Research Based Assignments

Tips for Developing Research-Based Assignments

State Purpose

  • Give clear instructions in writing.
  • Define concepts or terms (including library terms) that may be unfamiliar to students.
  • Identify the learning objectives for the assignment (including information literacy objectives, see What is Information Literacy? section below) so that students know what to do and why.
  • Provide students with a rubric that shows how they will be evaluated.

Provide Variety

  • In order to prevent large numbers of students from needing to use the same information sources at the same time, allow students to choose from a range of topics.
  • Define sources to be used or not to be used (e.g., minimum of two books, four journal articles, no more than one website, etc.). Encouraging students to use a variety of sources and search tools can help to ensure that students use appropriate materials and that they do not rely too heavily on one source.
  • If you place limitations on sources to be used, be careful not to be too restrictive. Very restrictive date limits, for example, "use only material published in the last three years," may impede a student's ability to find adequate material.
  • If you expect some materials to be heavily used (e.g., library-owned books), request that they be placed on Reserve by contacting Dan Shanahan.

Check Availability

  • It is always a good idea to check that the library has the sources your students will need to complete their assignment. Do not assume that library sources are available.
  • Check the Novanet catalogue to verify library holdings or consult with library staff at the library's Research Help Desk (902-420-5544).

Notify Library

  • Library staff will help you to verify that the sources your students will need to accomplish the assignment are available. They can also provide suggestions as to what sources to use and alert you to new sources that have become available.
  • Send a copy of your assignment to the library's Reference/Research Department. This enables library staff to prepare in advance, to better assist your students. Please forward your assignments to Nicole Carter, Reference and Research Librarian (902-420-5540).

Provide Guidance

  • Discuss the research process in class and review the kinds of sources you expect students to use.
  • Distinguish between different types of sources (e.g., journals vs. magazines, primary vs. secondary, research databases vs. the internet). Many students do not understand the differences.
  • Ensure that students understand the strengths and weaknesses of the internet as a source of information.
  • When referring to the library or to a particular source, it helps to give specific instructions (e.g., tell students to find journal articles using PsycINFO, as opposed to telling them to look for psychology articles in the library).

Offer Library Instruction

  • Consider scheduling a library instruction session. Many students may have never used an academic library, and those who have, often lack the skills needed to use a library effectively. Participation in library instruction sessions should not be optional. It is also important that you attend the session with your class. Your presence and participation may motivate students to be more engaged in the session.
  • Contact Heather SandersonInformation Literacy Librarian (902-420-5541), to schedule a library instruction session. Please allow as much notice as possible (preferably two weeks).
  • Encourage your students to ask library staff for assistance. Students can be hesitant to ask for help when needed.
  • Alert students to our Research-By-Appointment service for in-depth research assistance and/or for individual instruction in how to search the library's resources effectively.

Incorporate Critical Thinking

  • Avoid "scavenger hunt" assignments that ask students to locate random facts and items in the library. This type of assignment can be very frustrating for students.
  • Assignments that require students to evaluate, analyze, compare, question, and/or synthesize the information they find make for a better learning experience. They also help build skills that are transferable to other research projects.

Break Assignments into Manageable Steps

  • Divide assignments into graduated parts and establish a time frame for completion of each part. For example, as a first assignment, have students produce an outline or an annotated bibliography. Breaking up the assignment into manageable steps allows you the opportunity to monitor student progress and offer feedback. It also prevents students from leaving their assignment to the last minute when panic may cause some students to take shortcuts that could result in plagiarism.
  • To discourage plagiarism and to check that students are correctly citing their research, ask students to hand in photocopies or printouts of their sources with their completed assignments.

Test Assignment

  • Complete the assignment yourself  before handing it out. This may help you to identify any difficulties students may encounter when completing the assignment. It will also give you an idea as to how long it should take your students to complete it. 
  • Once students have completed the assignment, ask them for their feedback about it.
  • Ask the Reference and Research Librarian, Nicole Carter (902-420-5540) for feedback. Library reference staff may be able to tell you what difficulties, if any, your students had in finding information for the assignment.

Discuss Plagiarism and Copyright

  • Make sure students are aware of the university's policy on plagiarism (e.g., include information about plagiarism in your course syllabus; refer students to the Academic Calendar (see section on Academic Integrity and Student Responsibility); show students where they can find additional information (e.g., A Student's Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism) or assign the Library's Academic Integrity Foundations (AIF).
  • Discuss the ethical use of information sources. Provide information on how to cite sources (see, for example, the Library's citation guides and the Writing Centre's handouts
  • Be clear about your expectations. Refer students to the citation style you prefer them to use.
  • Provide information on the use of copyrighted material in assignments (see the Copyright Guide for Students and the Copyright Guide for Faculty and Staff).

Evaluate Information Literacy Skills

  • Assess the research process and information literacy skills as part of the overall assignment grade.
  • Methods of evaluation may include:
    • Analyzing student bibliographies, including an annotated bibliography if used (e.g., evaluate types of sources, relevancy, currency, and accuracy in citing, etc.)
    • Asking students to describe and hand in a research strategy (e.g., have students list the search tools they used and the various search strategies they tried, etc.)
    • Requiring printouts of database search histories
    • Asking students to describe at least three criteria they applied to judge the quality of a webpage or site they used as a source of information
    • Asking students to write a brief (one page) essay, or orally report on their research process and what they learned from it.


What is Information Literacy?

Information literacy is a key component of student academic success. It is fundamental to lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge. Individuals need to develop information-seeking skills that transcend specific tools and formats, to interpret and evaluate information and its sources critically, and to learn from that information.

Students who are information literate are able to:

  • formulate a research question in response to an information need
  • understand how information is produced and disseminated
  • understand the differences between types of information sources
  • identify the types and/or formats of information needed
  • identify and efficiently use appropriate search tools
  • locate and retrieve relevant information
  • critically evaluate information and sources
  • integrate and organize information gathered from different sources
  • understand issues relating to academic integrity
  • cite information sources correctly

For more information about information literacy, see:

"Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education," American Library Association, February 9, 2015. (Accessed August 17, 2015). Document ID: b901a6c4-6c8a-0d44-7dbc-a5dcbd509e3f

Patrick Power Library
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