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Resources for Faculty: For 200 & 300 Level Courses

Resources for Teaching Research to First Year Students

We had so much information on teaching research to first years that we created an entirely separate guide. Find it here.

Research Goals for Upper Level Students

Students conducting research in upper-level courses are developing familiarity with the conventions and shape of the conversation within the discipline. They should also become familiar with specialized sources used within the discipline.  Our assessment plan (pdf) outlines goals for all students; students in upper level courses will be able to identify key research tools, locate high quality sources, articulate salient elements of research within their discipline, and use sources effectively as they enter the scholarly conversation.

Students are fully capable of developing a sense of how scholarly research is reported and how to construct a good research project. However, undergraduates must spend far more time than experts in gaining enough background knowledge to find a focus for a research project. They also have understandable difficulty assessing the value of different sources, not being familiar with the prominent scholars in the field and its major publications. It's a good idea to scaffod assignments with multiple check points.

Don't assume students learned how to use the library in the FTS. What they learned was limited, may have been forgotten, or may not take into account recent changes in the library.

Students tell us they learn by doing and they learn from the models provided by their professors. The most important predictor of students' success in finding, reading, and using sources is the number of times they engage in those activities.  The librarians are happy to discuss assignments you are designing.

How Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors See the Library

In addition to struggling to varying degrees with the issues they faced as first year students, students beyond the first year engage in several common research behaviors.  They tend to do the following things.

  • They often begin their research on Google in order to establish the parameters of a topic.
  • If they use a library database, they are most familiar with Academic Search Premier (a general database containing both scholarly and popular articles in all disciplines, much of it in full text) rather than a subject-specific database. JSTOR and Google Scholar are also fairly familiar and popular.
  • They tend to return to whatever database worked before, whether or not it's appropriate.
  • They are reluctant to persevere if searches don't immediately yield "perfect" results - and often change topics rather than change search strategies.
  • They often start with a thesis and try to find materials to support their argument, rather than reading existing literature on a topic and formulating a thesis from what they've read. 
  • They are often quick to dismiss arguments that don't support their thesis.
  • They have difficulty locating books on the library shelves.
  • Many are nervous about approaching the reference desk  and using interlibrary loan.
  • They don't always think to mine cited works, and they rarely know how to track them down.
  • They struggle with integrating sources, especially figuring out how their own voice is a part of the conversation. "Literature review" is a new concept to most students.
  • They are very confident about their ability to do research online.
  • Their professors are the most important source of advice about which sources to use. Other students are more likely to be viewed as valuable informants about sources than librarians are.

Approaches for Upper Level Students

  • Bibliographic Trace Assignment:  Helps students enter the scholarly conversation by using one source to find works cited by that source as well as works that cite that source.  Encourages students to use discipline-specific databases and other resources.
  • Literature Review: Prepares students to find the major scholarship in a given topic and discuss the state of the scholarly conversation about their topic.  Encourages students to use discipline-specific databases and other resources. Assign them to complete an idea map prior to writing their literature review to identify how their sources inform their topic, as well as identify remaining gaps in their research.
  • Assign students to meet with a librarian to discuss their research: Acclimates students to asking for help, librarains can challenge students to find and use appropriate sources that they may not otherwise locate.  Students can come to the reference desk at their convenience; a librarian interview form can be found in the Research Assignments tab.

Another great option is to advise your students to take NDL 301: Information Fluency. The course is designed as an overall introduction to information sources and a chance for students to explore the structure of the literature in their chosen field.


Help Students Avoid Plagiarism

One of the problems students have with scholarly forms of documentation is that they rarely understand its rhetorical power. They think of documentation defensively, to prevent being charged with theft - as opposed to thinking of sources as expert witnesses brought in to lend support to an argument. One approach to avoid plagiarism is to create plagiarism-proof assignments. Another is to engage students in using references in their research. The practice will make more sense once they've learned to read other's references as an effective research strategy.

Students have little experience reading or writing documented prose. They often view documentation as a meaningless chore and don't recognize its rhetorical power. On top of that, some students take shortcuts that are simply not acceptable. Be sure to encourage your students to use the excellent assitance provided at our Writing Center; they may also ask for help citing sources at the reference desk, where we keep copies of the major style manuals.

General tips

  • Develop a sense among the students of being part of a research community by having "swap meets" to share resources and insights. The more they feel comfortable being researchers (rather than transcribers) the less likely they will plagiarize accidentally-because of not really knowing what the problem is.
  • Develop critical reading skills by spending a class period or part of a period looking at resources together (Web sites, for example) and as a group looking for clues to assess its quality.
  • Develop research skills (and lighten your workload) by requiring students to bring their preliminary bibliography to the reference desk for a librarian to sign off on it.
  • Spend time discussing how sources are used in scholarly writing so that the purposes of citation are clearer-a well-chosen source can be brought into their papers as an expert witness to help them make their claims. Before they compose their footnotes, have students seek out sources used in a bibliography to recognize how they function, like hyperlinks, to connect similar threads of scholarly discourse.


1. Emphasize process by building a sequence of assignments


  • A "field report" on a topic: scan databases to see what kinds of questions researchers are asking. What areas seem hot right now? Are there areas that aren't getting attention?
  • A research proposal that proposes a question and a plan for answering it.
  • A preliminary bibliography-perhaps including some information on where and how they found the things they're using-or require annotations.
  • A formal paper, poster, or presentation that puts their knowledge to work.
  • A reflective essay-what was the process like? What did they learn? What would they have done differently?


Helps unpack the research process into a series of steps; provides scaffolding for organization and time management; shows work in progress rather than simply a finished product; helps students focus on research as process not product; helps you intervene earlier when a student has problems.


Logistically challenging in terms of processing the paperwork that results, may require more time than you have available.

2. Emphasize originality by asking students to do something they can't get "off the shelf"


  • Ask students to compare two things that have not been compared before; have them use secondary sources to inform their analysis-but let them know they won't be able to look up "the right answer."
  • Ask students to do analyze a primary source that hasn't been widely written about. Develop a set of questions the source gives rise to, seek answers, then write an introduction or analysis. Secondary sources are used to illuminate, not be the object of inquiry. This could be a joint project for a class, annotating an anthology of texts or developing an exhibit catalog for a set of images or artifacts.
  • Ask students to analyze something that happened within the last few weeks using secondary sources that provide background.
  • Give students primary material about a historical event. Ask them to describe what the primary material tells them. Then ask them to find secondary sources that comment on the event and compare them. Do they all tell the same story? Why or why not? What evidence do the secondary sources use and how effectively is it interpreted?
  • Have students develop a briefing or grant proposal for a particular individual or group on a topic relevant to your course.
  • Give students a quotation with dubious "facts" taken from the Web. Ask them to find the source, critique it, and check the facts for accuracy.


Gives students a sense of owning their work that they don't get when the paper is based entirely on interpreting other people's work.


Can be time-consuming to develop and test assignments to be disaster-proof. Also prevents wholesale copying of a text, but doesn't address problems of inappropriate paraphrase or failure to cite a source.


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