Help, I Have a Pile of Research and I Don’t Know What It Means and I’m Tired of Reading: Digital Tools for Understanding Research

On May 17th, 2016, the Trinity College Library and Center for Teaching and Learning hosted a workshop for faculty on practical applications of the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This post the digital tools preview that were previewed during that presentation. Contact your Instructional Technologist to learn more about incorporating these tools into your course curriculum.

Reasons to Embrace Digital Tools in the Research Process

There is an “analog” version of all these tools, but there are three key reasons to encourage students to use digital tools in their research process.


Since all these tools live on students’ drives or server space, they are easier to transport from library to living space to classroom and back again. Paper versions of documents and notes are also portable, but not as physically convenient to transport as digital files.

They also allow students to transport research from one semester to another. An article that is not useable in a 200-level course research project might be more relevant to a topic they pursue their senior year. A student is more likely to keep a digital file, and be able to access it, than a stack of papers that gets filed away.


The digital tools summarized here are much more shareable than their paper counterparts. Students can selectively share work in progress or completed projects with selected recipients or publish to a general audience on the web.

Visual & Interactive

One of the struggles we face with students who are new to academic research is that they need to develop new habits of learning and engage with scholarly content in formats that have typically seen in a “summarized” format before college. When students use digital tools to effectively deconstruct research materials and work with them in visual and interactive mediums, they will develop a more complete and meaningful understanding of the research they are working with.

Reference Management Tools



  • Store documents (as PDFs or HTML) and their bibliographic information, often by clipping directly from a browser
  • Group references into shareable collections or notebooks
  • Add notes
  • Use tags and keywords to identify concepts in articles and relationships between articles
  • Organize and save research materials that might not be appropriate for a current project for future semesters.

Text Analysis



  • A large corpus of documents can be quickly analyzed, and word patterns can be quickly identified in a visual and interactive manner;  this can help students focus on research materials that are best for their research topic
  • More relevant key words (which can be used as tags in reference management tools) can be identified and used to organize content

* There are many ways text analysis tools can be used for research; through the lens of refining a research topics, these are the two we focused on in this post.

Note Taking & Annotation of Text


Storing and sharing PDFs, citations, notes and tags:

Commenting directly on an web pages – privately, in a small group, or publicly:


  • Notes and annotations can be shared and discussed online

Annotation of Images



  • Gives students ability to annotate images digitally that they could not otherwise annotate (such as art, rare book images and other artifacts)
  • Same opportunity for discussion as text annotation

Annotation of Video


  • VideoAnt (note: VideoAnt works with YouTube videos only)


  • Students can comment in directly in the timeline of a video (or audio) file, and jump to those comments as needed
  • Same opportunity for discussion as text annotation




  • Creating a visual representation of research materials in a visual medium, and in a limited amount of space, can help students to better understand their research topic
  • Data and research methodologies are difficult to understand (at best) in most academic papers; re-creating the data in charts and graphs can help students better understand the actual research (rather than just relying on findings)




  • Students trace sequence of events on up to five tracks
  • Helps understand not only sequence of events, but can help students find connections between seemingly unrelated events at points in time
  • The progression of less concrete information – like shifts in ideas – can also be traced on a timeline

Story Mapping



  • Helps students develop a geospatial understanding of events and ideas

Essential Feedback to Gather

We don’t always gather student feedback on individual assignment impact, but it’s important that we ask students follow-up questions on their experiences with digital tools. Some good questions to start with:

  • Did using this tool help you better understand your research topic?
  • Will you use any of these tools in research projects for other classes?

The answer to these questions will help us understand if our assignments with digital tools were as effective as we hoped and will also suggest to the student that they have gained a skill that can be applied to other courses.

Incorporating into Research Projects

Contact your Instructional Technologist to get started.

There are a few basic ways you can include digital projects in a course’s research projects, and your instructional technologist can help you find the best fit for your needs. You could consider any combination of these options, plus many more variations:

  1. Scaffold in to course curriculum: Have students use one of these tools midway through the research process and submit for a grade.
  2. Have instructional technologist come to class a workshop a selection of tools with students: The digital resource the student creates can be graded or not, but help with the tools in a “lab” environment might help students get started.
  3. Recommend to students one-on-one: If you don’t feel that all the students in a class need to create a digital project, you might suggest they try working with a digital tool on an individual basis. Instructional Technologist and Student Technology Assistants are always happy to work with students on an as-needed basis.