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Effective Research Assignments

Students often have a difficult time finding relevant information, understanding expectations about what constitutes a scholarly source, and thinking critically about the varieties of information they encounter in the course of a research project. Even when students have experience with specific library tools, they still may struggle to navigate the academic research process without guidance. Here are a few suggestions to help you design assignments to address these issues.

Communicate your expectations

  • Assess the quality of the sources your students cite as part of their overall grades, and explain clearly in your rubric how that evaluation will be made.
  • Spell out your expectations regarding sources. Instead of asking for scholarly sources, for example, you could ask your students to "cite at least two peer-reviewed journal articles and two primary sources".
  • Explain terminology and provide background regarding scholarly publishing. What’s peer-review? What are some differences between scholarly books and journal articles? When should one consult popular news sources? What’s a primary source?
  • Clearly communicate which style manual is required.
  • Include a policy on plagiarism in the assignment and discuss the purposes of proper attribution. Discuss examples: does paraphrasing another author’s ideas require a citation?
  • Provide examples of topics that are appropriate in scope for the assignment at hand, and provide feedback to individual students as they begin to develop and refine their topics.

Design and test your assignment

An effective research assignment targets specific skills, for example, the ability to trace a scholarly argument through the literature or the ability to organize consulted resources into a bibliography.

  • Test the assignment yourself. Can you find the kinds of sources required? Are you required to evaluate the sources you find?
  • Ask students for feedback on the assignment. Are they having problems finding relevant materials? Do they understand your expectations?
  • If the assignment is particularly demanding, consider dividing a single research project into multiple assignments (outline, draft, final draft), each one focusing on a different aspect of the research process.

Ideas for alternative research assignments

  • Assign an annotated bibliography in which students identify primary and secondary sources, popular and scholarly publications, and detect and comment on forms of bias.
  • Ask for students to document the search tools they use (library catalog, article databases, Google, etc.) for a research paper and to reflect on the kinds of information they find in each.
  • Provide a resource list or a single source from which students’ research should begin. Discuss the utility of known sources for identifying keywords, key concepts, and other citations to inform further searching.
  • Assign students to prepare a guide for introducing their classmates to the essential literature on a given topic.
  • Have students compile a glossary of important terms specific to a given topic in your discipline.
  • Require students to edit an anthology of important scholarship on a specific topic and write an introduction explaining the development of the field over time.

Avoid these common mistakes

  • Since many scholarly sources are available online, it can be confusing for students when “Internet” or “Web” sources are forbidden. It’s helpful to describe why certain sources (such as Wikipedia) may not be allowed.
  • Make sure the resources required by the assignment are available to your students in the library or in library databases. Contact the library at (510) 643-9959 or email tlibaa@library.berkeley.edu for assistance. You can also place hard-to-find required sources on course reserve.

Librarians can help

  1. Fill out the library instruction request form online to request class visits for undergraduate humanities and social sciences courses, and/or to request an online course guide tailored to your research assignments.
  2. Check the library liaison list to schedule instruction or assignment consultation for upper division and graduate humanities and social sciences courses, as well as for science and engineering courses.
  3. Contact Doe/Moffitt Instruction and User Services at (510) 643-9959 or tlibaa@library.berkeley.edu for other questions or for help designing library-related assignments for your class.

For more information see the Office of Educational Development's page on Encouraging Undergraduate Research.

Acknowledgements

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