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Teaching Research to First-Year 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.) We have gathered a number of suggestions and grouped them by various learning goals. In addition to the ideas on this page, you might also consider the assignment ideas we've generated for both upper level courses and WRITL courses. Many of those ideas could be modified to meet student learning outcomes for first year students.

Gustavus library faculty members have decades of collective teaching experiences between us and have observed first-hand how student information seeking behavior has changed over the years. We often have a front seat view of the patterns, struggles and triumphs students experience as they conduct research. We also have an opportunity to see how students interpret various research assignment prompts. We love collaborating with other faculty and are happy to share our insights. Reach out to 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).

Gain Familiarity with the Library as a Space

The Gustavus Library is a popular study and gathering space for students. We have study spaces that fit a variety of preferences and needs, ranging from private rooms to the super quiet third floor to group study tables. Here are some ideas to get students into the building itself and help them feel like the library is their space. The more familiar the students are with the space, the more comfortable they'll feel using library resources. 

Collaborative Library Tour: Assign students to investigate various spots in the library, such as the Reference Desk, relaxation room, General Collection, Archives, Young Adult collection, etc. During class, have students walk around the building and each group can give a brief overview of the spaces. Contact your library liaison for ideas on specific places to tour. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Goldilocks Goes to the Library: Have students try out three different study spaces on the library's three floors. Prompt them to write a reflection on what each spot was like, which was their favorite, and why. You can also expand this to have students explore more of the campus. Prompt students to “take a photo of a place you like to study” or “your favorite writing spot” and write a paragraph about it. The idea is to help students be thoughtful about their choices and be exposed to choices other students make as they study and write. Frame(s): Information Creation as a Process; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Secrets of the library: in pairs, assign students something unusual in the library to examine and report back to the class: for example, the SCRB (special collections and rare books room), old issues of Ladies Home Journal or Life Magazine, the zine collection, the relaxation room, old college yearbooks, etc. This will involve seeking directions from student staff at the information desk or asking reference librarians clarifying questions. This activity could then become the basis of a short oral presentation. Contact your library liaison for more ideas. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration.

You Are Here: Ask students to spend half an hour exploring the library, then write a short reflection on how it compares to libraries they’ve encountered in the past. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration

Ask Around: Have students ask an upper class student about their experiences doing research at Gustavus and report back to the class. Frame(s): Searching as Strategic Exploration

Work with Sources

Students benefit from guided exposure to the basic formats in which scholars communicate. They need guidance learning how to work with sources. Here are some suggestions.

Analyzing Arguments: Choose or have students bring in an opinion piece related to course content. Ask students to analyze the piece: what is the author’s purpose (what do they want the reader to believe)? What claims do they make? What evidence do they provide to support those claims? Do they address counter-claims or not? Finally, do you agree with the author? Why or why not? This could be done in small groups in class or as a take-home assignment. Ask students to track down information about the evidence the author has provided. Have students write about or present in class how what they found affected their take on the original argument. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Research as Inquiry

Your Voice Matters: Ask students to write down a short statement of opinion about something related to the course and/or something in the news. Have a discussion in which they compare their ideas to those of other students. Then practice reading laterally by searching the web for sources that address the issue. Map out the range of approaches to the issue. Have students return to their statement and revise it in light of the exploration and class discussion, affirming that meaning is something that is made and students have a role to play in making it. Depending on the issue, this may also be an opportunity to help students identify trustworthy sources and discuss what makes them trustworthy. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration

Speed Date a Book or Article: New students tend to be unfamiliar with how scholarly sources are structured. In class, have them examine various academic sources. Ask them how they would quickly find out the main point of the source. Be sure to highlight features in articles such as abstracts, where they'd find the main argument and conclusion, the role of a literature review, etc. For books, include additional features such as the table of contents and index. Frame(s): Information Creation as a Process; Research as Inquiry

Comparing News Sources and Scientific Articles: Have students examine a news article that discusses a recent scientific study. Then have students locate the study itself. Ask them to evaluate how well the news source relayed the main points of the study or if there were any questionable claims or interpretations. This also helps students understand differences between sources and the role of audience. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process

Evaluate Sources: Have students find a range of sources about a single topic related to the course. Ask them to come up with criteria they would use to evaluate each source, then discuss each source together as a class. In addition to helping you gain an understanding of the criteria students use to evaluate sources, it also allows you to model ways to evaluate information. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Information Has Value

