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Effective Research Assignments

Studies on College Student Research Behaviors

Purpose of Research:

College professors usually view research writing as analytical, interpretive, and argumentative; students tend to see such assignments as about fact gathering and information reporting. (Schwegler and Shamoon 1982).

Fact Finding vs. Issue-Driven Research:

Most often students approach research as a process of simply locating sources required for an assignment. But when students understand research as a process of learning about an issue, they use more sophisticated search and evaluation strategies. (Nelson and Hayes 1988; Holliday and Rogers 2013)


Undergraduate students using library databases for research assignments rarely looked beyond the first page of search results and rarely experimented with keywords or with search strategies. Most students give limited attention to evaluating their results or individual sources. (Asher 2015)

Assignment Design:

Most research assignment handouts emphasize procedural standards (e.g., number of sources to use, inclusion of a bibliography). (Head & Eisenberg 2010, Schwegler and Shamoon 1982). When assignments are scaffolded and students receive feedback at multiple stages, less and more experienced students are more likely to engage with “high-investment,” issue-driven approaches to using sources (Nelson and Hayes 1988).


Asher, Andrew. “Search Epistemology: Teaching Students about Information Discovery,” in Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think about Information, ed. Troy A. Swanson and Heather Jagman, Publications in Librarianship 68 (Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2015), 139–54.

Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg, Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age, Project Information Literacy Progress Report (Project Information Literacy, 2010).

Holliday, Wendy and Jim Rogers. (2013). Talking about Information Literacy: The Mediating Role of discourse in a College Writing Classroom. portal: Libraries and the Academy 13, no. 3: 257-271.

Nelson, Jennie and John R. Hayes, How the Writing Context Shapes College Students’ Strategies for Writing from Sources, Technical Report 16 (Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Writing,1988).

Schwegler, Robert A. and Linda K. Shamoon, “The Aims and Process of the Research Paper,” College English 44, no. 8 (1982): 817–24.

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