For Faculty: Ideas for Assignments

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Design assignments that promote information literacy and research skills.

Fact Finder

Students find information about events transpiring during the week/year of their parent’s/grandparent’s birth. Information categories can include any or all of the following: sports, politics, fashion, science/technology, arts. They need to use the New York Times Historical database and a subject reference book (American Eras series, Eyewitness History series, All American Ads, Timetables of American History, Timetables of History, etc.) Prior to the assignment, students are shown how to use the various types of resources that they will be using, along with an explanation of the difficulties of Students are provided one week to complete the assignment. (Adapted from LOEX* of the West 2004)

Snapshot of a Year

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. Resources include New York Times Historical database American Eras series, Eyewitness History series, All American Ads, Timetables of American History, Timetables of History, etc. (From

Who’s Who?

Identify significant people in your discipline. Have students consult a variety of biographical resources and subject encyclopedias to gain a broader appreciation for the context in which important accomplishments were achieved. (From Term Paper Alternatives.

Significant Event

Identify a significant event or publication in your discipline. Have students ascertain the important people, impact, etc., involved by consulting a variety of library resources. Probably a good idea to keep the event/publication broad: The lunar landing, discovery of penicillin, Silent Spring, the rock opera Hair, the advent of the assembly line, etc. Suggested library resources will depend on the event, but lends itself neatly to reference tools. (Adapted from Term Paper Alternatives.

Liberal and Conservative

Contrast two journal articles or editorials from recent publications reflecting conservative and liberal tendencies. (Consult Cannell Library’s handout, “A Selective List of Liberal and Conservative Periodicals.”) It might be interesting to carry out this exercise again using publications from the late 1960s.
    (Adapted from Term Paper Alternatives.

Popular and Scholarly

Provide students with a popular and a scholarly article on the same topic. (Or, alternatively, have students locate two articles on their own.) Students will use a prepared checklist to analyze the two types of publications and learn the distinguishing characteristics.

Popular and Primary

Students will find a short article in the popular press and locate the original research article [primary source] on which the popular article was based. Students will analyze the relationship between the popular article and original research, and critique the popular article with regard to its accuracy.

Update the Literature

Ask students to update a literature review done about five years ago on a topic in the discipline. They will have to utilize printed and electronic resources to identify pertinent information.

Update a Web Directory

Students will select a topic directory from the Cannell Library web site. Students will look at each of the recommended sites, then locate five more sites on the same topic that they determine should be added. For each site they recommend, students will complete a web page evaluation worksheet and write a short evaluation. Alternatively, students can locate their own directory to update, rather than using one from the library’s page.

Write and Produce a Newsletter

Have small groups of students produce a brief newsletter on a specific topic related to class. Students should include articles with relevant research, post information on upcoming related public events, and so on. Share these newsletters with faculty and students in related courses or in the major.

Concept Mapping

Have students create visual representations of models, ideas, and the relationships between concepts. They draw circles containing concepts and lines, with connecting phrases on the lines, between concepts. These models can be done individually or in groups, once or repeated as students acquire new information and perspectives, and can be shared, discussed, and critiqued. [Note: Inspiration software, a concept mapping tool, is available in all the Clark College computer labs]

Analyze Case Studies

Bring in case studies for students to read (for example, I will put a case example of sexual harassment on an overhead). Have students discuss and analyze the case, applying concepts, data, and theory from the class. They can work as individuals or in groups or do this as a think-pair-share. Consider combining this with a brief in-class writing assignment.

Mini-research Proposals or Projects

a class research symposium. Have the students work on designing a research study on a topic from the class. In some situations, you may be able to have them collect data during class time (observe some situation or give out some short surveys) or you may have them doing this as part of an outside-of-class project. Either way, have students present their research in a class research symposium similar to what we do at professional meetings. Invite other faculty and students.

Analyze Information Sources

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.

