Designing Meaningful Research Assignments

Research assignments can be excellent teaching tools. Effective research assignments develop research skills, encourage your students to engage more deeply in a subject by identifying connections and critically thinking about a topic, and help students learn the research methods of your discipline.

This page provides suggestions for how you can develop meaningful assignments based on information research.

Purpose of the Assignment

An effective assignment will:

  • Introduce students to the literature of a discipline
  • Demystify the research process and information resources
  • Enable students to improve search skills necessary for academic research
  • Require students to compare new knowledge with prior knowledge
  • Challenge students to evaluate information critically
  • Promote academic integrity through the ethical use of information
  • Develop students' spirit of inquiry

Characteristics of a Good Assignment

  • Has learning outcomes, making it clear to students what you want them to learn
  • Clearly outlines what is expected (length, types of acceptable sources, due dates) and how it will be evaluated.
  • States what citation style should be used and provides resources or guides for that style, if they are not readily available online or through the library.
  • Defines any terms that may be unclear (e.g., peer-reviewed, primary sources).
  • Utilizes sources that are owned by Wheaton and available when and how you hope to use them.
  • Provide students with opportunities to report on progress and ask questions.
  • Is provided in writing.

Consider Your Students

Students engaging in research projects:

  • Are often far from comfortable using the library and research tools
  • Have widely varying levels of research skills
  • Usually do not know much about a topic at first
  • Will usually take the path of least resistance (time and effort)
  • Do not know how to find information effectively, and usually rely on methods that have worked for them before
  • Often do not evaluate information well
  • Are often not comfortable with academic writing

Your Subject Librarian

Your subject librarian can partner with you to:

  • Think through an assignment from a library/information resource perspective
  • Verify if resources needed to complete the assignment are available through the library
  • Determine what library experiences your majors may have had
  • Arrange research support for your students (e.g., in-class session(s), workshops, appointments, online material)

Avoid These Pitfalls

  • Since many scholarly sources are available online (via the library’s website and other sites), students may feel confused when you tell them not to use “websites,” “the Internet,” or “online sources.”
  • Scavenger hunts typically send students hunting for random information. While they can be a fun introduction to the library space or sources, they don’t require students to engage research skills or sources at a meaningful level.
  • Requiring all students to use the same physical resource creates confusion, as the item is soon misplaced as it moves from student group to student group. If you see value in having students all use a particular resource, please place it on reserve.

Examples of Good Written Library/Information Research Assignments

Annotated bibliography

Students retrieve a variety of sources on a topic and describe how each sources makes a contribution to an understanding of the topic.

Compare/Contrast

  • Select a topic and compare how it is treated across several different sources.
  • Find two articles on a topic, one in a popular magazine and one in a scholarly journal. Compare the two.
  • Compare and contrast two journal articles that present opposite points of view on the same topic or from different time periods.


Literature review

Review the literature on a topic within a specific time frame, with special attention given to synthesis.

Primary Sources

  • Use bibliographies, literature guides, primary source databases to which we subscribe, materials in Wheaton’s Archives & Special Collections or one of Wheaton's other archives, or the Internet to find primary sources on an issue or historical period. Contrast the treatment in the primary sources with the treatment in the secondary sources.
  • Locate primary sources about any event. Any type of material can only be used once, i.e., one newspaper headline of a major event, one quotation, one biography, one census figure, one top musical number, one campus event, etc. Compile a minimum of six different sources. Write a short annotation of each source and include the complete bibliographic citation.


Scholar/researcher exploration

Select a scholar/researcher in a field of study and explore that person's career and ideas. Besides locating biographical information, students prepare a bibliography of writings and analyze the reaction of the scholarly community to the researcher's work.

Understanding the literature of a discipline

One of the greatest challenges that students face when starting to conduct research is their limited knowledge of the literature in a particular discipline. They are unfamiliar with the journals, the major authors and the structure of scholarly research.

  • Have students investigate the information/publishing cycle of a particular subject area to find out how the literature is produced and communicated can be a useful exercise. This demystifies the term "literature" and familiarizes students with the scholarly publication process and other useful sources for their discipline.
  • Identify key issues or scholars in a discipline. Each student is assigned to:
    • Find out what the major reference sources on the subject are
    • Find out "who's doing what where" in the field
    • List three major unresolved questions about the subject
    • Prepare a 15 minute oral presentation to introduce this aspect of the subject to the class
  • Compare the way two different disciplines handle the same topic.
  • Browse the library stacks where the books in the discipline are shelved. Consult a volume of a relevant specialized encyclopedia. Examine the contents of several journals in the discipline. Students write an essay in response to these questions:
    • What is "discipline"? i.e., how might it be defined?
    • How might the resources consulted be utilized in other courses, especially in other disciplines?
    • From this exercise, what have students learned about the scope of the discipline?

Examples of Good Alternatives to a Written Research Paper

  • Create a video project on a topic relevant to the course that requires students to conduct background research using a variety of sources. Students must construct a cohesive narrative and model ethical research habits through proper citation.
  • Create a webpage or wiki on a narrow topic relevant to the course.
  • Create or edit an existing Wikipedia entry on a topic related to the course.
  • Write a grant proposal addressed to a specific funding agency; include supporting literature review, budget, etc. (Best proposal could be submitted for funding of summer research).
  • Conduct the research for a paper except for writing the final draft. At various predetermined deadlines, turn in 1) a choice of topic; 2) an annotated bibliography; 3) an outline; 4) a thesis statement; 5) an introduction and conclusion.
  • Write a newspaper story describing an event--political, social, cultural, whatever suits the objectives-based on their research. (Limited to one or two articles, or be more extensive.) Research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.
  • Video essays are written essays that are read aloud and mixed with a stream of images, sound, or video. They often explore topics in an subjective or poetic manner.
  • Academic Posters are a visual format for presenting a summary of research, including a title, introduction, approach, results, and references.
  • Timeline is a linear representation of events over the course of millennia, months, or minutes. Creating a timeline can help students better grasp a time sequence, how events coincide, event length, and elapsed time.

Resources

The following sources were consulted while preparing this page:

Creating Effective Library Assignments: A Guide for Instructors (University of New Brunswick), 08/2014

Designing meaningful library assignments (Concordia University), 08/2014

Ideas for Library-related Assignments (University of Puget Sound), 08/2014

Integrating Information Literacy Into Your Classes (Gettysburg College), 08/2014

Isbell, Dennis. "What Happens to your Research Assignment at the Library?" College Teaching 56, no. 1 (Winter2008 2008): 3-6.

Leckie, Gloria J. "Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research." Journal of Academic Librarianship 22, no. 3 (May 1996): 201-208.

Remix-T helps college Teachers develop engaging activities that incorporate images, video, and sound. (University of Notre Dame), 08/2014