Designing Effective Research Assignments

Helping Students Find & Use Specific Resources
Additional Adaptable Exercises

Overview: Students are fully capable of developing a sense of how scholarly research is reported and how to construct a good research project. However, undergraduates must spend far more time than experts in gaining enough background knowledge to find a focus for a research project. They also have understandable difficulty assessing the value of different sources, not being familiar with the field and its major publications.

Don't assume students learned how to use the library in the FTS. What they learned was limited, may have been forgotten, or may not take into account recent changes in the library.

Students tell us they learn by doing and they learn from the models provided by their professors. The most important predictor of students' success in finding, reading, and using sources is the number of times they engage in those activities.

If you'd like one of the librarians to take an advance look at one of your assignments to ensure we have the resources called for, please feel free to contact your department liaison or a librarian of your choice.

Following discussions with First Term Seminar faculty, we have the following specific ideas for tackling common areas of confusion.

How can I get students familiar with the process of finding books and articles?.

A single library session that "covers" how to do this by lecture and demonstration is not very effective. Students don't find it worth learning until and unless they have a genuine and urgent need to learn the ropes. Consider assigning a simple exercise for them to attempt on their own; then bring the class in to work on research for a project that requires using library resources once they have developed real questions. Feel free to bring them back again when they've drafted a research project and have new and even more specific questions. This is actually a good way to model the recursiveness of good, honest research.

How can I encourage students to use the librarians as a resource?

There are two good reasons students hestitate to approach the reference desk. First, they are embarrassed to be seen asking for help. Second, they aren't familiar with what kinds of questions they could ask. You might find it useful to force the issue by having students construct questions for the librarian once they've done some research - or by requiring them to have a librarian look over and sign off on a preliminary bibliography.

How can I make clear to them the difference between scholarly and popular publications?

This is a difficult distinction for students. Consider giving them the opportunity to look at different coverage of the same issue. Or have them examine entire issues of a print magazine and a print journal and compare them. Follow up with a discussion of how to make these distinctions with database results. Studenets might also find North Carolina State University's "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article" useful.

How can I help them understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources?

One interesting exercise is to have a class look at a primary source related to your course together and generate questions about it. Those can then be researched in reference books and other secondary sources. Or have students start with a major scientific concept covered in a textbook and then track down a biography or memoir of the scientist who made the breakthrough and one of his or her original papers.

My students often think there are two kinds of books: textbooks and stories (or novels). How can I help them understand the various kinds of books and their uses?

We would be happy to pull together examples of various kinds of books that approach the same topic with an exercise that asks students to make comparisons about their differences. Another approach would be to give them a call number area and ask them to describe in some depth three or four books using an exercise that guides them to look closely and critically at them while recording the elements they need to include in a bibliography.

How can I encourage students to find and use reference materials?

Specialized reference works such as the Encyclopedia of Religion or the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics can provide excellent and accessible overviews of complex topics without dumbing them down. The librarians would be happy to help locate sample articles from reference books that would be useful readings for your class or help design exercises that will introduce them to the reference section.

How can I help students get familiar with the spatial layout of the library (as well as the resources on the library's Website)?

Try a collaborative tour - asking students to explore and share what they discovered. Or ask groups to explore and report on different parts of the library's Website for one another, challenging each team to discover something nobody else has uncovered yet.

How can I help students learn about documentation and plagiarism?

One of the problems students have with scholarly forms of documentation is that they rarely understand its rhetorical power. They think of documentation defensively, to prevent being charged with theft - as opposed to thinking of sources as expert witnesses brought in to lend support to an argument. One approach to avoid plagiarism is to create plagiarism-proof assignments. Another is to engage students in using references in their research. The practice will make more sense once they've learned to read other's references as an effective research strategy.

Students have little experience reading or writing documented prose. They often view documentation as a meaningless chore and don't recognize its rhetorical power. On top of that, some students take shortcuts that are simply not acceptable. Be sure to encourage your students to use the excellent assitance provided at our Writing Center; they may also ask for help citing sources at the reference desk, where we keep copies of the major style manuals.


Listed here are some downloadable Word documents that can be adapted for use in your classes (some of which are duplicated above). Feel free to combine exercises or harvest just the parts you want to use. If you would like to consult with a librarian about these or about other ideas you've had, let us know.

  • Collaborative library tour - have students explore parts of the library and report out as the class tours the library together. It might be wise to include a librarian on the day of the tour to clarify any confusion or answer questions that might arise. You may want to guide students toward library floor plans for the first floor (lower level), main floor, and third floor (upper level).
  • Finding books and articles in the library - a DIY introduction to the basics.
  • Finding biographical information - using reference books and books in the general collection (so only workable for biographical subjects who are likely to have books written about them).
  • Tracing cited works - combines an introduction to the reference section with the nuts-and-bolts of finding out which ones are available in our library. (Note: this is more complex than you might think and may induce a certain level of frustration.)
  • Scholarly v. popular (using science articles) - asks students to read an article from New Scientist, track down the original research on which it is based, and compare the two.
  • Scholarly v. popular - a different approach using the print periodicals collection to compare three publications.
  • Evaluating Web Pages - asks students to compare three Web pages, compare them to a peer-reviewed article on the same topic, and compose a citation. Note that when citing Web pages, there may be more than one "correct" citation, so this could be an opporunity to discuss the purpose of documentation - to provide enough information for your reader to decide whether to track down the source.
  • Reference librarian interview - a form that gently forces students to overcome their anxiety about the "chair of shame" and learn a thing or two in the process.
  • Creating a preliminary bibliography - guidelines for finding and selecting sources.