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Teaching Research to Upper-Level Students: Assignment Ideas


The ideas on this page are meant to inspire assignment prompts. (If you're looking for prompts, consult the Assignment Prompts tab.) In addition to the assignment ideas on this page, you might also consider the assignment ideas we've generated for both teaching research to first year students and WRITL courses. Many of those ideas could be modified to meet student learning outcomes for upper level students. Finally, we highly encourage you to consult with your library liaison (or any librarian of your choice!) to further develop these or other assignment ideas.

If you are teaching to the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, we have tagged each assignment with its corresponding frame(s).

Use Information Ethically

Be sure to encourage your students to use the excellent assistance 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.

Swap Meets: Develop a sense among the students of being part of a research community by having "swap meets" to share resources and insights related to course or research project topics. Prompt students to discuss the insights and ideas they've gleaned from their readings in their own words. 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. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Has Value; Scholarship as Conversation

Explain Why: Spend time in class discussing how sources are used in scholarly writing, perhaps by reading a source in common and discussing the literature review. This gives students an idea that the purposes of citation are to document the research conversation. A well-chosen source can be brought into their papers as an expert witness to help them make their claims. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Has Value; Scholarship as Conversation

Emphasize process by building a sequence of assignments: Start with 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. Students then write a research proposal that proposes a question and a plan for answering it. Have students compile a preliminary bibliography, taking time to review (or even grade) the sources. Move to a formal paper, poster, or presentation that puts their knowledge to work. Finish with a reflective essay-what was the process like? What did they learn? What would they have done differently? How did various source types contribute to their understanding of the topic? Frame(s): Information Creation as Process; Information Has Value; Scholarship as Conversation

Format and Audience

While students in WRITD or other disciplinary classes tend to read and write in scholarly formats, consider alternative ways for them to present information.

Alternatives to the Research Paper: Students can create a podcast episode or a video, website, or visual essay instead of a research paper. In every case, the criteria are the same: they have to compose their ideas in a careful, organized fashion and incorporate good information that is documented. Frame(s): Information Creation as Process; Information Has Value

Visual Images: Have the class examine a painting or other graphic image related to the course theme. Brainstorm questions and theories about the image, then list information sources that might help address those questions. Have students gather secondary sources that help answer speculations and pool interpretations. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration

From Editorial to Academic Article: Ask students to examine an editorial and discuss what evidence they would need to turn it into an academic argument for a scholarly audience. Have students locate and analyze evidence and then write a response to the editorial based on their new knowledge. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process

Working with Secondary Sources

Students can always benefit from spending more time analyzing and working with sources, as they are they ways in which scholarly conversations are communicated.

Weeding Sources: Use a class period in the library generating a list of books and/or articles of interest to the class. Have students find a variety of sources on the topic and spend a class period "weeding" the selections, discussing which sources are more useful/important/appropriate and why, discussing markers of quality from a disciplinary perspective. Have each student use those markers to select one source and write an annotation. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process; Scholarship as Conversation

Don't Find Sources, Find Out:  Instead of saying “find five sources,” try saying “find out about” the topic the student is researching. Then you can clarify how you want students to “find out about” – by looking at both scholarly and popular sources, by focusing on research in a particular discipline, by looking at primary and secondary sources, for instance. You might also ask “who is talking about this issue? who are they talking to?” to help students grasp the rhetorical dimensions of research. Then you can specify a number to give them a sense of the scale of the search you want them to engage in, but still keep the focus on people talking to each other about ideas through publications. By highlighting people and their ideas, students may be more inclined to understand the purpose of sources: they aren’t things you collect, they are ways people talk to each other. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Scholarship as Conversation

Anthology: Have students compile an anthology or reader of works on a theme or topic. Assign them to write critical introductions to the selections they have chosen. Students learn how to select particular sources out of many and develop an ability to relate pieces to a whole. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process; Scholarship as Conversation

Exploring the Classics: Have students locate and critique reviews of a book considered important or a classic in the field (perhaps one used as a course text) but which was controversial or slow to gain acceptance when first published. Frame(s): Information Has Value; Scholarship as Conversation


Students benefit from taking a moment to reflect on their research, including what they know, what gaps they have, and what steps to take next. 

