Research Assignments

Research Assignments and Research Instruction for Student Success

Guest post by Stephanie Otis

Clear Expectations & Objectives

Many times, when students are asked to do a research project, they are surprised and overwhelmed by the expectation that they develop their own discussion with the sources they find. When students are assigned a research paper, they often focus on the end product (at the last minute!). Consider your goals in assigning the research paper and if there may be different or additional assignments that would benefit your students. It can be refreshing to move beyond the traditional research paper to reflect on learning objectives you hope your students will accomplish in completing a research assignment for your class. Some possibilities include:

  • Students can synthesize multiple information sources into an independent discussion of a topic related to the course material
  • Students understand discipline-specific information sources and the cycle and conversation among these sources
  • Students can locate and consider secondary sources on a topic to better understand course material

In presenting an assignment, consider these goals in the way you write and discuss the assignment with students.  It seems basic, but can be a big help for students if you go over the assignment as a class rather than just posting it in Moodle or on the syllabus and pointing it out to students. There may be terminology they don’t know: if you’re asking them to synthesize or analyze information, explain what that means or give examples of what that work will look like. We can’t expect students to stop simply cobbling together excerpts from random sources if we never teach them what we expect them to accomplish. Other terminology sticking points for students might be secondary vs. primary sources, scholarly/peer reviewed articles, and thesis or research question. Talk to students about the type of sources you expect and show them examples. Talk to students about the peer review process. Include your own experiences with research and writing in your discipline. By sharing your work and the process of research, writing, and publishing outside of a class assignment, students can be encouraged to join in the conversation with their own work.

Research/Source Activities to Prepare for Larger Research Project

One way to help students better understand and accomplish your goals for them is to give them guideposts along the way.  Many college-level research assignments ask students to undertake the process of locating, evaluating, and incorporating information sources as one uninterrupted endeavor they face on their own. The anxiety that accompanies such assignments may not be so much about students’ inability to find sources, but a lack of direction and support in what they should do with those sources in order to successfully complete a research project. Rather than assigning one large research project where students are expected to work along on their own and turn in one product, have them work along the way on smaller pieces. This process will help them better understand the steps in the process and different levels or types of information. Instead of simply asking students to use academic sources, have them compare a popular source to an academic one to understand how some sources work better than others for research projects. Students won’t take for granted, like we do, that academic sources are “better,” we have to show them how and why we’re asking for something other than a website or an encyclopedia article for their papers.  A simple iteration of this approach is to ask students to summarize and evaluate single sources on a topic that may contribute to a more extensive exploration of that topic. As a starting point, the instructor or librarian can provide students with an initial source and structure in groups or whole-class work to answer the questions and build the summary/evaluation. Once students have seen how the process of summarizing and evaluating works, they can apply the questions to additional sources and incorporate this approach into larger research projects. Here are a couple of smaller activities that could be used in place of or in progress towards a research paper: Research Assignment Activities.

By integrating conversations such as these into class sessions or assignments, we better articulate and support the steps in the research process that we expect students to accomplish.

Stephanie Otis is Instruction Coordinator at the UNC Charlotte Atkins Library.  You can learn more tips from Stephanie by reading her chapter, “Before Search: A Scaffolded Approach to Teaching Research” in the recently published, Successful Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Research.


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