Key Questions

Scale & feasibility

  • What kind of thinking does the assignment require? (Where does it fall on Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domains?)
  • Are the learning outcomes achievable and manageable, given the course context and structure and the participants’ abilities and needs?

Scaffolding (Sequencing and timing small assignments which lead to a larger final product)

  • What skills and knowledge do students need in order to complete the assignment? 
  • What skills and knowledge do they possess? Where is the gap and how can it be filled? 
  • What are the stumbling blocks students are likely to face? 
  • How do smaller activities and tasks build upon larger ones?

Authenticity and rhetorical context

  • What kinds of questions or problems will students pose? 
  • Who is the audience? Does the assignment reflect real-world issues or situations? 
  • What is the student’s purpose in writing—to explain, to make a claim, to persuade others to action?

Disciplinary challenges

  • What discipline-specific knowledge or abilities will the assignment require? 
  • Do certain terms, concepts, or processes need to be made explicit? 
  • What conventions of style, organization, or presentation are expected?
  • Will students’ process be informed by the practices of disciplinary experts?

Information sources and strategies

  • Where might students look for relevant information at various stages in their research process? What should they understand about how information is organized, represented, or accessed through certain tools? 
  • What challenges might students face in locating or evaluating sources through specific tools? 
  • What understandings of their topic or of research process will students need to have?

Assessment

  • Does the assignment ask students to do something assessable?
  • Does the assessment address match the learning outcomes?
  • Will the assessment approach provide meaningful feedback to students?
  • Does the assignment make clear the standards of evaluation?

Tips for Assignment Design

Identify Learning Outcomes Related to the Research Process.  

  • What research skills would you like students to develop through the assignment?
  • How will the learning goals and their importance be communicated in the assignment? 

Be Clear about Your Expectations.  

Your students may not have prior experience with academic research and resources. State (in writing) details like:

  • the assignment's purpose
  • the purpose of research and sources for the assignment
  • suggested resources for locating relevant sources
  • citation practices. Define terminology which may be unclear (e.g. "database," "peer reviewed."
  • assignment length and other parameters

Also consider discussing how research is produced and disseminated in your discipline, and how you expect your students to participate in academic discourse in the context of your class.  

Scaffold the Assignment. 

Breaking a complex research assignment down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable parts:

  • models how to approach a research question and how to manage time effectively,
  • empowers students to focus on and master key research and critical thinking skills
  • provides opportunities for feedback
  • deters plagiarism

Devote Class Time to Discussion of the Assignment in Progress.  

Periodic discussions in class can help students reflect on the research process and its importance, encourage questions, and help students develop a sense that what they are doing is a transferable process that they can use for other assignments.

Provide Clear Criteria for Assessment.  

Be explicit about how the assignment will be evaluated. This criteria should align with the learning outcomes and expectations for the assignment. Rubrics are one way to communicate assessment criteria to students. 

Test Your Assignment.  

By testing an assignment, you may identify practical roadblocks to conducting the research (e.g., too few copies of a book for too many students, a source is no longer available online). Librarians can help with this process (e.g., suggest strategies for mitigating roadblocks, place books on reserve, suggest other resources, design customized supporting materials like handouts or web pages).  

Collaborate with Librarians.  

Librarians can explore with you ways to support students in their research. Request an instructional consultation.

Assignment Design Tips adapted from the handout "Tips for Designing Library Research Assignments" developed by Sarah McDaniel, of the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. Many thanks to her for permission to reuse this resource.