Skip to content


Designing Assignments

A well-designed assignment is an excellent teaching tool and can help students develop research skills, critical thinking skills, and subject knowledge. This page provides tips on designing effective assignments, possible pitfalls to avoid, and examples of alternatives to the term paper.

Assignment Tips

  • Know your students
    Many students have minimal knowledge of the library, especially a research library. Many students will rely on the web for research.

  • Clarity of the assignment
    Describe the specifics of the assignment -- length, citation format, acceptable types of sources -- in writing. Let you students know the purpose of the assignment. Define any terminology you use in the assignment such as "peer reviewed" or "scholarly journal." If you provide a list of sources be sure to give complete titles. Make sure that students understand all the steps required to complete the assignment.

  • Try your assignment
    Put yourself in your student's shoes and do your assignment. Is the assignment feasible? Is the time frame reasonable for the amount of work? Are the sources readily available? Information sources are in constant flux. Please check your assignments regularly so that you are not asking your students to use outdated sources.

  • Define web resources
    If you plan on limiting your student's use of web sources make sure to clarify what you mean by a "web source." Does it mean ALL information delivered via the web including e-journals and other web-based library sources or just "free" web sites found using search engines.

  • Discuss plagiarism with your students
    Discuss the importance of academic integrity in research and writing. Many students define plagiarism narrowly to encompass only the wholesale copying of text word for word -- be sure your students understand the range of plagiarism and the importance of citing sources.

  • Help your students
    If students will be required to do extensive library research, consider booking a library workshop. The workshop will introduce students to research strategies and tools needed for the assignment. Encourage your students to get library help via chat, email or in person at a reference desk.

Possible Pitfalls

  • Scavenger hunts
    Roaming around the library looking for trivia is not research and is often seen as meaningless busy work by students.

  • Incorrect directions
    Students get frustrated when faced with inaccurate citations and unclear directions.

  • Limited resources
    Multiple students trying to use the same one or two books is stressful for everyone. Material that will be in high demand for an assignment should be placed on reserve to ensure access to all students.

How the Library Can Help

  • Collaborate with your librarian
    Your librarian can help you design an effective assignment and can let you know if the assignment is feasible given our collection strengths and weaknesses.

  • Book a library workshop for your class
    A workshop can introduce students to research strategies, evaluating resources and using databases and the web.

  • Place materials on reserve
    Material that will be in high demand for an assignment should be placed on reserve to ensure access to all students.

  • Research 101 tutorial
    Research 101 online tutorial will introduce your students to basic library research.

Alternatives to the Term Paper

  • Compile an annotated bibliography
  • Create a research pathfinder
  • Create a web site
  • Create a poster highlighting sources on a topic
  • Do a literature review
  • Compare disciplinary perspectives on the same topic
  • Compare popular and scholarly coverage on the same topic
  • Find facts to support or contradict an editorial
  • Research the publications and career of a prominent scholar
  • Evaluate a web site
  • Prepare a research prospectus

More Information