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Assignment Design: Research Projects


A 2010 research study conducted by Project Information Literacy showed that the majority of sample handouts for research assignments did not adequately guide students to finding and using information

The ensuing report, "Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students," revealed that the majority of research assignment descriptions provided more information on formatting, layout, and other mechanics than on how to do college research. The following are five major findings from this study:

  • Despite the seismic changes in the way that information is now created and delivered, 83% of handouts in our sample called for the standard research paper. Few handouts asked students to present findings using other formats, including multimedia and oral presentations.
  • Six in 10 handouts recommended students consult the library shelvesa place-based source—more than scholarly research databases, the library catalog, the Web, or, for that matter, any other resource. Only 13% of the handouts suggested consulting a librarian for assistance with research.
  • Few of the handouts (14%) that directed students to use the libraryʼs online scholarly research databases (such as those provided by EBSCO, JSTOR, or ProQuest) specified which database to use by vendor or file name from the hundreds that tend to be available.
  • Details about plagiarism, if mentioned at all, were scant and tended to emphasize the disciplinary recourse instructors would take against students who were caught in acts of academic dishonesty.
  • Few of the handouts provided information for contacting instructors when students had questions about a research assignment, whether by email, face-to-face, the telephone, or in online forums (2010, p. 3).


Providing Context During the Research Process: The Research Handout

“... handouts are often a roadmap for students to use during the course-related research process; they carry handouts with them when they complete assignments - far from a binder with a syllabus handed out two months before or their lecture notes with an email address they may have scribbled in the margin” (Head & Eisenberg, 2010).


Research assignment handouts are the guides that students employ to understand your expectations and how to find, evaluate, and use information. Handouts also provide direction for anyone helping students: librarians, writing coaches, tutors, peers.

Consider how your assignment handout fulfills the context needs of students during the research process:

Situational Context

  • Determining how far to go with research activities in light of meeting the instructor's expectations

  • Estimating how much time to spend on a research assignment

  • Figuring out how to get a “good grade”/what success looks likes

  • Locating sample papers from students provided by the instructor

  • Finding guidelines for paper submission

Information-Gathering Context

  • Learning what research has been published about the topic

  • Locating full-text versions of potential research sources

Provide Research Guidance within the Assignment Handout

Adding Situational Context

  • Explain why you are asking students to engage in a research project; include pedagogical rationale, disciplinary rationale, how the project supports learning outcomes
  • Reiterate relevant policies and procedures within the assignment handout, including how and when to contact you with questions about the assignment

Adding Information-Gathering Context

  • Have students learn to derive information from multiple and diverse formats

Getting Started

  • Students understand the research process
  • The assignment clearly defines terminology related to academic research and avoids any jargon that could create ambiguity (e.g. handouts that state students cannot use the Internet yet students are expected to use the library’s online databases)

Searching for Information

  • Ask students to consider a wide range of resources including databases, the library catalog, the Web, and librarians
  • Provide examples of information sources and directions for where to find them
  • Make research actionable and operation through clear instructions - specify which databases students should use to conduct their research

Evaluating Information

  • Provide guidance to students on how and why to evaluate the authority of a research source and how to evaluate the currency of materials within the context of your discipline and the assignment

Using Information

  • Distinguish between acts of academic dishonesty (such as cheating and plagiarism) and novice mistakes; provide resources to help students avoid novice mistakes
  • Clearly define plagiarism within the context of your class and your practice as an instructor

Provide citation guidance



Carter, Toni M. Introducing Scholarly Research : Ready-to-Use Lesson Plans and Activities for Undergraduates. ALA Editions, 2022.
Location: ZA3088.5.C65 C37 2022

With over 30 lesson plans, this book contains numerous tools and activities for information literacy instruction.

Upson, Matt, et al. Information Now: A Graphic Guide to Student Research and Web Literacy. Second edition., The University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Location: ZA3075 .U67 2021

First published in 2015, Information Now has helped college students address information literacy in the form of a short, humorous graphic guide. It explains how information is organized, both on the open web and in library resources, and how to navigate those sources to find good, trustworthy answers. The book also covers online misinformation and offers simple strategies for fact-checking websites.

Online Resources

Association of College & Research Libraries. Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Chicago: American Library Association, February 9, 2015.

Bean, John C. “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research” in Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2011, pp. 224–63.

Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg. Assigning Inquiry: How handouts for research assignments guide today’s college students. Project Information Literacy Research Institute, July 13, 2010.

Kulthau, Carol. "Information Search Process." Rutgers University

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