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Teaching Research to First-Year Students: More Suggestions


We invite you to explore more assignment ideas below; this set of suggestions was developed as part of an IMLS grant the Library received in 1999. While some of the suggestions might point to outdated resources, the ideas are still applicable today. They can also be adjusted to various levels of student research abilities.

Suggestions for Assignments

Interpretive Assignments Concepts Skills

Letters or diaries: have students examine texts written by a figure discussed in class, generate questions from those primary sources, and prepare an annotated version of the text that answers or provides speculation on aspects of the text that are unclear. This could be a group project, with a set of letters or diary entries distributed among the class.


provides experience with primary sources; develops the habit of raising and pursuing questions; requires speculation based on evidence; situating texts in a historical context. identifying key components of a question; locating information using the catalog and reference sources; documentation

Have the class examine a painting or other graphic image from a time period you are dealing with or which touches on a theme you are discussing in class. Brainstorm questions and theories about the image, then list information sources that might help address those questions. Have groups take a cluster of questions to the library for information-gathering and then pool interpretations.


practice examining images as texts; practice building theory and seeking evidence; provides example of way a community of scholars can build on each others' conversations to create knowledge. articulating questions and identifying potential information sources; using the catalog and reference sources

Political cartoons as text: using the Bassett collection of political cartoons (one of the Gustavus library's special collections) have students locate a cartoon on a political event relevant to the course and put it in historical context, explaining its referents and meaning. This could be the basis of a class-designed library display; could also include interaction with the cartoonist.


develops the habit of querying texts of all sorts; develops notion that interpretation and making connections is not just an academic pursuit; situating texts in a social/historical context. identifying visual cues; locating information using the catalog and reference sources; summarizing information concisely for a general audience; designing and conducting an interview
Synthesis Assignments  Concepts  Skills
Have the class develop a collaborative lecture: rather than present material in lecture form, have students gather information and during class compile it. (Works best with topics that have a natural organizing principle such as chronology in order to process the information brought to class.)

develops the notion that understanding is built from making connections and synthesizing data; emphasizes the notion that various sources provide different kinds of information that might be contradictory; understanding that information may be organized in different ways for different results; provides example of way a community of scholars can build on each others' conversations to create knowledge.


skimming and extracting information; sorting information into a meaningful pattern; finding information using the catalog, reference sources, and perhaps articles
Have the class develop a snapshot of a year that is significant for your course. Starting with a chronology (such as Timetables of History) have groups report on politics, the arts, science and technology, or whatever categories make sense for your course.  develops an understanding of interdisciplinary connections and chronology; involves making choices about what events are significant. skimming and extracting information; locating information using the catalog and reference sources
Exploring Discourses  Concepts  Skills

Have the class prepare an interview-either one to be actually carried out or one that they can't because the subject is long dead or otherwise unavailable. To generate useful questions they would have to become familiar with the person's life and work and understand its significance. They could either write up results of a real interview or write their own imaginary responses based on available evidence.


develops the notion that fieldwork requires preparation; requires paying attention to the wording of questions. using catalog, reference sources, and articles for biographical/critical information; 

Have the class generate a list of "key words" which are important concepts for the course. Have them locate uses of these key words in a variety of contexts and/or disciplines and write an analysis of the words' multiple meanings.


develops sensitivity to different disciplines and their discourses; introduces the ways in which the slipperiness of language can make searching tricky. using key word searching in a variety of databases, including the catalog, specialized databases, reference sources

Have students examine an editorial and discuss what evidence would need to be provided to turn it into an academic argument for a scholarly audience. Have the class locate and analyze evidence and write a response to the editorial based on their new knowledge.


practice recognizing claims that need support; understanding the difference between popular and scholarly writing; understanding the concept of evidence. identifying potential sources of evidence; planning a search; using the catalog, databases, and reference sources; writing from sources and documentation

Have students trace a "fact" from textbook 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 as significant? Was it newsworthy enough to be covered by the popular press? (Requires careful groundwork to make sure it is workable and that the materials are available.) 


