The following tips for better research assignments are based on the findings of Project Information Literacy, an ongoing national research project about college students and their information-seeking behaviors, competencies, and the challenges they face when conducting research in the digital age.
To date, the Project has included a survey of over 8,000 students from 25 U.S. college campuses; a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts from 28 campuses; and student discussion groups at 7 campuses.
Click on the link in each tip to see the research findings that support the recommendation.
1. Encourage students to consult with a librarian.
2. Direct students towards a variety of library resources including print, electronic, and multimedia.
3. Suggest specific databases or other library resources by name to students.
4. Discuss what constitutes plagiarism as well as the consequences.
5. Review criteria for evaluating sources.
6. Define research.
7. Embed a research guide in ELMS/Blackboard or request one from your librarian.
8. Break the research assignment into manageable parts.
9. Explain how research will be evaluated.
10. Collaborate with a librarian to design a research assignment that employs critical thinking.
PIL’s content analysis of research assignment handouts found that only 13% recommended consulting with a librarian. (Inquiry, 3) In a PIL survey, 80% of students reported rarely, if ever, seeking help from a librarian with course-related research (Lessons, 3). Yet 63% of students report frustration due to their inability to find resources (Context, 3). Librarians are experts in planning a research strategy, searching for and locating information, and easing frustration with research. Be sure to recommend that students consult a librarian for assistance with their research. Even better, provide them with contact information for reference services and/or a subject specialist.
60% of handouts recommended students access materials on the library shelves (Inquiry, 11). However, today’s college students are more Web-focused and an increasing percentage of library materials are available digitally. Direct students towards library resources in a variety of formats and suggest using WorldCat UM or Research Port to discover them.
Of the handouts that recommended using online library resources, only a minimal number (14%) mentioned specific databases by vendor or name (Inquiry, 3). University of Maryland Libraries have hundreds of research databases for all disciplines that can help focus student research, so suggest a few by name to your students. If you're not sure which databases to recommend, consult your subject specialist librarian or one of our research guides.
Only 18% of handouts mentioned plagiarism, mostly in a superficial manner (Inquiry, 21). Based on faculty interviews, undergraduate students have trouble understanding what plagiarism is. Take time to define plagiarism for your students, show them how to correctly paraphrase and attribute words and ideas, and refer them to the UMD Libraries’ research guide, Citing Sources for My Paper. The Writing Center can also help students use and cite sources properly.
Only 25% of handouts discussed how to evaluate the authority of sources (Inquiry, 19) and 49% of students sought their instructor’s help in evaluating sources for research assignments (Truth, 13). Review criteria for evaluating sources (e.g. reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias) in the context of your discipline or assignment, so that students learn how and why to select quality sources.
While a majority of the handouts discussed the mechanics of the assignment (e.g. page length, margins etc.), only “16% of the handouts discussed, clarified, defined, or framed what research meant as it applied to the assignments” (Inquiry, 26). Interviewed faculty members stated that undergraduates have little knowledge about the research process. Defining research as it applies to the assignment or discipline gives students the situational context that they lack and that they need (Context, 9) . Additionally, 63% of students found in-class discussions about how to conduct research helpful (Lessons, 30).
College students find many steps of the research process difficult. Getting started is problematic for 84%, defining a topic is troublesome for 66%, and narrowing down a topic is challenging for 62% of students surveyed (Truth, 3.) So break your research assignment into manageable parts for students (also known as “scaffolding”.) Require that students turn in a topic proposal, an annotated bibliography, or a draft along the way to the final product. Students reported that separate deadlines for parts of a paper are helpful (61%), as are instructors’ review of paper drafts (71%) (Lessons, 30.)
For more information on scaffolding, check out this handout from University of Toronto-Scarborough.
In an earlier PIL study, 12 of 13 students reported frustration determining their professors’ expectations for a research assignment (Beyond Google). Be specific and open about how your research assignments will be evaluated. Provide students with grading rubrics and weight the assignment(s) according to importance of the desired outcome.
About 50% of faculty interviewed discussed their reliance on librarians. "Faculty turned to librarians for teaching students about finding information and planning a research strategy, especially choosing and using appropriate databases, and for creating custom resources, such as pathfinders [online guides], for their course" (Inquiry, 13). Librarians can also help you design an assignment that will develop your students’ critical thinking and research skills. Find the librarian for your department or program via our Directory of Librarian Subject Specialists.