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Faculty Services

Research Assignments

Research assignments are an integral part of college and an effective way to gauge students' abilities to integrate course concepts with their own critical thinking skills. However, designing a good research assignment requires some considerations.

In one study, 85% of students "felt they did not have enough information from professors to begin assignments" and 73% didn't know what college-level research entails. This page is intended to provide some best practices and common pitfalls to help you design an effective research assignment.

Librarians are happy to collaborate with you on developing a research assignment, so please reach out to your library liaison!

Best Practices for Research Assignments

Scaffold the Assignment

Building in steps as part of a large research assignment can help make the process more manageable for students and provides direction. Having short-term deadlines also helps students manage their time better and allows for formative feedback in time for them to make corrections and improvements.

Steps with distinct deadlines could include a topic proposal, an outline, an annotated bibliography, and a rough draft. Including requirements for identifying sources earlier can also help avoid the problem of students writing the paper on their own and then finding some sources to insert in the paper afterwards (which does happen! Librarians often hear "I've already written the paper, I just need two more sources for my bibliography").

Address Assignment Expectations and Grading

Clear expectations for students is an important step. Incorporate the TILT framework for transparent assignments, which helps students understand the rationale, directions, and grading for assignments.

  • Discuss the assignment early and often! Include a clear rationale for why this assignment is required and important, especially for future skills.
  • Include as much guidance and instructions as possible in text for students to refer back to.
  • Define terms as much as possible, including terms such as annotation, abstract, database, scholarly source, etc.
  • Provide clear guidelines on how the assignment will be graded, ideally with a rubric.
  • If possible, provide exemplars and other examples for students to see.
  • Remind students that research is a process and it takes time! The Library is able to request books and articles from other institutions, but this does take a week or two, so early planning, especially in the research stage, is ideal.

Specify Sources

Consider carefully which sources you specify that students can or cannot use for their research assignments and how those restrictions match the assignment topic.

  • If you expect scholarly sources to be used, be sure to include that. Students will use the sources they are most familiar with (which tend to be websites) unless explicitly directed to use other types of sources.
  • Since many library sources are online (like the library databases and eBooks), simply stating 'no Internet sources' may be confusing. Similarly, if you require a book or article source but an eBook or online article would suffice, consider explaining that. Most of the Tyree Library's journals are held online.
  • Consider if limits on sources, like requiring scholarly or recent sources, match with the topics being chosen.
    • Very recent and new topics may not yet have peer-reviewed articles written about them, and there may be many slightly older resources that provide a good overview of a topic. A blanket '5 years old' policy could eliminate many very useful and still relevant sources.
    • If you are allowing non-scholarly topics to be chosen, then requiring scholarly sources may be difficult.
    • Sometimes websites are the best source for certain types of information (such as statistics); disallowing all websites could be problematic for assignments requiring this information.
  • Be sure to also double-check that the Tyree Library has access to a specific source you might recommend, such as a journal, book, or database.
  • If you will be recommending a print title in the collection, a librarian can place it on reserve to ensure equitable access for all your students and avoid a 'mob scene.' Just let us know!

Provide Research Support

Students may be unfamiliar with researching at a college level and may need help learning how to search a database and/or how to cite sources.

  • Consider working with your library liaison to develop a short module or source list that will provide point-of-need information to your students.
  • For more in-depth assistance, schedule a library instruction session. These sessions are tailored toward your assignments.
  • The research study hall option allows students to work on their assignments independently in the Library with direct support by a librarian.
  • Provide information on how students can contact a librarian for help, and what types of help that librarians can provide. Consider a "warm hand-off" by emailing a course librarian introducing the student and suggesting they connect.

Provide Citation Resources

Consider providing examples or links for the citation style that you prefer students use. The Library has in-depth citation guides for each of the three major citation styles:

You can also import a citation module for each of the four types into your Canvas class, with an instructional page and self-grading quiz. Search for citation module in the Canvas Commons.

Citation modules

Refer Students

Librarians and writing tutors are both available for students to meet with to discuss the different stages of the research process. Librarians can assist students with defining a topic, finding sources, and creating citations. Writing tutors can assist students with planning papers, outlining, paper revisions, and more. Be sure to tell your students about the free supports they have and encourage them to use them!

Sample wording for assignment directions:

If you need assistance locating or citing sources, ask a Santa Fe College librarian. Librarians are research experts and are happy to help guide you through the process. You can stop by in-person at the 2nd floor Reference Desk in the Tyree Library or connect via phone, email or chat. You can also schedule an appointment with a librarian.

Writing tutors can assist you with writing clarity, grammar and style, essay structure, planning your paper, and more! Connect with a writing tutor on the second floor of the Library/Learning Commons (Building Y, NW Campus) or online via Zoom. Students can drop in during open hours or make an appointment in Navigate.

Common Pitfalls

Students are often unfamiliar with how to use library databases, scholarly journals, and even citation styles. Even digital natives are more accustomed to using the general internet, not specialized research sources. Even for students who have had prior library experience, they may not be familiar with how to use discipline-specific sources and research strategies.

Solutions: Build in opportunities to learn about college-level research with library instruction or Canvas library modules; encourage students to meet with librarians to assist their research.

Most students don't understand the difference between a website and a library database or eJournal, so a blanket "no online sources" statement is confusing. Most of the library's periodical holdings are online in library databases.

Solutions: Be more specific; if you don't want freely available websites found through Google, state that; specify if eBooks and online journal articles are acceptable.

Especially when requiring print or book sources, when all students have the same topic or need to use the same title, print sources are quickly checked out and unavailable for the majority of other students.

Solutions: Have a librarian place a book on reserve for in-library-use; see if the Library can purchase an eBook version of the title needed; allow for a greater variety of topics; allow for more online sources, including eBooks, databases, and websites.

When popular or current topics are approved, this means that certain types of sources, like books and academic articles, may be difficult to find. Limitations on date and format can lead to problems finding approved sources.

Solutions: Consider having a minimum number of specific types of sources and allowing other additional sources; consider if topics need to be adjusted to match your desired types of sources; check with a librarian about the types of sources that may be best to include for different areas.

General library scavenger hunts tend to cause confusion and frustration for students. Additionally, they do not use typical research skills and don't integrate into the research process. Students often see them as busy work and leave with a poor impression of the library and its resources, associating the library and research with frustration.

Solution: Work with a librarian to design a more purposeful exploration of library resources or research strategies.

We welcome class visits! However, when classes arrive unexpectedly, this can put a strain on resources and support, especially if 35 students are each needing assistance from a librarian.

Solutions: Schedule a library instruction session (the research study hall session is ideal for a more informal "working on the paper" meeting); reserve a large study room as a base of operations; give librarians a heads-up prior to your visit (including a copy of your assignment) so more staff can be available and prepared.

Does It Have to Be a Paper?

When thinking of research assignments, the research paper is the most common and tends to be the default. However, there are many other types of research assignments that can engage students while still requiring concept mastery and integration of research sources. Here are a few ideas:

  • Annotated bibliography
  • Presentation
  • I-search paper
  • Research poster
  • Podcast
  • Infographic
  • Class debate
  • Wikipedia editing - the Wikipedia Education Program has resources and training for instructors
  • Grant or research proposal
  • Video
  • Timeline
  • Policy analysis
  • Graphic essay
  • Pamphlet or brochure

Further Reading

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