Culture Shifts

This one uses the New York Times Historical database. Have students select a topic or an issue and examine it across time by locating articles in the New York Times for this year, 25, 50, 75, and/or 100 years ago. In addition to gaining an understanding of the shifts in language (and the need to brainstorm keywords) students can study the different approaches to the issue and the ways in the issue reflect the values and assumptions of the time. This exercise can be expanded by having students expand their knowledge of the different time periods with chronologies and other reference books.

Create an Anthology

Using the book catalog and databases, have students compile an anthology or reader of works on a theme or topic. Students will write critical introductions to the selections they have chosen. This exercise is good for teaching providing students practice with selecting particular sources out of many and relating pieces to a whole.
    (Adapted from
    Compile an anthology of readings by one person. Have students include an introduction with biographical information about the author, and the rationale for including the works [justify with reviews or critical materials].

Secondary Source Comparison

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.)

Document an Editorial

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.

Glossary Exercise

Have students maintain a list of words related to the topic of the class (from lectures, the textbook, readings). Using words on the list students create an annotated glossary, for which they provide documented definitions for each of the words. The instructor can set a minimum number of words and sources (i.e. forty words from at least 10 different sources). Sources can include general and subject-specific dictionaries, people, web sites, a whole book on the topic, an article on the topic, etc.)
    One of Kitty’s favorites from an Intro to Research Class

Annotated Bibliography

Prepare an annotated bibliography of books, journal articles, and other sources on a topic. Include evaluative annotations
    · produce the annotated bibliography in the form of a web page
    · Have students work in groups to compile a large annotated bibliography and present/defend their selections to the class.

Topic Across Sources

Select a topic and compare how that topic is treated in two to five different sources.

Journal Analysis

Analyze the content, style, and audience of three journals in a given discipline.

Birthday Exercise

Locate primary sources on/or near the date of your birth. You may use one type of material only once, i.e., one newspaper headline of a major event, one quotation, one biography, one census figure, one top musical number, one campus event, etc. Use a minimum of six different sources. Write a short annotation of each source and include the complete bibliographic citation.

Web Site Evaluation

Students select a web site and evaluate it using a checklist, such as the W5 for W3 web site evaluation and checklist. As a variation, have students locate three websites on the same topic, and after completing the worksheet, have them write a short paper describing each site and ranking them in order of quality.

Teach the Class

Each student in the class is given responsibility for dealing with a part of the subject of the course. He or she is then asked to 1) find out what the major reference sources on the subject are; 2) find out "who's doing what where" in the field; 3) list three major unresolved questions about the subject; 4) prepare a 15 minute oral presentation to introduce this aspect of the subject to the class.

Company Research

Assemble background information on a company or organization in preparation for a hypothetical interview. For those continuing in academia, research prospective colleagues' and professors' backgrounds, publications, current research, etc.

Diagnosis It!

In biology or health classes, assign each student a 'diagnosis' (can range from jock itch to Parkinson's Disease). Have them act as responsible patients by investigating both the diagnosis and the prescribed treatment. Results presented in a two-page paper should cover: a description of the condition and its symptoms; its etiology; its prognosis; the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, its side effects and contradictions, along with the evidence; and, finally, a comparison of the relative effectiveness of alternate treatments. This assignment can also be accompanied by oral or visual presentations, slideshow, poster session,etc.

Follow the Trail

Students follow a piece of legislation through Congress. This exercise is designed primarily to help students understand the process of government. It could, however, be used in something like a 'critical issues' course to follow the politics of a particular issue. (What groups are lobbying for or against a piece of legislation? How does campaign financing affect the final decision? etc.).

Follow the Policy

Have students follow a particular foreign policy situation as it develops. Who are the organizations involved? What is the history of the issue? What are the ideological conflicts?

Career Chase

Ask each student to describe a career they envision themselves in and then research the career choice. What are the leading companies in that area? Why? (If they choose something generic like secretarial or sales, what is the best company in their county of residence to work for? Why?) Choose a company and find out what its employment policies are-flex time, family leave, stock options. If the company is traded publicly, what is its net worth? What is the outlook for this occupation? Expected starting salary? How do the outlook and salaries vary by geography?