Research Path Self-Reflection: Ask students to free write about how they typically look for information. How do they tend to start a project? Are there certain resources (websites, databases) they usually consult? Who do they tend to ask for help, if anyone? How does the library and its online resources fit into their approach (if at all)? How do they identify gaps in their research? What motivates them while searching for information? Questions like this get students thinking critically about their approaches, helps you identify any gaps, and encourages them to be more intentional in seeking out appropriate sources and methods. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration

More Comprehensive Approaches

Learning about disciplinary research approaches - and conducting research - occur across departments and programs. Here are some suggestions for more comprehensive approaches to consider.

Library as Laboratory: Librarians have had a fruitful partnership with the Political Science department for many years, bringing students to the library several times during the required methods course. Some of the lab sessions introduce students to the literature and research methods of political science. We have empirical data that suggests this partnership works. If this seems like something that would work for your course or department, talk to us. We would love to be more intentional about building information literacy into a program.

Departmental/Program Discussion: As a department or program, discuss how students learn research skills within the major. Where do they learn how to read scholarly texts? When do they explore disciplinary resources? At what point are they learning how to do disciplinary-specific research? Where are these skills emphasized and reinforced? Librarians are skilled at facilitating these conversations and can share examples and ideas from other departments and programs who have already had these discussions.

Useful Links for Students

The Library's website has a number of useful links about our services and spaces. We encourage you to share these with students.

Assessing Research Competencies

Explore the Conversation

Scholars know that research is a conversation, but this concept might be unfamiliar to students. ​​Here are some suggestions for getting students to think more about the scholarly conversation surrounding their topics. 

Bibliographic Trace Assignment:  Help students enter the scholarly conversation by mining citations from sources. This also gives them practice tracking down the hard copies of sources. Students can also enter their source in Google Scholar to find out how many times their source has been cited since publication. Tracing this web of sources helps students grasp that sources are people responding to each other in a specific format. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Has Value; Scholarship as Conversation

Analyze a literature review: Choose a course reading and have students draw a concept map or create an outline of the main ideas presented in the literature review and how it is organized to prepare readers for the new findings. For disciplines that do not typically have literature reviews as a distinct section of scholarly texts, choose a text and analyze together how the author uses sources as either a foundation for new ideas, as material being refuted, or as evidence supporting an argument. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process; Scholarship as Conversation

Create a Literature Review: Prepare students to find the major scholarship in a given topic and discuss the state of the scholarly conversation about their topic. This method encourages students to use discipline-specific databases and other resources. You may also want to have them 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. You can find lots of examples of idea maps by doing a google image search. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Research as Inquiry; Scholarship as Conversation

Assign students to meet with a librarian to discuss their research: Encourage students to visit with a librarians to discuss their research. Librarians can help students find and use appropriate sources that they may not otherwise locate.  Please share reference services hours and options with students; if you are planning to require all your students to visit with a librarian, that's great. Please give us a heads up and also encourage students not to leave it until the last minute. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration

Generate disciplinary key words: Using course materials, have students generate a list of specialized search terms that are used within the discipline. Emphasize that each discipline might have its own vocabulary, and that these terms can (and should) be used when students search for information. Students learn skills to notice and use this specialized vocabulary and use it to find sources on their own. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration

Trace interdisciplinary conversations: Have students identify and examine how different disciplines treat the same subject; prompt them to reflect on how different disciplinary lenses shape the presentation of information. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process; Scholarship as Conversation

Identify conversations: Have the class generate a list of cutting edge issues in a field by having them survey the current literature and identify topic areas that are especially under debate or discussion by experts. Students learn to recognize that current literature in a field clusters around areas of uncertainty and controversy. They also recognize that new knowledge often comes from asking interesting questions. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Scholarship as Conversation

Working with Primary Sources

There are many ways to incorporate primary sources into your course. Consider the options below and also consult our Guide to Primary Sources.

