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Effective Research Assignments: Library Guidelines for Instructors

Information resources at Queen's are extensive and the critical thinking skills needed for their intelligent use are challenging. Few students select and use information tools effectively. Assume that students need ongoing development of these skills to meet the requirements of research assignments.

Assume Minimal Library Knowledge

All students need an introduction to research skills including clarification of:

  • Terminology within the discipline. Libraries provide discipline-specific online academic encyclopedias, dictionaries and handbooks that provide background summaries and context for new concepts and ideas.
  • Types of resources appropriate for the task such as books, government documents, scholarly articles, statistics, "grey literature", primary sources, etc. A research starting point depends on the type of information that will best address the research problem.
  • Library tools specific to the discipline. While there are many interdisciplinary research tools, every student must be acquainted with the standards for their field.
  • Research journals vs. popular vs. trade journals. Many students cannot identify scholarly articles until they have seen and discussed examples of them in comparison to those from popular magazines.
  • Citation management and documentation style. Familiarize students with the style guide appropriate to their subject area and to information management software.

Design Assignments that Reinforce Research Skills

Researchers at the University of Washington found that many class assignment handouts do not offer useful guidance on conducting research (Head, A. J. & Einsenberg, M. B.(2010). Assigning inquiry: How handouts for research assignments guide today’s college students. Project Information Literacy Progress Report. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Information iSchool). Their study states that first-year students apply the strategies they learned in high school, focus on the length of the paper rather than its content, and that 84% of students have difficulty starting assignments while 66% of students have difficulty defining a topic.


Assignments with the following features support student development of research skills:

  • Describe what the finished product should look like and articulate specific learning outcomes for the research process so your expectations are clear.
  • Split research assignments into a variety of tasks throughout the semester to gradually build research skills by giving feedback at each stage. For example, one assignment might have students select suitable websites based on a set of evaluation criteria created by the class. Another assignment could be to analyze a single scholarly article using a set of headings such as research question, authority, methodology, analysis, and documentation,
  • Increase the level of research expectations with each writing assignment.
  • Discuss research strategies, finding tools, and websites via a course webpage or wiki so that the development of these skills is an acknowledged focus in the course.
  • Encourage students to use various production techniques (papers, posters, presentations, webpages, video, etc.) to present the results of their research.
  • Describe how the research process will be assessed.
  • Offer advice on creating research questions, selecting information sources, assessing sources, or the structure of the paper.

Contact Liaison Librarians

Please contact the appropriate Liaison Librarian for your department for assistance with:

  • Identification of learning outcomes for information literacy based on the assignment and the experience of the students.
  • Development of inquiry-based assignments.
  • Identification of library research guides and learning objects pertinent to the discipline or research task.
  • Instruction opportunities for face-to-face, blended, and online research skills instruction
  • Assessment of information literacy development following an assignment.

Teach Research Strategy Where Appropriate

Research strategy involves both the "know-how" and "know-why" of information tools. Students who are aware of problem-solving methods in the research process are better able to transfer learning from one assignment to another, overcome information retrieval barriers, and produce a more thoughtful product.

  • Work with the Liaison Librarian to design relevant assignments that teach the research process.
  • Arrange for the Liaison Librarian to give a presentation or a hands-on workshop in class time or in an online format on a research strategy appropriate to the assignment.
  • State the research and information literacy objectives that are part of the research task directly on the assignment sheet.
  • Discuss time management for the task and describe the research steps that a learner would expect to follow.
  • Discuss examples of alternative research assignments with your Liaison Librarian that encourage analysis of the information retrieval process and evaluation of information sources.
  • Record and evaluate the research process. Assign marks for the documentation of the task to provide a basis for class discussion and to encourage reflection on the process as a whole.

Avoid the Following Types of Assignments

  • Large classes working from a limited selection of topics. Competition reduces access.
  • Scavenger hunts. These do not teach students how to use the library effectively.
  • Searching for obscure facts. This causes unnecessary frustration for staff and students alike.

Last Updated: 16 July 2015