Creating Effective Research Assignments //

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 learning outcomes
  • 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.

REVIEW STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES.

  • Outcomes 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.

TEST THE ASSIGNMENT YOURSELF.

  • 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.

TEACH/REVIEW RESEARCH STRATEGIES.

  • 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.

DON'T WANT ALL INTERNET SOURCES? TELL THEM.

  • 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.

THE MYTH OF THE DIGITAL NATIVE

  • 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.

"DIDN'T THEY LEARN ALL THIS IN FIRST-YEAR WRITING?"

  • What students learn as freshmen in First-Year Writing is a foundation. Appropriate research skills for a freshman are not the same as those for a sophomore, junior, or senior. Just as students gain new skills and fluency in their majors, their research and critical thinking skills should also be increasing.

ASSIST THE STUDENTS: PROVIDE THEM WITH SUBJECT GUIDES.

  • 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.

CONSULT WITH THE LIBRARIANS AND USE THEIR SERVICES. SERVICES INCLUDE:

  • 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.

AVOID THESE COMMON PROBLEMS:

  • 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-the-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.

"WE ALREADY KNOW HOW TO DO RESEARCH", aka DON'T ASK YOUR STUDENTS IF THEY KNOW HOW. INVITE THE LIBRARIAN.

  • Students will tell you they know how to do research. Chances are that they don't or at least need a refresher. Most students have not seen a UArts librarian since freshman year.

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.

Effective research assignments:

  • have a clear purpose
  • relate to learning outcomes
  • 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.

REVIEW STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES.

  • Outcomes 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.

TEST THE ASSIGNMENT YOURSELF.

  • 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.

TEACH/REVIEW RESEARCH STRATEGIES.

  • 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.

DON'T WANT ALL INTERNET SOURCES? TELL THEM.

  • 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.

THE MYTH OF THE DIGITAL NATIVE

  • 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.

"DIDN'T THEY LEARN ALL THIS IN FIRST-YEAR WRITING?"

  • What students learn as freshmen in First-Year Writing is a foundation. Appropriate research skills for a freshman are not the same as those for a sophomore, junior, or senior. Just as students gain new skills and fluency in their majors, their research and critical thinking skills should also be increasing.

ASSIST THE STUDENTS: PROVIDE THEM WITH SUBJECT GUIDES.

  • 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.

CONSULT WITH THE LIBRARIANS AND USE THEIR SERVICES. SERVICES INCLUDE:

  • 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.

AVOID THESE COMMON PROBLEMS:

  • 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-the-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.

"WE ALREADY KNOW HOW TO DO RESEARCH", aka DON'T ASK YOUR STUDENTS IF THEY KNOW HOW. INVITE THE LIBRARIAN.

  • Students will tell you they know how to do research. Chances are that they don't or at least need a refresher. Most students have not seen a UArts librarian since freshman year.

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.

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