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Faculty Guide to Truxal Library

Developing research assignments

Would you like a librarian to review a research assignment or to help you develop one? We're eager to be of assistance! Contact Brandy Whitlock, Instruction Librarian, at bmwhitlock@aacc.edu or (410) 777-2523.

Information on this page is intended to assist faculty with developing research assignments that foster critical thinking and information literacy, regardless of course content or format. We very much welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions.

General guidelines for research assignments

Engage your students' passions

When research really matters to students personally or professionally, they're much more likely to understand the importance of finding the best resources (not just any resources) and evaluating those sources carefully.

Make all expectations explicit

Whenever possible, provide to students detailed grading rubrics and examples of successful work. You're welcome to adopt or adapt the rubric used in assessing information literacy as a core competency at AACC, as well as the checklist used for scoring assignment directions. Find links to both documents below.

Assign or allow topics appropriate to assignment's scope

Students often have difficulty narrowing or broadening research topics to fit a particular assignment's parameters. A topic like "the death penalty" is far too broad for a student to use for a five-page paper or ten-minute presentation. A student would be overwhelmed by the amount of information about a topic that large. A topic as narrow as "the relationship between college students cheating on tests and binge drinking," on the other hand, might be too narrow and turn up very little information or nothing at all.

Require background research and reflection before students take positions

The research process should be an opportunity for students to discover what they think, not just an occasion to affirm their current beliefs. Requiring that students conduct background research and reflect on their findings before developing theses or committing to positions promotes critical thinking and information literacy.

Grade process as well as product

Students need feedback about the sources they consult and intend to use in their research projects. By the time you receive a student's paper or presentation, it's too late to catch and correct problems with the student's research strategies or findings. By structuring the research assignment into small, gradable parts, the research process can be monitored and directed. To help structure your students' assignments, see:

Encourage content over form of sources

A student writing about the newest treatments for autism might find very little quotable information from books, but a wealth from academic journals. A student writing about food celebrations in Asian cultures, however, might find much more usable information from books than from journal articles. It's frustrating for students to have to shoehorn ineffectual information into a paper or presentation to meet arbitrary quotas (e.g., two book sources, three journal articles, etc.). In order to ensure that students are selecting the best resources for a particular assignment and not just the most convenient ones, you might instead call for students to complete an annotated bibliography – where they can evaluate the usefulness of different sources – prior to writing papers or outlining presentations.

Provide students with resources and strategies for avoiding plagiarism

Dee & Jacob (2010) found that students who receive information about how to avoid plagiarism are much less likely to plagiarize than students who are only told about the grave consequences of plagiarizing. The old adage is often true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For tutorials and more, visit:

Make assignments unique

Unique assignments make it more difficult for students to plagiarize. When they're required to research common themes and complete popular kinds of research assignments, students are more likely to find papers for sale and other student papers available online, and they might even be able to recycle their own past papers.

Ask your peers and librarians for assignment reviews. Often they can foresee trouble and recommend alternatives. Librarians regularly see assignments that are too vague or handouts that focus heavily on how to format information, rather than how to find information that's actually relevant and trustworthy.

Check the library for suitable resources

Pretend that you are a student trying to complete the research assignment. Where would you start? What would you do if you ran into trouble? Contact a librarian (refdesk@aacc.edu) to get a sense of what resources are available through the library and how those resources can be accessed.

Schedule library instruction

Don't assume that students know how to find and use resources appropriately, especially for your particular assignment, even if they insist they've already had library instruction. Contact Brandy Whitlock, Instruction Librarian, at bmwhitlock@aacc.edu or ext. 2523.

Additional resources

Sample assignments

Library photo courtesy of Barry Halkin Photography