Sara MacDonald's Keynote presentation for the UArts Center for Teaching & Learning workshop on this topic may be viewed here.

Effective research assignments:

  • have a clear purpose
  • relate to course objectives
  • make students aware of the variety of resources available
  • teach students to evaluate the quality of their sources
  • teach students to conduct ethical scholarship

The following guidelines can help you and your students succeed.


  • Objectives are statements of what students should be able to do as a result of the assignment.

    • Example: Students should be able to discern between scholarly and non-scholarly journals.

  • Explain how the research assignment helps fulfill the objectives of your course; how will your assignment contribute to the student's understanding of the course content? Include this information in the written assignment that you distribute.



  • Come to the library and do the assignment yourself, or ask a librarian if it's doable. Make sure your students have a reasonable expectation of successfully completing the assignment. If you don't find the materials you expected to find, please talk to a librarian and let them know.

  • Review the assignment with one of the librarians.

  • Ask your students for feedback on the assignment.



  • A research strategy is a method for organizing a research project, taking into account the kinds of information sought and the sequence in which sources should be consulted. See the Outline for Research.

  • Research strategies often seem obvious to experienced researchers but are generally unknown to students.

  • Example:
    • 1. Define and focus your topic using an encyclopedia article or other reference book for background information.
    • 2. Develop a list of keywords and concepts.
    • 3. Look for books using your keywords in the library catalog.
    • 4. Use an appropriate periodical index to find more current information in magazines and journals.



  • State in your syllabus and tell students when discussing assignments that all papers/projects must cite a certain number of print materials. Depending on the assignment, you can also require that no Internet material be used. This is a common academic practice. A short freshman or sophomore paper can most likely be written using only printed materials such as reference books. BE CLEAR, however, that you are not banning the University Libraries' electronic resources.

  • If students are doing a lengthy paper, require a working annotated bibliography (and grade it!) to be submitted several weeks before the paper is due and make sure quality materials are included. The annotations should evaluate the sources for their usefulness. You can probably direct students to good materials they may not have found, or tell them to come ask a librarian for help.



  • Don't assume because your students are under the age of 25 that they are good finders of quality information, or that they can effectively search the library catalog. Most students are unaware of the academic resources (print and online) that you may prefer them to use. Research is not the same as surfing the Web.



  • Subject and reference guides give students something to work with by listing specific information sources or types of sources for a particular assignment.

  • The librarians have produced many such guides already and can create a guide just for your class or for a specific assignment for your class. This is not cheating; students will not usually find reference books by themselves. Knowing the literature of their discipline should be an outcome of their education.



  • Consultation in designing assignments, determining appropriate research strategies, and ensuring that needed materials are available.

  • Printed or electronic subject guides and bibliographies for a discipline or a specific assignment.

  • Require your students to make an appointment with a librarian. (Please notify the librarian first!)

  • Library or class instruction on specific tools and methods. These can be done in the library or in your classroom. If you schedule such a session tell your students why it is important, and be there during the session to contribute and to encourage student participation. Students will follow your lead! Talk with them afterward to see what they learned, and ask them again at the end of the semester for feedback on the session.

  • Course reserve services to ensure access to required materials for all students.



  • Don't require scholarly sources on non-scholarly topics. A student allowed to write a paper on Rihanna is going to have a tough time finding scholarly sources.

  • The mob scene: an entire class looking for one piece of information or researching one topic. This is seldom a positive library experience for students.

  • The shot-in-dark assignment: students working from incomplete/incorrect information; materials assigned that the library does not own; inappropriate methods given in instruction; impossibly vague topics assigned.

  • The scavenger hunt: students given obscure factual questions and told to find the answers without any guidance. The librarian does all the work and the student doesn't really learn anything.

The bulk of this content was originally written by John Kupersmith, Assistant Reference Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley. See his current page on the same topic. The paragraph on effective assignments was taken directly from Hesburgh Libraries at Notre Dame. For many more information on this topic, see Sara MacDonald's collection of links on Diigo.


Research does not only mean writing papers. Consider these ideas, or talk to your librarian about your goals for your class.

  • Students keep a research log, analyzing research sources and techniques used, what worked and what didn't, and how their research affected their thinking about the topic.

  • Compare and contrast relevant terms in 4-5 different dictionaries or encyclopedias. Discuss findings in class.

  • Students prepare an annotated bibliography of information sources on their topics. Be sure to grade it.

  • Visual arts students keep a sketchbook journal in which they continue to answer a set of questions given by the faculty person. Students can look at contemporary artists, historic movements, definitions of terms and styles, etc.

  • Students write an abstract of a journal article. Have students read their abstracts in class and have a discussion.

  • Students evaluate Web sites on a topic using evaluation criteria.

  • Students compare and contrast scholarly journal articles with popular magazine articles on a given topic.

  • Students do an annotated "bibliographic trace." Students locate a current book or scholarly article on their course topic, which they summarize. Then they identify a footnote or citation that is of interest, connected to a chosen theme, find that source, and summarize it. They repeat the process until they have five sources - and a clearer grasp of how to trace a theme of interest through several sources (as well as to gain more familiarity with scholarly literature about the course topic).

  • Students give brief presentations (set time limits!) on a topic (this can be done in groups) and submit a bibliography.

  • Students write "program notes" for a concert, art or museum exhibit. Research the artist and/or an object or composition using library and Internet resources.

  • Students demonstrate how to find material on a topic using the library resources, following the steps in the Outline for Research.

  • Students, working in groups, prepare a bibliographic guide (paper or electronic!) that introduces new majors to information sources in the subject field.

  • Research the origins, evolution, and reception history of a song.

  • Research what is meant by 'style' and 'form' in music.

  • Research the history of a musical instrument or voice type.

  • Using the library's audiovisual databases, put together a playlist/cliplist that illustrates a genre or artistic movement and give a presentation.

  • Research musicianship as a cultural value.

  • Designing Research Assignments from Drew University Library has many other ideas.

Thanks to UArts Music Librarian Mark Germer ( for his contributions to this page.

Last updated: May 11, 2012 sjm

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