Suggestions on developing and structuring effective research assignments

  • Make your expectations explicit. Provide a detailed description of the assignment, including the genre of writing expected, the intended audience, requirements for format and length, amount and type of research, deadlines for drafts and final paper, and grading criteria if possible.
  • Consider providing a list of suggested topics, preferably annotated to pique interest. Students lack the subject knowledge and often have a hard time choosing a topic that is neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • When specifying research requirements, focus on source content (scholarly, primary) rather than its format (web sites, books, journals, newspapers, interviews, etc.). Asking students to include information from various formats suggests that all formats are available for their topic, and it will also lead students to spend less time evaluating the content while trying to satisfy the format requirement.
  • Sequence and stage the assignment so that students write multiple drafts and receive frequent feedback (from writing associates, peers, librarians, or the professor). Asking students to turn in a working bibliography (annotated) weeks before the paper is due can also help.
  • Build in time and opportunities for research and for improving students’ research skills. Let students know that both you and reference librarians are available to help and that they can sign up for the library’s PRA (Personalized Research Assistance) service.
  • Consider asking students to keep a journal to document their research steps and their thoughts on the research process.
  • Allow enough time between feedback and revisions so that students can improve their writing as well as research.

Suggested Readings:

  • Lutzker, Marilyn. Research Projects for College Students: What to Write Across the Curriculum. New York: Greenword Press, 1988. (Skillman 808.066 L975r)
  • Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. ( Skillman PE1404 .B35 1996)

Sample Assignments:

If you would like to learn more about research assignment design or if you wish to discuss a particular assignment you have, contact Lijuan Xu (; 610.330.5152) or any reference librarian.