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Faculty Guide to Learning Materials and Library Services

Research Assignment Pitfalls

Research assignments come in many forms.  You might have students complete a series of assignments, scaffolding toward a research paper.  You might assign an annotated bibliography, have students track down the research behind an editorial or news article, compare a scholarly and popular article on the same topic, trace the evolution of an idea in scholarly literature, evaluate perspectives across websites, write a review of a creative work that places it in historical or cultural context, or have students do a comparison of treatment of a topic in two different decades.  Here are some more ideas.


Common Pitfalls in Research Assignments

Prohibitions against using the "internet," "web," or "online" resources or search engines.  Students use familiar web-based tools for good reasons, and the majority of contemporary scholarship is likely to be accessed online.  A librarian can help put the web in context for your students by showing them how to move from preliminary research on the web to use of scholarly resources, or how to use the web to connect with the rich world of scholarship that lives online.

Requiring scholarly or peer reviewed sources for news or pop culture topics.  A very recent pop-culture or news topic isn't likely to be the subject of traditionally published scholarship.  These kinds of topics are a great opportunities to engage students in fact-checking, or to learn about how authority is constructed and contextual, whether in a fan blog or a scholarly journal.

Withholding critical information.  If you want your students to connect with a particular source, or use a particular tool, give them thorough information about how to access it.  Giving them incomplete or incorrect citations, or failing to include links in the course site are not effective ways to engage students with research.  They wind up on a wild goose chase and often give up.  Give them complete citations and a link.

Untested assignments.  Test the assignment yourself, or have a librarian or other colleague or student test it.  Untested assignments may run into issues such as relevant resources not being readily available, or unclear instructions leading students down a rabbit hole.

Students opting out.   Students may tell you they already know how to do library research, but they are often poor judges of their own competence.  Add a library instruction session for the assignment to your course schedule, or require students to consult with a librarian outside of class time.  Have them write a brief paragraph on what they took away from the meeting, or have them prepare a list of what they'd like to cover with the librarian.