Skip to main content

Designing Research Assignments: Assignment Guidelines

Where Students Struggle

Students struggle with starting assignments and defining a topic. When it comes to writing, the PIL study indicates that students: 

  • Use patchwork writing as a result of snipping from online sources
  • Need to learn to focus on specific question rather than summarizing broad topics
  • Need support in developing arguments
  • Need support in how to integrate and cite sources
  • Unintentional plagiarism from students other cultures

Assignment guidelines often do not offer students with guidance on conducting research (Head, A. J. & Einsenberg, M. B. 2010). As a result, many student apply the same strategies they used in high school, and focus on length requirements rather than content. 

Attribution

Portions of the content on this page were modified from Hunter College Libraries' Faculty Guide and Modesto Junior College Library & Learning Center's Designing Research Assignments guide

Assignment Pitfalls

Research Topics: Under-Specification

When students are asked to choose any topic they are interested in, they often feel overwhelmed and uncertain, and have trouble developing a researchable topic. Instead of focusing on locating good sources and integrating them into their writing, students often get hung up on selecting and developing a topic.

Research Topics: Over-Specification

Asking students to research an extremely narrow topic will lead to frustration in locating useful resources or sometimes any resources at all. Check to see that library resources are available before selecting a topic.

Research Topics: A Better Option

Provide students with a pre-selected list of manageable, researchable topics related to the theme of the class. 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
Try to avoid the following:  Try these specifications instead: 

"Don't use the internet."

This is very confusing for students because most journals and magazines are available on the Internet and the library provides access to thousands of scholarly eBooks that are online. Students often express concern that they are not allowed to use academic journal articles found through the library's databases, because they are accessed through the internet.

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. Explain that relying on Wikipedia for information is not academic research. Provide situations where Wikipedia can be helpful to get students to shift from black/white good/bad thinking towards a more critical approach. 

Expect students to evaluate all of their sources using a process such as the CRAAPP 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. 

This guideline may also result in students trying to find definitions and background information in narrowly focused scholarly articles. 

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.

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?

Assignment Design Tips

Clear assignment guidelines and examples of good student work can help to reduce student confusion and anxiety.

Assignment Design Checklist
Describe Approach Synthesis, analysis, argument, evaluation? Include a research journal? Explain what you want students to do.
Provide Context State how the assignment relates to course material. Consider both "big picture" and "information-finding" context. 
Set Outcomes Describe learning outcomes including those for information literacy and writing skill development. 
Scaffold the Process Split assignments into tasks and give feedback at each stage, focusing both on where the student did well and on areas for improvement. See the Scaffolding Research Assignments page for ideas. 
Offer Research Strategies

Discuss research strategies including the specific search tools you want students to use, and appropriate web resources. Offer students suggestions for a good starting point.

Provide Sources Checklist

Specify useful types of resources. Provide clarity on differences between types of sources ("web" vs "online" resources). Recommend tools to identify new vocabulary and terminology. Discuss scholarly vs. popular sources and specify which and how many students should use. 

Let students know what types of sources you do not want them to use. Is Wikipedia acceptable? 

Set Citation Style Name the citation style you want students to use and give a link to the corresponding library citation guide if available, or to another trusted guide. 
Share Assessment

How is the assignment and the research process going to be assessed? Rubrics are helpful especially when they are reviewed when the assignment is given so students understand expectations and how they will be graded.

Share examples of assignments that meet or exceed assignment expectations.

Describe Writing and Research Services

Let your students know how they can get additional help: 

  • College tutors 
  • Librarians for research and citation help 
  • Counseling & student services 
  • Office hours