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Designing Better Research Assignments

Do's and Don'ts of Research Assignments


  • Do invite a research and reference librarian to work with you and your class; a librarian can prepare a customized lesson around how to do research and help prepare students for their research assignment.
  • Ask the librarian you are working with for feedback on the assignment instructions. The librarian may suggestion specific resources to emphasize or may anticipate problems students could have with their research.
  • Do make sure to reinforce to your students that topics don't fail.  They may just need to learn new research skills or adjust their approach. They might give up at a point where they need to do more work defining their topic.
  • Do be specific with your assignment instructions. Instead of saying "No Wikipedia" or "Only scholarly sources", explain and demonstrate that research is an iterative process.  Discuss and examine different types of sources and how they can be useful at different stages during the assignment.
  • Do you expect for students to take certain steps/do certain things at different stages of their research process? If so, consider chunking the assignment into mini assignments around those stages. Be explicit about what you expect students to do in each stage. Even more importantly, be explicit about how it's valuable to their learning.


  • Don't assign a library scavenger hunt as the only preparation for a research assignment. Decontextualized tasks trivialize the complexity of the research process and reinforce the perception that research is about basic tech skills instead of intellectual discovery.
  • Don't assume they know how to do research or that your students possess a basic research vocabulary.  For example, they might be unfamiliar with: journal, resource, database, citation, scholarly, peer-review, volume, issue, analysis, theory, method, quantitative, qualitative, empirical, study, primary, secondary, etc. If you use these words, be sure to provide definitions and discuss them.
  • Don't talk about information sources as good or bad. Instead, talk about the context and how some sources are more helpful and useful in different contexts.
  • Don't allow too little or too much choice in topic selection. Promote the idea that "Picking your topic IS research." Make it clear to the students that letting the literature/reading inform and refine their topic selection is part of the exploratory nature of the research process, and that picking a topic is part of research, not a precursor to research."
  • Don't assume because your students are from a digital generation that they are completely familiar with and comfortable interacting with online research tools and resources.
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