No One Right Answer: Ask students to compare two things that have not been compared before; have them use secondary sources to inform their analysis and remind them that they won't be able to look up "the right answer." This exercise helps them think about their own voice in analysis as well as exposing them to the complexities and nuances of inquiry. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Research as Inquiry

Behind the News: Ask students to analyze something that happened within the last few weeks using secondary sources that provide background. This gives students experience searching for secondary sources. Students also learn how to explore and establish contexts and develop a more inquisitive approach to the news. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Research as Inquiry

Historical Interview: Have the class prepare an interview for a historical figure (or a contemporary one who is unavailable). To generate useful questions, students will need to become familiar with the person's life and work and understand its significance. They could then write their own imaginary responses based on available evidence. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration

Trace Facts: Have students trace a finding or fact from course readings to its original discovery and dissemination. Have them analyze the contemporary reception of the "fact" - was it challenged, debated, hailed or reviled? Was it recognized to be significant? What it newsworthy enough to be covered by the popular press? Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Research as Inquiry

Learn about Library Resources & Academic Research

First year students need to start seeing the Library as a place that provides the resources to help them do research well. These exercises and ideas encourage students to explore the wealth of information - and help - available to them. These ideas also provide a solid foundation that helps students conduct more sophisticated research.

Reference Desk Visit: Have students reflect on any inquiry they are conducting for the course. Is there a common question related to the course that they are investigating? Maybe they are working on a research project. Have them come up with a few questions, which could be as broad as: "How do I know I've found the right information for my topic?" "Where should I be searching that I haven't yet already?" "How do I know these sources are appropriate for this work?" Then send students to the reference desk to talk with a librarian. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Model Research: In class, demonstrate how you would research a topic that you're not familiar with (as students will not be necessarily familiar with course content). Discuss how you develop search terms, where you search for information, how you develop search strategies, and what you do when you hit a roadblock. Alternatively, model for them how they conduct inquiry into a class topic. We recommend demonstrating library resources such as searching the catalog and databases. You can also bring them into the library for an instruction session where the librarian will lead them through conducting research. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Research Log or Reflection: Encourage students to submit a research reflection or log along with any research project they complete for class. Ask them to discuss their research process, the sources they used, any issues they had, and how they addressed those issues. Prompt them to reflect on how well they think they did in terms of conducting secondary research and what they would do differently in the future. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Databases v Internet: Have students conduct a search on the same topic on the internet and in an article database via the library's website. Discuss the results of their search in terms of what kinds of sources they found and the likely quality of those sources. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Find Full Text: Provide students with four or five citations to various types of sources (book, journal article, newspaper article, edited volume, etc.). Ask students to track down the hard copies of the sources, which gives them practice in utilizing a variety of library resources, as well as helps them develop perseverance. Discuss what they found, how they found it, and what issues they had. You can also discuss the purpose of various formats. If students encountered paywalls, discussion can also center on the commodification of information and open access movements. Frames(s): Information Creation as a Process; Information Has Value

Information Creation

Students also play a role in creating information. Try some of these prompts to get them to think through the issues related to seeing themselves as participants with active voices in the information landscape.

Me, Myselves, and I: Ask students to create a photo diary of a day in their life as a student. Prompts might direct students to address particular questions about classes and down time and what their residential space is like. These can be the basis of a conversation about how they are managing their lives in a new place. Have them reflect on how what they share with the class about their college student identity might differ from what they post to social media. This helps them to think about identity formation and how it intersects with different audiences. This could then lead to a discussion of rhetorical principles – how do you craft your self-presentation for a particular purpose and audience – or could be the basis of a discussion about how social media platforms are influencing our lives and society at large. Frame(s): Authority is Constructed and Contextual; Information Creation as a Process; Information Has Value

Collaborative Lecture: Have the students work in groups to develop a collaborative lecture on a topic related to the course content. Ask them to gather information and compile it during class. Students develop practice in gathering and evaluating sources, as well as putting those sources in conversation with others, and exploring their own role in deciding how to organize information for presentation. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Scholarship as Conversation; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Timeline: Have students develop a snapshot of a year that is significant for your course. Have groups report on politics, the arts, science and technology, social issues, or whatever categories make sense for your course. Students learn how to make choices about what events are significant and making choices about how and what information to present. Frame(s): Research as Inquiry; Scholarship as Conversation; Searching as Strategic Exploration.

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.

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