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Creating Effective Research Assignments

Table of Contents

Purpose of course-related research assignments

An effective research assignment...

  • has a specific, understood purpose.
  • relates to some aspect of course subject matter or learning objectives.
  • leads to increased understanding of a subject or the process of locating information related to a subject.
  • makes students aware of the variety of information sources and formats available (e.g., print, electronic, microform, video).
  • teaches students to select and evaluate quality information sources appropriate to their topics.
  • reinforces habits of ethical scholarship.

Preparing your students

Tell your students why they are doing this assignment and what purpose it serves. If the assignment requires the use of specific sources, give the students a list of them and make arrangements with the Libraries (e.g. your librarian subject specialist) to assure availability and access. If it involves the use of complex sources or unfamiliar research strategies, your students will need to be oriented to these--by you or by a librarian--in a customized, scheduled library instruction session.

Characteristics of effective research assignments


If students have difficulty understanding what they are supposed to do, they will have trouble doing it. Give assignments in writing, rather than orally.

Correct and unambiguous terminology

Students tend to interpret research assignments literally and are easily confused by terms that they or a librarian cannot interpret definitively. Examples of common problems are:

  • Some instructors differentiate between magazines and journals, while others use the terms interchangeably.
  • Does "library computer" mean the online library catalog of some other online database, or something else?
  • What exactly do the phrases "peer-reviewed journal" and "primary vs. secondary sources" mean in your discipline?
  • Use full and current titles of journals and databases; avoid abbreviations and superseded titles.


The collections and services of the University of Maryland Libraries are continually changing, and these changes will affect assignments. New sources and ways of accessing information replace old ones every day. Check your assignments regularly so that you are not asking your students to use outdated or withdrawn sources.

Reasonable Time Frame

Do the assignment yourself to see how long it takes before you decide how long students need to do it, allowing for their limited perspective and inexperience and for movement of materials.

Pitfalls to avoid

Assuming most students know the basics

Do not assume that your students have had prior experience using a campus library, a prior orientation to the UM Libraries, or that their general orientation is relevant to your assignment. Transfer students or new graduate students may have had no experience in the UM Libraries.

Requiring resources not available

The materials that UM Libraries owns or leases change from semester to semester. UM Libraries may not own or lease the same materials as other libraries you have used. Retest an assignment before giving it out.

Giving an entire class the exact same assignment

Needed resources will be difficult to find at best, disappear or be vandalized at worst. Instead of asking the whole class to research the history of IBM, ask them to research a major public American corporation of their choosing. If it is necessary for a whole class to use particular information sources, put them on Course Reserves or use equivalent online sources.

Giving a scavenger hunt

The least effective assignment possible asks students to locate random facts. It lacks a clear purpose, does not teach students to do meaningful library research, and may be frustrating. Librarians rather than students frequently end up locating the answers. If, in spite of these warnings, you wish nonetheless to use a scavenger hunt, contact for assistance in building a meaningful, workable assignment.

Your students' use of library and web resources

Rapid changes in technology have created a revolution in the way libraries provide access to information. University students are no longer limited to the physical library for scholarly sources of information, yet the library and its librarians remain central in selecting and organizing authoritative information and educating the University community about these resources.

Print sources vs. electronic sources

Since different types of information may only be available electronically or in print, both traditional print sources and Web documents are necessary to do thorough research on most topics.

  • Many resources are only available in print.
  • Electronic sources of information may provide more sophisticated search capabilities, may be available remotely, can be used simultaneously by many different people, and may allow exporting of information in a variety of forms (e.g. spreadsheets).
  • Information is often available on the Web before it is available in print.
  • Much scientific, government and current events information is only available electronically (e.g. 2000 census data).

In many cases, the Libraries own materials in more than one format. There may or may not be differences in the content of materials in print and on the Web, but there are usually differences in presentation. Librarians can provide guidance in evaluating Web sites and the proper citing of resources using MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian Notes, or Author-Date systems.

Limiting "web" sources

Some faculty choose to limit the number of Web sources students may use in the bibliographies of their papers. There are, however, a few problems with this requirement that you might wish to discuss with a librarian:

  • Students are unclear whether "Web" means all information sources that are delivered via the medium of the World Wide Web (including the Libraries' scholarly electronic databases, e-journals, online catalog, etc.) or only sources on the free Web, located via search engines sucha s Google or Yahoo!
  • There is a tremendous difference between library online scholarly sources and the free Web. Librarians have purchased extensive scholarly online information sources such as electronic databases for students and their research.
  • There is usually no difference in the content of books, journal articles, government documents or other materials in paper, on microfilm or on the Web.
  • Some electronic "full text" material is not available on paper in the library, such as the extensive newspaper collections available via LexisNexis or the Libraries' electronic journals.

Role of the librarian

Helping you to develop assignments

Librarians are an excellent resource for developing library assignments; librarian subject specialists understand the specific needs of students in each department. Generally, they will not create an assignment for you, but they will be glad to work with you in development and review.

Since students will be coming to reference librarians for help, it would aid the librarians (and therefore the students) to have an advance copy of the assignment and recommended sources. Librarians suggest that faculty make assignments openly available on the Web.

When an assignment is over, librarians may be able to give feedback. Did any students seem confused or have trouble understanding the assignment? Were there any resource access problems?

Faculty and librarians working together can make library assignments better learning experiences for students.

Teaching research skills

Librarians will teach customized instructional sessions, usually in library labs, for faculty in any campus department. Look at the Directory of Librarian Subject Specialists to find a librarian in your subject area. If you want a session during the first two months of a semester, schedule it as early as possible, as this is a busy time for user instruction.

Plagiarism and citing

Any research assignment raises the possibility of students plagiarizing materials they find or failing to cite correctly.

Please spend time instructing your students how to avoid these violations of ethical scholarship.

Librarians are available to collaborate with you to teach your students about plagiarism, and how to avoid it.

Visit: Citation Tools