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Creating Effective Research Assignments

A well-designed assignment is an excellent teaching tool and can help students develop research skills, critical thinking skills, and subject knowledge. This page provides tips on designing effective assignments, possible pitfalls to avoid, and examples of alternatives to the term paper.

Assignment Tips

Know your students
Many students have minimal knowledge of the library, especially a research library. Many students will rely on the web for research.

Clarity of the assignment
Describe the specifics of the assignment -- length, citation format, acceptable types of sources -- in writing. Let you students know the purpose of the assignment. Define any terminology you use in the assignment such as "peer reviewed" or "scholarly journal." If you provide a list of sources be sure to give complete titles. Make sure that students understand all the steps required to complete the assignment.

Try your assignment
Put yourself in your student's shoes and do your assignment. Is the assignment feasible? Is the time frame reasonable for the amount of work? Are the sources readily available? Information sources are in constant flux. Please check your assignments regularly so that you are not asking your students to use outdated sources.

Define web resources
If you plan on limiting your student's use of web sources make sure to clarify what you mean by a "web source." Does it mean ALL information delivered via the web including e-journals and other web-based library sources or just "free" web sites found using search engines.

Discuss plagiarism with your students
Discuss the importance of academic integrity in research and writing. Many students define plagiarism narrowly to encompass only the wholesale copying of text word for word -- be sure your students understand the range of plagiarism and the importance of citing sources.

Help your students
If students will be required to do extensive library research, consider booking a library workshop. The workshop will introduce students to research strategies and tools needed for the assignment. Encourage your students to get library help via chatemail or in person at a reference desk.

Possible Pitfalls

Scavenger hunts 

Roaming around the library looking for trivia is not research and is often seen as meaningless busy work by students.

Incorrect directions 

Students get frustrated when faced with inaccurate citations and unclear directions.

Limited resources 

Multiple students trying to use the same one or two books is stressful for everyone. Material that will be in high demand for an assignment should be placed on reserve to ensure access to all students.

Alternatives to the Term Paper 

  • Create an annotated biblioggraphy
  • Create a research pathfinder
  • Create a web site
  • Create a poster highlighting sources for a topic
  • Evaluate a web site
  • Prepare a literature review
  • Compare popular and scholarly sources on a topic

How the Library Can Help

Collaborate with your librarian
Your librarian can help you design an effective assignment and can let you know if the assignment is feasible given our collection strengths and weaknesses.

Book a library orientation  for your class
A workshop can introduce students to research strategies, evaluating resources and using databases and the web.

Place materials on reserve
Material that will be in high demand for an assignment should be placed on reserve to ensure access to all students.

Research tutorial (coming soon!)
This online tutorial will introduce your students to basic library research.

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