Biographical Research

Write a biographical sketch of a famous person. Use biographical dictionaries, popular press and scholarly sources, and books to find information about the person.

Nobel Peace Prize

Nominate someone or a group for the Nobel Peace Prize. Learn about the prize, the jury, etc. Justify the nominations.

Internet & Search Engines

Choose a topic of interest and search it on the Internet. Cross reference several search engines. Select and evaluate x number of web sites; select a specified number to include on an annotated bibliography. As with a research paper, students will have to narrow and broaden accordingly. Students summarize the experience by describing the experiences in different search engines, overall coverage of the topic, best keywords, etc.
    (Adapted from

Queen for a Day

Everyone becomes an historical figure for a day. Students research the person, time-period, culture, etc. They give an oral presentation in class and answer questions.
    Similar to the above, students adopt a persona and write letters or journal entries that person might have written. The level of research required to complete the assignment can range from minimal to a depth appropriate for advanced classes. from All the News
    Write a newspaper story describing an event -- political, social, cultural, whatever suits the objectives -- based on their research. The assignment can be limited to one or two articles, or it can be more extensive. This is a good exercise in critical reading and in summarizing. The assignment gains interest if several people research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.

Press Room

News conferences offer good opportunities to add depth to research and thus might work particularly well with advanced students. A verbatim transcript of an analytical description of a news conference can serve as a format for simulated interviews with well known people of any period. What questions would contemporaries have asked? What questions would we now, with hindsight, want to ask? How would contemporary answers have differed from those that might be given today? Here students have an opportunity to take a rigorous, analytical approach, both in terms of the questions to be asked and the information contained in the answers.

Musical Review

Write a review of a musical performance. Include reference not only to the performance attended, but to reviews of the composition's premiere, if possible. Place the composition in a historical context using timetables, general histories and memoirs when available, using this information to gain insight into its current presentation.

Write Your Own Exam

Write an exam on one area; answer some or all of the questions (depending on professor's preference). Turn in an annotated bibliography of source material, and rationale for questions.

All But the Research Paper

Conduct the research for a term paper. Do everything except write it. Students submit a clearly defined topic, an annotated bibliography of useful sources, an outline of a paper, a thesis statement, and an opening paragraph and summary.

Internet Search

Write a precise statement of the search topic and the keywords chosen for the topic. Run the search on two or more different search engines. List the steps taken to find the needed information. Evaluate the results from the two searches using particular criteria presented by the librarian. Purpose: Teaches the mechanics of Internet searching, the importance of evaluating all sources retrieved from the Internet, the importance of preparing a search before going online, and the value in using more than one source for an information search.

Database Search

Prepare the search by selecting keywords or thesaurus terms, when available. Conduct a search in a pre-selected database (or have the students pick the most appropriate one). Find a specified number of references and write a short explanation on why the particular reference is relevant to the search topic.
    Purpose: Shows the importance of advance preparation of the search and teaches how to use a particular database. Challenges students to find relevant sources and justify their selections.

Examine Coverage of a Controversial Issue

Examine the treatment of a controversial issue in several different sources such as newspapers, books, magazines, scholarly journals, and web sites. Write a paper that presents a balanced point of view on the issue or ask the students to take a position based on the information.
    Purpose: Gives them experience in locating different kinds of sources and selecting from a large volume of references. Emphasizes that there are multiple perspectives on any issue and stresses the importance of making informed decisions.

Finding Supporting Information

Give the students an article to critique. Have them locate two sources (other articles, web sites) which support (or not) the points made in the original article. Purpose: Gives the students an opportunity to understand the importance of using more than one source when gathering information.

Comparing Print and Web Resources

Locate and examine a print source and a web site on the same topic to determine indicators of quality in each item; where exactly they found those indicators; and the appropriate use for each item.
    Purpose: Students will learn that the Web has not replaced print resources but rather the Web should be used as a complement to them.


