University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tips for Designing Library Research Assignments

Sheila Stoeckel (Coordinator, Library and Information Literacy Instruction Program)

Effective research assignments encourage students’ engagement with course content and the literature of your discipline, and also promote the development of information literacy skills such as finding and evaluating information. The following recommendations can help students develop research skills and improve the quality of their research assignments.


  1. Be clear about your learning goals and design assignments to meet those goals.
  • Articulate learning goals related to the research process, in addition to goals related to the subject matter, writing, and citation. Share these learning goals with your students at multiple stages in the research process.
  • Consider alternatives to the traditional, end-of-semester research paper. For example, if your most important learning goal is for students to be able to frame an important research question, consider having small groups of students work together to write a brief prospectus and present it to a panel of community stakeholders.
  • Information literacy, the ability to find information and use it effectively to accomplish a specific purpose, is included among the Essential Learning Outcomes for students at UW-Madison. Discuss the relevance and importance of these skills with your students, and create assignments that help them to evaluate and improve their own skills.
  • Pilot your own research assignment to refine the focus and identify obstacles and eliminate potential confusion.
  • Remember that your students may not have prior experience with scholarly communication and academic libraries. Spend time in class discussing how research is produced and disseminated in your discipline and how you expect your students to participate and contribute to these conversations.  


  1. Put the assignment in writing, making sure to explain…
  • The research process, what types of research you’d like students to do, and how to approach it.
  • Students may have past experience with term papers, but may never have seen a scholarly research article, prospectus, legal brief, or technical report. An example or model usually helps clarify expectations.
  • Expectations for attribution of ideas and citation format. Make clear how you would like attribution to be provided, in what format, and why. Clear expectations level the playing field and help to head off problems.
  • The calendar of research activities (e.g., getting a research topic approved, library instruction sessions)


  1. Discuss the assignment in class.
  • Talk through your research assignment at multiple points in the semester, and provide time in class for questions.
  • Provide a variety of model papers that demonstrate expectations for genre, use of sources, and format.
  • Explain what criteria students should use in evaluating information sources, and what research strategies are key to a successful project. Consider activities such as having students critique course readings and other sources as a way to develop their ability to identify strengths and weaknesses of different sources.


  1. Provide opportunities for students to approach research as a process.
  • Break your research assignment down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable parts to model the way experienced researchers and scholars approach the research process.
  • Provide students with multiple opportunities for feedback on their research, and integrate these checkpoints with the writing process (e.g., students submit an annotated bibliography organized around their major arguments).
  • Ask students to evaluate sample research assignments from past semesters (with permission), or assign peer evaluation of early drafts. Ask students to focus on specific evaluation criteria such as use of use of quotations and other evidence to support arguments.
  • Discuss the research process frequently with your students to encourage questions and reflection.
  • Recommend that students consult with research librarians at the reference desk or by making an appointment with a subject specialist.
  • Have students share their research with one another. For example, assign flash talks or a plan a poster session.


  1. When evaluating students’ work, provide constructive feedback about research.
  • Provide feedback on proposed information sources early, while there is still time for students to do research.
  • Emphasize that research and writing are iterative and interrelated processes.
  • Use a clear rubric to provide feedback on use of relevant, high-quality sources.
  • Include expectations for academic integrity in your syllabus, and discuss conventions for ethical use of sources in class. To avoid plagiarism in final products, use early, low-stakes assignments and in-class activities to make sure that students understand conventions and expectations.
  • Make clear that you expect students to follow conventions for citation, but consider how much emphasis you’ll place on grading and feedback about citation format (e.g., mark up one incorrect citation and require the student to redo the rest).

Librarians are eager to collaborate with you on the design of research assignments that help students develop the research skills you value. Librarians can also work with you to design customized library instruction sessions and instructional materials that will guide your students and help them master the skills they will need to complete your assignment successfully.

For more information about how we can help, please go to the campus Library and Information Literacy Instruction Program’s website at or contact Information Literacy Coordinator Sheila Stoeckel ( for connections to subject specialists across campus.

These recommendations complement “Tips for Writing an Assignment and Teaching it to Students” in this volume. We are happy to schedule a joint library and writing consultation about your research assignment to get advice about research, writing, and grading, as well as to arrange instructional services for your course.