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Creating Effective Research Assignments


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Theresa Carlson

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This guide was adapted by Wendy Holliday from a guide created by Anne-Marie Deitering and licensed by Oregon State University Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.  You may reproduce any part of it for noncommercial purposes as long as credit is included. I encourage you to license your derivative works under Creative Commons as well to encourage sharing and reuse of educational materials.

Before You Begin

Traditional research papers are not always the best vehicle to help students learn about using information and knowledge to advance their thinking and writing. Before assigning research in your class, consider these 3 questions:

  1. Will finding, using and learning from outside sources help students be successful in my class or meet my learning outcomes?
  2. What do I want students to be able to do with their research?
  3. How might a research assignment fit into the larger curriculum (e.g. what can students' build upon and then use to prepare for the next step)?

Basic Assignment Design Principles

Assignments should be designed backwards, meaning that they should have a clear purpose related to the learning outcomes of the course.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What is the central task that must be undertaken?
    Effective assignments clearly articulate what kind of action or performance is expected. They are designed to elicit particular learning outcomes (and not too many).
  2. How should the required task be undertaken?
    Pay attention to process, as experts doing research in their field often forget what it is like to approach research as a novice. 
  3. How should student understanding of their research be communicated? How extensive should the communication be?

    Think about audience, genre, and disciplinary conventions, as well as students' ability to understand and place specialized knowledge in context.

Questions adapted from: Hutchings, P., Jankowski, N. A., & Ewell, P. T. (2014). Catalyzing assignment design activity on your campus: Lessons from NILOA’s assignment library initiative. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).


  • Saying "use the library" doesn't make the library useful.
  • Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  • Exposure to scholarly resources does not, in and of itself, help students learn how to evaluate and use scholarly knowledge.
  • The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier and more valuable when one uses that tool.
  • Search is not the same thing as research. Effective search skills can't end-run thinking or evaluating.
  • Students won't automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  • Research is sometimes uncomfortable and stressful; students will actively try to avoid that stress.

Try to avoid...

  • Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate something that their library does not have access to.
  • Assignments that require students to do things in an outdated or inefficient way.
  • Assignments that are not tied to course learning outcomes, but that serve only a potential future need or a feeling that "they should just know how to do this."
  • Assignments that do not meet students "where they are" developmentally, in terms of both thinking skills and disciplinary knowledge.
  • Assignments with source requirements that don't make sense for the intended audience or rhetorical purpose.
  • Assignments (and grading rubrics) that focus only on the mechanics of search and citation rather than reading and engaging with information.

Resources at Cline Library