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How to Create Effective and Meaningful Research Assignments

Assignment Prompt Structure

  • Write assignment prompts clearly and post them electronically or distribute printed copies to your students.
  • Assume your students have minimal research experience. Your students may not yet understand research terminology like “scholarly” or “peer reviewed.”
  • Consider including:
    • Context, key concepts, or background for why students are completing the assignment.
    • A list of sample topics and/or keywords. Picking a topic that is appropriate in scope can be difficult for novice researchers, and they can end up with topics that are too broad and difficult to write about, or too narrow and difficult to research.
    • A list of resources, including databases, students can use to get started. Provide accurate and complete citations when recommending sources, which help students find the right material and sets a good example. However, be careful that you are not sending your whole class to use the same print book at one time!
    • A schedule. Research can be a lengthy process. Encourage students to begin their research as early as possible and/or scaffold steps in the research process throughout the semester. See examples of scaffolding below.

Steps in research assignments

Scaffolded assignments to help students master each step

Topic Selection & Background Information

  • Identify a broad topic area & refine through background research
  • Brainstorming and/or concept mapping
  • Develop a research question
  • Develop keywords
  • Project proposal


  • Annotated bibliography
  • Research log/journal

Evaluation of Sources

  • Compare and contrast discussion of a topic in different types of sources
  • Critique a source
  • Investigate a scholar/scholar biography


  • Outline
  • First Draft
  • Peer review

Final Draft

  • Final draft
  • Self-assessment or research reflection

Table adapted from “Information Literacy in ENG2: An Instructor Guide” from Lehigh University Libraries (


How to Talk About Sources

  • Which types of sources? Consider listing the number and type of sources (peer reviewed journals, books, newspaper articles, etc.) you require students to use in their assignment.
  • Where to get sources? Be clear about your expectations. For example, if you want limit the use of the open internet for research, make a clear exception for digital library materials. Most GCC Library resources students encounter (except print books and periodicals in print) are accessible online.
  • Avoid using the following phrases in your assignments or when talking about library resources:
    • "print sources only" -- unless you mean this literally -- that is, specific print books in the collection, items on reserve, or periodicals only available in print. 
    • "no web, electronic, or online sources" – same issue as above.
  • Instead, if you would like students to use reputable and reliable sources from the library, consider using the following statement:
    "You may use sources found through the GCC Library, such as OneSearch (books, articles, and more), subscription databases, and electronic book databases. When using open web or non-library sources, make sure they are reliable, authoritative, objective, current, and accurate."


Research Support

  • Encourage students to think creatively about the terminology they use when doing research (i.e. the terms used to describe the assignment may not be the only--or best--ones for their research question).
  • Encourage students to consult with a librarian at the Research Help Desk for help with research. 
  • Consult with your division's liaison librarian on the best instructional options to support your students and the research assignment.
    • Recommend students take one or more library workshops most relevant to the research assignment. You can assign these workshops for extra credit (see how to confirm workshop attendance).
    • Request a Contextualized Instruction session with a librarian where students can learn strategies and skills, as well as search for resources in class. Librarians can help students with topic selection techniques, search skills and strategies, identifying source types, evaluating sources, and ethical use of information through citations. These sessions are designed around a specific assignment. Faculty and librarians collaborate on the learning outcomes, goals, and objectives of the session to support the assignment. 
    • Work with a librarian to embed information competency content, such as learning modules, tutorials, videos, into your Canvas class geared towards your specific research assignment. 


Take your assignment for a test drive

Is your assignment all set? Test it out! Work through the prompt yourself to make sure the necessary resources are available to your students.

If you can't find the sources you want, they won't find them either. When you test the assignment, you are vetting the sources available to your students, promoting academic honesty, and discouraging plagiarism.

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