Skip to Main Content

Research Assignment Design: Overview

Prioritize your learning outcomes

Students can't do it all. Pick what to focus on. For the beginning researcher, research can be a complicated process with many steps to master effectively. Your assignment might want to prioritize some of those over others.

Students experience a greater cognitive load when researching because they lack domain knowledge. You can help students focus their energies by ensuring your assignment matches your priorities.

For example, to prioritize synthesizing arguments, design an assignment around reading and writing with sources, and limit the need for finding sources. To prioritize identifying the scope of research on a topic, require searching for sources.

How do I do this?

  • Determine and prioritize learning goals specific to the research process
  • Imagine a student working through the assignment. Are there parts of it that demand a lot of work, but that don't match your priorities? If so, rethink the assignment.

Focus on the research and writing process

Prompts should address both the steps along the way (picking a topic, collecting data, synthesizing sources) and the completed assignment. When instructions focus only on the final product, students will view them as a checklist to complete.

For example, requiring a certain number of sources for a paper directs students' attention to the end product. Students will pick the first sources they find, rather than understanding the process of finding many possible sources, then selecting the best ones.

How do I do this?

  • Give clear and concise directions, with explanations and examples, about why you want something a certain way.
  • Make learning objectives explicit, and provide feedback for each step of the research experience.
  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning.
  • Allow students time to explore and reframe as they research.
  • Discuss how students will know they've found enough information.

Scaffold learning

Break down and explicitly teach the different aptitudes students need to be successful. Research can overwhelm students, especially those new to the process or discipline.

How do I do this?

  • Break your assignment down into smaller tasks to ensure that students reach learning objectives successively and successfully. 
  • Approach this as an opportunity to help students develop research skills. Don't assume students already know how to do research. Learning is iterative, so even if they've had a library research session, a review is useful.
  • Recognize the emotional toll of research and give students the time they need to experience the full spectrum of feelings, as part of the instructional design.
  • Provide worksheets, handouts, or activities that help students navigate specific aspects of the research process. 
  • Assist students over common stumbling blocks. What will get them past bottlenecks to learning in your discipline?

Create an authentic learning experience

Make your assignment relevant to real life experiences and skills. Students learn best and successfully transfer what they're learning when they connect with the assignment, feel the excitement of discovery, or solve challenges. Through disciplinary and experiential learning, students develop different perspectives from which to view the world.

How do I do this?

  • Encourage curiosity. Give students the chance to experience some of the messiness of research, while limiting how far off track they can get through periodic check-ins.
  • Show students how to practice reading, research, and writing in your discipline. All these require interrelated, separate skills.
  • Address how students can transfer knowledge and skills.
  • Consider problem-based learning, have students examine real-world issues.

Need More Help?

Ways librarians can help

  • Discuss your learning objectives and options for assignments with you
  • "Test-drive" your assignment to ensure students will be successful
  • Identify why students struggle and how to help them
  • Ensure appropriate resources are available
  • Identify library instructional resources to link in Canvas
  • Provide research instruction for your class