Designing Research Assignments

A well-designed course-related library assignment is an excellent teaching tool. Effective assignments develop students' research skills, critical thinking abilities, and subject knowledge. By working together, librarians and instructors can develop assignments that enhance pedagogical objectives and minimize frustration.

We Can Help!

  • Consult with a Librarian - - A Librarian will work with you to design an effective assignment, identifying appropriate research strategies for our collection. Please contact Tamsin Bolton Bacon or your subject specialist librarian for assistance
  • Preparation -- We invite you to request an Instruction Session for your class. These sessions are conducted at an orientation level or as course-specific sessions providing in-depth instruction on the information sources and research skills most relevant to a specific course or assignment

Overall Tips for Developing Assignments

Objectives -- Good assignment design begins with clearly articulated objectives. What are the subject-specific goals you hope to accomplish with your assigment? What research skills or information literacy competencies do you wish your students to have acquired by the end of the assignment?

Currency -- Libraries and information sources are in a period of constant change. New sources appear and methods of accessing information are evolving. Please check with a librarian, to ensure that students are being directed to the most current sources. Also, it is important for students to be aware that information about very current topics may be limited to newspaper sources, as journal articles and books on current events take time to appear.

Feasibility -- Please ensure that the library holds the needed information. A familiar source from your own collection or another library may not be available at the Leddy Library.

Variety -- It is important to incorporate choice into assignments so that large numbers of students are not all looking for the same book, article, or index.

Consult -- Refer students to their Liaison Librarian. An important aspect of library research is recognizing the expertise of librarians and asking for research help when necessary.

Time frames -- Students new to library research find library assignments very time-consuming. Deadlines for different stages of the assignment are useful for larger research projects.

Correct Terminology -- Students are easily confused by new terms that they cannot interpret. For example, an indexing/abstracting tool should be referred to by its correct name, not the name of the company that produces it. Or, students looking for journal articles in literary criticism should be encouraged to use the Modern Language Association Bibliography database, not "Proquest" which is the name of the company which delivers the MLA and many other databases to us. Feel free to double-check the library's website for terminology and/or consult with our Reference Help Desk staff.

Web Reality -- For most assignments students should neither be directed to find their information exclusively on the web or be told to avoid the web. Many high-quality, expensive online scholarly research tools are made available by the library on the web. These resources are not to be confused with what is freely retrieved by searching the web through Google or some other search engine. If you do not wish students to search the "free" internet, please be specific about what you wish them to avoid. Students often become confused about which online sources are acceptable to their professors.

Citing Sources -- If there is a documentation style you prefer, it is useful to specify the style when the assignment is introduced.

A Copy for Us -- Please provide a copy of your assignment to the Reference Department of the Leddy Library. We can provide better service if we know what students are working on, and what resources you wish them to use. Assignments can be emailed to Tamsin Bolton Bacon or dropped off at the Reference Help Desk.

A Copy for the Students -- Library assignments distributed to students in writing cause much less confusion than those described orally in class. Specifics, such as length, citation style, acceptable or suggested resources are very useful. If you require the use of specific resources, please identify them accurately and completely.

Pit-Falls to Avoid

  • Scavenger Hunts -- Too often the focus is on finding random facts rather than requiring students to learn research skills and think critically about the information they have found. Students find these assignments uninteresting and frustrating. A good assignment asks students not only to find information but to reflect critically upon how they found it. An emphasis on process and evaluation of the finding tools (indexes, catalogues, databases, etc) will increase the likelihood of a student retaining the knowledge gained in completing the assignment.
  • Unannounced class visits -- If a visit is arranged with us beforehand, we can provide instruction. If you are not requesting an instruction session, it is still a valuable courtesy to alert us about a group of students arriving en masse. There may already be a class scheduled at that time. In addition, many of our electronic tools have a limited number of simultaneous users, so we cannot accommodate a large number of students searching the same tool at the same time.
  • Assuming students have research experience -- Many students, even at the graduate level, lack basic research skills and familiarity with libraries. And those with introductory-level skills will not be prepared for the research demand of upper-level courses and subject-specific resources.
  • Limiting resources too narrowly - If students are all looking for the same limited resources, the topics should be broadened.

Specific Assignment Suggestions

These are generic suggestions, and will therefore require modification to suit the needs of a particular course or discipline.

  • Prepare a bibliography of books, journals, and websites with evaluative annotations. Students may be asked to prepare a "required reading list " for the topics, in which case the annotation would include an explanation of why a particular resource was included. This task asks the student to develop a critical framework with which to analyze the resources found.
  • Update a literature review in a particular subject area. This assignment asks students to read an existing literature review (and thus gain some familiarity with how one is written) and then use a variety of tools to find out what’s been published since. This introduces the idea of the scholarly conversation to a student and gets them thinking about broad patterns in a field of scholarship.
  • Compare the results of searching the same precise topic on one or more Internet search engines and a bibliographic database(s). Or have them compare results and search strategies in two Internet search tools. This gives students a chance to reflect critically upon the differences in structure and content in various types of search tools.
  • Research a controversial topic using a variety of sources. Discuss how the different types of sources (e.g. newspapers, websites, news magazines, academic journals, academic discussion lists) treat the topic. This not only expands a student’s knowledge of existing indexes to different types of publications but raises critical issues of perspective and authority in indexing and in public debate in general.
  • Compare how two different disciplines discuss the same topic by finding articles from the journal literature of each discipline. This helps foster skill in interdisciplinary research and gets students to think critically about the language and approaches of various disciplinary frameworks
  • Compare the discussion of a particular research study in the popular and scholarly press. Students compare the relationship between the popular article and the original study on which it was based.
  • Research a classical work through reviews, citation indexes, biographical information, etc, and discuss the impact of the work on the discipline.
  • Evaluate a relevant website based on specific criteria, including accuracy, comprehensiveness, authority, perspective, ease of use, visual style. Students may be asked to compare a number of websites representing government, personal, commercial, and scholarly sites.
  • Submit a research log with the assignment for which the research was undertaken. This task gives a student the opportunity to reflect critically upon his/her own research process.

Library Contact

For more information on designing effective research papers, please contact Tamsin Bolton Bacon, Information Literacy Librarian.

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