Hidden Gems: Ask students to 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. Frame(s): Information Creation as Process; Research as Inquiry 

Tracing the Analysis: 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? Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as Process; Research as Inquiry 

Primary Research in the College Archives: The College & Lutheran Church Archives offers students an opportunity to do original archival research either for individual projects or for a course that delves into the archives’ unique holdings. Planning this kind of project takes lots of advance planning – but it offers unique opportunities to see the college in historical context and to work with the raw materials of history in a hands-on classroom space.  The library’s special collections also have potential for course-related projects. To discuss potential classroom use, contact Jeff JensonFrame(s): Information Creation as Process; Research as Inquiry 

Annotate Primary Sources: Provide students with letters or diaries or other texts written by a figure discussed in class. Have the students generate questions from those sources, conduct research on those questions, and prepare an annotated version of the text that answers or provides speculation or aspects of the text that are unclear. Frame(s): Information Creation as Process; Research as Inquiry 

Political Cartoons as Text: Using the Bassett collection of political cartoons (in the library's Special Collections and Rare Books), have students locate a cartoon on a political event and put it into historical context, gathering sources to explain the references and meaning. Frame(s): Information Creation as Process; Research as Inquiry 

Scaffolding Big Projects

We all procrastinate. Deadlines creep up. We settle for less because we’re out of time. Semesters are incredibly short. When there’s a major project assigned in a course, it helps to set checkpoints. Here are some tips:

Develop a research/revision timeline for the entire semester and build it into the course schedule by requiring short, informal writing at key checkpoints both to keep students on track and to give them chances to clarify their own thinking process.

Students often are trying to do research on a topic they know little about. Avoid prematurely asking students to choose a focus or research question. They first need to spend time mapping a research area: what questions are being asked? how are they being asked? You might jump-start this process by providing a handful of key articles or authors. You can also have students draw maps of the subject area together if their interests intersect.

Early on, prompt students to identify major contributors to the conversation. Rather than thinking of collecting sources, describe sources as people talking to other people. Encourage students to pay attention to where they disagree.

Spend time practicing how to trace citations both backward and forward. Though students learn to write citations, they have a hard time decoding them. (How do I actually find this thing? Where do I click?) Reading references, looking up promising ones, and seeing who has cited an important source using Google Scholar is a very different process than the usual database shopping expedition.

Encourage students to look for gaps in the research. Student researchers sometimes think novelty is not allowed, that research requires finding a source that answers the question. It might be valuable to discuss why a familiar source – Wikipedia, where original research is not allowed – serves a different purpose than a study or an experiment or an argument.

Write early and often. Articulating a research question is hard work, and not something you want to do late in the game. Encourage students to express their topics again and again, as their understanding develops. (You really don’t want the dreaded “I changed my topic” a week before the semester ends.)

Have students do an informal annotated bibliography. Don’t sweat the citations too much. Instead, make sure students are able to express each source’s main point in their own words. Early experiences with writing from sources may have encouraged students to cherry-pick quotes out of context, harvesting them rather than reading entire articles. It can be challenging to switch gears.

Explore with students the methods they use to keep track of ideas and source information. Discuss this as a class so students can learn from each other, but also so they can feel ownership of their own processes. There are some common pitfalls to avoid – for example, it’s a mistake to copy links to articles found in databases. In many cases, they are not permanent links; there may be a permalink option, but it’s often very cleverly hidden. Students might find Zotero a useful way to manage citations. It requires something of a learning curve, and can be frustrating when it doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s especially valuable for semester-long projects and for students planning to go on to graduate school. 

Connect with the library for additional support. We can teach a session(s), create an online research guide, drop by the classroom to say hi & hand out our contact information, and/or beef up the collection in the topic area. If students present their work in class or at a colloquium, send us an invitation. It’s awesome to see how things turn out in the end, even if things aren’t quite perfect.

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