The Well-Designed Research Assignment

Librarians often find themselves in the position to give advice to classroom instructors on designing research assignments. So, what elements go into a well-designed research assignment? The chart below lays them out. The left-hand column lists typical elements found in research assignments, and the right-hand column shows you how those elements can be turned into something more learning-centric:

A minimum number of sources (e.g., at least 5 sources) A minimum number of citations in most paragraphs (e.g., 2-3 citations in most paragraphs) While requiring a minimum number of sources makes sense for most research papers, setting a minimum number of citations per paragraph requires students to synthesize information.
Source formats (e.g., articles, books) Description of information needed along with suggested types of sources:

  • Background information (e.g., encyclopedias, books, .org web sites)
  • Evidence to support arguments (e.g., research articles, reports)
  • Multiple perspectives (e.g., academic essays, position statements)
This is a form of scaffolded instruction. Students need to learn that research papers require certain informational elements. By providing purpose with source type, students are able to better understand the structural elements of research papers.
A single due date (e.g., final paper) Multiple due dates (e.g., thesis statement, outline, draft, final paper) Chunking up the research assignment into smaller units helps students learn the research process better. It also reduces procrastination. And the final product will be better.
Information about the library databases and librarians ALSO include a required trip to the reference desk (physical or virtual) at a designated point in the research process (e.g., planning) In my experience, the best way to get students to become repeat library users and better researchers is to require them to use the library. This is a behavioral approach that has the secondary benefit of becoming a form of situated learning.
A “researchable” topic Don’t go there…unless they ask There is no better way to alienate a classroom instructor than to tell him or her what kind of topic to assign. Good instructors will figure that out on their own – after all, they have to grade the papers. And it’s really the classroom instructor’s responsibility to guide students in topic selection.  It may be frustrating for librarians, but a bad topic can also be a good learning tool for students.


Is the English Classroom Really the Best Place for Information Literacy Instruction?

Why do we teach information literacy almost exclusively within the realm of English Composition and Language Arts? Have you ever wondered about that?

Consider history and science for a moment. As a part of their disciplinary practice, historians and scientists must identify, analyze and synthesize information across multiple sources on a regular basis. Sounds a whole lot like information literacy to me. Primary sources and reputable scholarly sources are particularly important in both those fields.

Maybe instead of focusing so much on English classrooms, librarians should expand their instructional repertoire into history and science classrooms too. The latter two subjects create new opportunities to situate source evaluation into an area that really matters to the disciplines. Librarians can also focus more on teaching students how to use multiple sources of information to learn something, and less on how that information should be presented in the writing process.

Only when students learn how to learn from multiple sources will they be ready to learn how to synthesize that information into writing. In that way, science and history lessons in information literacy skills can be used to make cross-curricular connections to the critical literacy and writing skills of English and Language Arts.

This article from the American Educational Research Journal helps drive my point: Source Evaluation, Comprehension and Learning in Internet Science Inquiry Tasks (Wiley, Graesser, Sanchez, Ash, & Hemmerich, 2009).

Food for thought.