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Research Guides

Creating Effective Library Research Assignments: Assignment Tips

Tips for Effective Assignments

  • Create a research assignment that is relevant to the objectives of the course and make the assignment objectives clear to the students.
  • Provide a structure that helps students take a step-by-step approach to the research project.  Setting due dates for proposals or initial bibliographies can help them structure the research project. 
  • Include suggestions for the steps, process and sources in the assignment handout.
  • Requiring research logs or research journals can help students document all the sources they find, then evaluate and select the best. 
  • Provide tips and assistance for choosing and focusing a topic. This can often be the most difficult step for students.
  • In the assignment handout, provide some guidance or suggestions on the types of resources students should use.  Librarians can help suggest databases they might search or resources that might help students find background information.
  • Provide suggestions, but not too restrictive, on the types of information sources that might be useful for students.
  • Check with a librarian to be sure that the resources suggested are still available through the library.
  • Ideally, test the assignment yourself before asking students to complete it.
  • Schedule a class session with a librarian to cover tips for finding information for this particular assignment. Contact Diane Prorak, to set this up.

Alternatives to the Research Paper

You can have students practice research skills without some of the frustrations of the full research paper. Below are some ideas from Virginia Tech University Libraries,

  • Annotated bibliographies
  • Comprehensive book reviews
  • Tracking a paper through a citation index
  • Comparisons between a popular magazine article and a scholarly journal article on the same topic
  • Research guides that introduce new majors to the information resources and research strategies in their subject field.
  • Comparisons of different accounts of the same event

Here are more links to research assignment alternatives:

Project Information Literacy: Handout Study

Tips for Assignment Handouts

Handout/written instructions tips

1. Include a written explanation of why students are doing this research, and an explanation of what the research process should look like for this assignment, or in this discipline.  Outline the expected steps of the process.

2. Include written suggestions on the sources, including Internet sources, that might appropriately be used for this research.

Research assignments, in general, should have students learn how to derive information from multiple and diverse formats. Students need to learn how to use and evaluate specific online and print sources—from blogs to collaborative wiki entries to traditional top-flight scholarly journals to data directly collected from the field— independently and when the sources are used in combination. The use of multiple formats causes students to go beyond thinking of research as a competency learned by rote where students use the same predictable set of resources— an approach a large majority of students reported using in our prior student survey." (PIL Handout Study, p. 27).

Encouraging the use of a variety of sources will allow students to use the Internet, which they will use anyway, and give them both the hands on experience and the responsibility of evaluating sources. 

3. Give specific written suggestions of library databases that may be useful. (Librarians would be very glad to provide suggestions).

4. Include the suggestion that students seek help from a librarian.

from Project Information Literacy's Handout Study

Full report at

Summary of Findings from Project Information Literacy's Handout study

  • 76% of students surveyed found handouts for assignments to be very helpful.  At the UI Library, we have noticed that students do bring handouts to show us at the reference desk when asking for help.  Thus, librarians rely on the handouts as well.
  •  Most handouts provide directions for how the finished product should be put together (e.g. page range, citation style, recommended number of sources), but fewer provide suggestions on how to take the steps needed to develop the content. 
  • "Six in 10 handouts recommended students consult the library shelves -- a place-based source -- more than scholarly research databases, the library catalog...", p. 3. 
  •  "Only 13% of the handouts suggesting consulting a librarian for assistance..." p. 3
  •  "Few of the handouts (14%) that directed students to use th library's online scholarly research databases ... specified which database to use by vendor of rile name from the hundreds that tend to be available." p. 3
  •  "Most students lack a seminal understanding about what conducting research means as a form of intellectual inquiry and discovery and the large majority of handouts we analyzed did not provide much context that would help." PIL Handout Study, p. 26

Full report at