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Designing Research Assignments

This research guide is intended to help instructors create more effective research assignments

Why Rethink Assignment Requirements?

Beginning college students are often unfamiliar with the research process and have not honed their ability to incorporate and build upon multiple information sources in a meaningful way. At the same time, studies show that research assignment prompts tend to focus on the details of putting together a research paper and don't adequately encourage key information literacy concepts, such as the importance of evaluating sources or using sources in context-dependent ways throughout the research process. The suggestions below reflect best practices that are intended to promote the research skills students and citizens need to successfully navigate today's information rich world.

Specification Pitfalls

  • Under-Specification   Asking students to choose any topic in which they are interested leads to problems with developing a reasonably researchable topic. Instead of focusing on locating good sources and integrating them into their writing, students often get hung up developing the topic.
  • Over-Specification  Asking students to research an extremely narrow topic will lead to frustration in locating useful resources or sometimes any resources at all.

A Better Option: Utilize a pre-selected list of manageable, researchable topics related to the theme of the class or of your choice. Have students select a topic from this list and work with them on developing good research questions at the outset. Have them come to library instruction sessions with their topic chosen and initial research questions in mind.

Arbitrary Specifications for Resources

Consider the importance of context when deciding what types of sources you want students to use. Are students allowed to pick topics where more popular sources might be acceptable? How can students be encouraged to use and integrate a variety of credible sources?

In particular, try to avoid the following: 

  • "Don't use the internet." This is very confusing for students because most journals and magazines are available on the Internet and academic libraries provide access to thousands of scholarly eBooks that are online. In addition, many substantive news and other content is either born digital or available both online and in print. 

Instead: Consider a less general prohibition against using material found on the open Internet, leaving the possibility of using library resources and subscription databases. Place greater emphasis on evaluating sources - no matter where they're found - to ensure they're credible. 

  • "Don't use Wikipedia." Absent context, students may just use another Internet resource that's potentially even less useful.

Instead: Talk about the cycle of information and how different types of published information is produced and for what purposes. Expect students to evaluate all of their sources using a process such as the CRAAP Test

  • "Use only scholarly resources." Many students are unfamiliar with scholarly materials and don't understand what they are or how they should use them effectively. 

Instead: Discuss with the class why they should or should not use particular sources or types of sources in the context of an established framework such as the BEAM method. Have them search for a variety of sources and show them to you to see if they're acceptable. Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of particular sources for answering various research questions.

Help Us To Help You

We all want to make sure our students succeed. Librarians can better help your students if we know in advance what they'll be looking for in the library and how you want us to help them. In some cases, faculty have sent students to the library with very specific requests. If we know ahead of time we can prepare all of our librarians who work the reference desk and arrange easier access to our resources. Conversely, if there is an assignment that you want the students to do themselves, let us know so we can provide an appropriate level of support and guidance.

Adapted from the Hunter College Libraries' Faculty Guide.