Best Practices for Crafting Research Assignments
Here are a number of best practices to consider when creating an assignment involving research tasks.
Avoid Blanket Prohibitions of Encyclopedias
Students often do not understand the difference between a general encyclopedia such as Worldbook or Wikipedia and a specialist encyclopedia such as The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture. Specialist encyclopedias can help students greatly by offering both a concise overview of a subject written by a reputable academic author and a bibliography of particularly relevant books and articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Forbidding encyclopedias outright leads students to avoid specialist encyclopedias even when that is exactly what they need.
Example language: “Avoid general encyclopedias (for example, Worldbook, Wikipedia). Specialized encyclopedias are acceptable.” You could also name a specialist encyclopedia relevant to your class as an example.
Avoid Requiring “Print” Sources
The intellectual content of a document matters much more than the format that it is stored in. Specifying that the student must use print sources is problematic, for two reasons:
- The library does not have a print copy of every journal; many are available only in digital form. Requiring only “print” may eliminate relevant, reputable sources.
- Generally, the printed and digital copies of a resource contain identical information. The time taken to retrieve a printed copy could better have been spent on further research.
The most common reason for requiring “print” materials in assignments is to combat undergraduates’ unfortunate habit of relying solely on Google for their research. If that is your goal, consider specifying that their sources must come from the library.
Example language: “You must use reputable academic sources from the university library.” You could also give some examples relevant to your class, or direct the students to the reference desk for assistance.
Avoid “Scavenger Hunt” Assignments
Students who have a real need for information engage much more closely with the library’s resources. Instead of a scavenger hunt, consider assigning the students to produce a short annotated bibliography (3-5 sources) on a topic relevant to your class.
Consult Your Subject Specialist
The library’s subject specialists are available to help you develop or refine the research components of your assignments. The librarians are closely familiar with the library’s holdings. They can suggest resources, or let you know about any recent changes (for example, a change in shelving location, or the acquisition of a new database).
In some cases, the librarian may even produce a research guide specifically tailored to your class.
Isbell, Dennis. “What Happens to Your Research Assignment at the Library?” College Teaching 56.1 (2008) : 3-6.
Leckie, Gloria J. “Desperately Seeking Citations: Uncovering Faculty Assumptions About the Undergraduate Research Process.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3 (1996) : 201-208.