly in my view, word clouds potentially enable students and fellow scholars to rapidly appraise the content of articles in a way that recovers some of the excitement that comes through the serendipitous discovery of ideas.

There is undoubtedly much to be gained from systematic reviews of existing literature and I have no wish to downplay their importance.  But, equally, how often has our thinking and theorising been shaped by chance encounters with books while browsing a second-hand book store, papers stumbled upon while looking for something else, or colleagues at far-flung conferences pointing us in the direction of literatures that until the chance meeting of two strangers were undiscovered?

Word clouds, through their juxtaposition of words and ideas perhaps allow us to explore new and fertile territory.  As our eyes scan a seemingly chaotic assemblage of words our thoughts start to wander: words clash on the page; theories collide in our mind.  Ultimately, new ideas are born, take flight and, hopefully, soar.

So, over the next few days I’ll be adding a link to a word cloud for each of my recent and forthcoming publications.  Then, I guess, it’s over to you…

Pastures New

After two and a half enjoyable years at The University of Manchester today I leave for pastures new in Scotland. Although job mobility is part and parcel of academic life (and I think also one of its many pleasures) it is still sad to leave colleagues behind, particularly those that have played such an influential role in my academic development.  The supportive research environment of the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work has played a pivotal role in my successful transition into health research.  Colleagues working on the Moving Care Closer to Home study and more widely within the Children and Young People Research Programme in particular provided a warm welcome and continual encouragement, for which I want this post to serve as a public and heartfelt thank you.

I leave today thankful, happy and filled with optimism.  I am excited about the new research post that awaits me in the Cancer Care Research Centre and my future at the University of Stirling.  Moving to Stirling represents a homecoming in more ways than one; not only is it a return to Scotland but the campus was one of my childhood stomping grounds.  I have fond memories of running round Hermitage Woods as a member of an after-school orienteering club while a pupil at Alva Academy, just along the hillfoots.  Hopefully there will be many more happy campus memories to come!