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Designing Research Assignments

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

Assuming Students are Good at Research

Students are very good at finding things online. They are less adept at evaluating the resources they locate and utilizing them to support or refute a point they are making or engaging in the academic conversation on a given topic.

Instead of assuming students are good at research, consider designing research assignments as though students know little to nothing about the academic research process and scaffold assignments as much as possible. This allows students to build a foundation for their future work. Throughout the assignment, incorporate elements of threshold concepts in information literacy alongside those from your discipline. 

Scaffolding Examples

One effective method of scaffolding is to take a complex assignment and break it into smaller components. Providing formative feedback on the earlier assignments will help students master each step in the process before proceeding further. This type of scaffolding helps students get started on complex assignments early and ensures that they are on track throughout.

Examples of how to scaffold complex assignments

Troubleshoot Scaffolding

Concern Possible Solutions
“Scaffolding takes too much time.”
  • Yes, it takes time in design, but it will save time and most importantly frustration when grading, particularly large final assignments.
  • Use technology such as Canvas, to make things easier
  • Build learning communities in the class so peers can offer one another feedback
“My students don’t like a lot of small assignments. They complain it’s too much work.”
  • Be explicit about process and value of working step by step towards goals; explain that it isn't really MORE work, just organized differently
  • Students report that scaffolding reduces stress
  • Emphasize connections to course learning objectives
“It adds too much to my grading load." 
  • Not everything has to be graded or graded individually; give group feedback. 
  • Give pass/fail grades for less consequential assignments. 
  • Stagger assignments 
  • Give early feedback 
  • Have students review their peers' papers 
  • Focus feedback on learning objectives
  • Develop and use grading rubrics to facilitate the process
“I tried grading and giving feedback on early drafts and students just made the specific changes I suggested and expected better marks.”
  • Give pass/fail grades for early drafts—or take off grades if students don’t submit a draft.
  • Include global recommendations for improvements as well as specific ones.
  • Make clear criteria for actually getting a better grade (i.e. a revision rubric).
  • Define revision and discuss process and expectations explicitly; show examples of drafts of your own writing.
  • Make final step worth the bulk of the grade.
“I like the idea of peer review but I’m afraid that students won’t take it seriously.”
  • Do it in class and introduce by discussing the professional peer review process. 
  • Ask student reviewers to answer specific questions on a handout (broad questions around thesis, argument, and organization tend to be better than grammar) and give you a copy of this feedback. You can then grade the feedback.
“Scaffolding makes it too easy and will alienate the brighter students.”
  • Scaffolding does not just break down the process, it supports learning. If every stage has a learning goal, even the brightest students can push themselves further at each stage.
  • With the structure scaffolding provides, you can make assignments much harder and more interesting, which will challenge and satisfy the best students, while still making it possible for everyone to succeed.

Adapted from Skene, Allyson and Sarah Fedko. "Assignment Scaffolding." Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Toronto Scarborough,