recognize that "facts" often start as claims; recognize that accepted wisdom is often built out of controversy; recognize that retrieval tools have chronological limitations; recognize that "facts" are named differently in different time periods. using the catalog, databases, print indexes for historical material; tracing information through citations

Provide the class with primary sources that recount an event that is open to more than one interpretation. Then have students locate and critique secondary source explanations of that event. Have students examine differences in secondary sources and relate these to their own interpretation of the available evidence. (Students are often surprised to find secondary sources tell the same story differently.)


understand the difference between primary and secondary sources; understand that secondary sources rely on interpretation of evidence; develop a healthy sense of skepticism using the catalog; interpreting citations (to help critique the use of evidence in the secondary source) 

Have students compile an anthology or reader of works on a theme or topic; have them write critical introductions to the selections they have chosen.


learn to select particular sources out of many; develop ability to relate pieces to a whole. using the catalog and/or databases; 

Have students study the ways different disciplines treat the same subject or the ways different audiences-e.g. popular v. scholarly-shape the presentation of information by locating and analyzing materials that approach the same topic from different directions.


recognize differences in discourse conventions; recognize the importance of audience in texts; learn to differentiate between popular and scholarly sources. using the catalog and specialized databases; adjusting search strategies for different databases.
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.

recognize that current literature in the field clusters around areas of uncertainty and controversy; recognize that new knowledge often comes from asking interesting questions.


using databases; skimming and collating information; identifying patterns on the fly.
Have students explore different types of information sources by having them investigate the same topic in different formats: reference books, newspaper articles, scholarly journals, government documents, web sites. Have groups present their results, analyzing the uses of different information sources.

recognize that part of planning a search involves deciding where the information is likely to be found; recognize different information types and their uses; discover that there are different types of information and that they often require searching differently


using a wide variety of databases and search strategies; learning different parts of the library and its collections; develop different strategies for different types of information sources.
Have students examine an issue across time by looking at how it is treated currently and comparing it with treatment 25, 50, or 75 years ago. Analyze both the different approaches to the issue and the ways in which the issue was framed in ways that reflect the values and assumptions of the time. recognize that the language and the assumptions displayed in texts have historical context; recognize that older texts cannot generally be found using electronic databases; recognize that access tools themselves are a reflection of the context in which they were created using a wide variety of print and electronic resources; reformulating a search to reflect the indexing terms used by a tool or in a particular time period
Quick and Dirty  Concepts  Skills

Have students locate and critique reviews of a book considered important or a classic in the field (perhaps one in use as a course text) but which was controversial or slow to gain acceptance when first published.


demonstrates the notion that what is considered a classic may not always be considered so; illustrates that reception of new ideas can be varied and often, in hindsight, quite wrong using book review indexes or article databases; locating articles in print sources (particularly for older works).

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 markers of quality from a disciplinary perspective. Have each student use those markers to select one worthwhile article and write an annotation; compile the annotations for the class.


demonstrate that there are a variety of information sources that take different approaches to the same topic; recognize that finding good sources requires making good choices; recognize that quality is determined within disciplinary frameworks and traditions. using databases to find texts; choosing search terms; locating print and electronic texts; skimming; recognizing indicators of quality in sources; documenting sources and writing critical annotations.

Have students locate three sources-one an article published in a popular magazine, one an article in a refereed scholarly journal, one a web site-and have them analyze the sources in terms of language used, evidence presented for claims, qualifications of the author, and purpose. 


develops an understanding of the differences between scholarly texts and popular ones; develops a sensitivity to the rhetorical cues available in texts that can help in assessing their value. using different databases and search engines; documentation of different types of texts; practice identifying authority of sources; practice identifying text types.

Have students conduct a search on the same topic on the web and in an article database. Discuss the results of their search in terms of what kinds of sources they found and the likely quality of those sources. (It would be interesting to do two topics-one that yields poor results on the web and another that provides useful sources.)


illustrates the difference between the "free" web and subscription databases accessible through the web; demonstrates the different kinds of results obtained using different kinds of sources; recognize that there are certain kinds of questions that aren't best researched on the web.


using a web search engine and a database; choosing keywords that work and refining searches as needed; skimming and interpreting the results of a search; making critical assessments of sources based on citations.
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