Students are to obtain an interesting empirical article on a topic of their choice from a published APA (American Psychological Association) journal. PsycInfo is an excellent source. An empirical article reports the results of a study, not a review of several studies or someone's opinion. Students are to read the article then prepare a 1- to 2-page commentary on the article in their own words.
    (Psychology 101 assignment, adapted from:

Ancient Cities

Have students choose one ancient city from a list prepared by the instructor. Students research aspects such as: * Geographic features, size of the city, occupations ancient inhabitants (substinance farming, hunting and gathering, trade, etc.), religion/religious beliefs, significant folklore, and/or legend, secular/civil authority, governance system, artistic legacy, etc. Students must summarize the importance of the city and civilization in a ten-page research paper, using at least five sources.
    (Psychology 101 assignment from:


Have students choose any issue that has been the subject of protest or propaganda at any time in the past 500 years in any part of the world. Then write a paper detailing the issues of the protest/propaganda, putting the issues in the context of some sort of text or object. The text/object can be a film; a literary or musical work; a poster; a pamphlet; a sculpture or painting; a building; a symbolic act; or a historical moment. The overarching questions to address in the paper are: What historical forces -- technological, political, cultural -- brought this protested issue or point of propaganda to a critical point at the moment you are looking at?
    What are the specific arguments being raised in the protest or propaganda? How does your object/text embody these historical forces and detailed arguments?
    (World Civilizations Prehistory to 1500 assignment, from

Create a Pathfinder

Students select a topic and create a guide to researching the topic. The pathfinder is not an exhaustive list of source, but the steps on could follow to locate information in a variety of sources, plus a sample of sources each resource would yield. This assignment will help students understand the organization of traditional reference information as well as Internet reference information and its organization. . The pathfinder would include the following: Topic & summary; Subject Headings; tools (book catalog, indexes, newsgroups, etc.) with two sources from each.
    One of Kitty’s favorite research assignments

Research Log

Students keep a record of library research: methodology, sources consulted, keywords or headings searched, noting both successes and failures. Instructor can provide a sample entry to guide students in the structure. Provides a good introduction to how information is organized in libraries. Encourages students to think about the choices they must make as researchers. Focuses on the importance of terminology. A good follow up would be a class discussion with a librarian about search techniques.
    (Adapted from

Poster Session

Students research a topic and present it as a poster which other students will use to learn about the topic. Provides the opportunity to conduct a search and forces the students to express the important points succinctly.
    (Adapted from

Reference Sources

Assignment: What is a reference source? When might you use one? Identify the major types (with examples of each type) of reference sources in the discipline. Cannell Librarians have a couple of reference tool worksheets for students to use locating and evaluating reference books.
    Purpose: Shows how and why to use reference material.
    (Adapted from

Understanding "The Literature" of a Discipline

What does "the literature" of a discipline look like? What comprises it? Students investigate the production and dissemination of information in a given discipline. How is the knowledge produced? By whom? In which media is it presented/communicated? What is the publishing cycle? How important is informal communication in the field?
    Purpose: Demystifies the elusive term "the literature"
to Promote Information Literacy and Research Skills

Journals in a Discipline

Assignment: How many journals are published in a given field? Identify [with professor's help] journals "basic" to the discipline. Compare and contrast them. Analyse their content, tone, audience and impact. Purpose: Emphasizes the importance of journal literature. Makes the point that journals differ in approach and perspective.

Read the References

Assignment: Read the articles cited in a research paper. Explain how each is related to the paper. In what circumstances is it appropriate to cite other papers? What different purposes do the citations serve?
    Purpose: Shows when it is appropriate to recognize the contributions of previous authors in the development of new work.

Finding Suitable Information

Assignment: Give the students a set of Web pages to look at. Have them note any reasons why these pages are, or are not appropriate for university level student research or for in-class use.
    Purpose: A source that is useful in one instance, may not be useful in all instances. Either scholarly or popular sites might be appropriate depending on the requirements of the class assignment.

Comparing Print and Web Resources

Assignment: In groups of 3-5, have students examine pairs of items (books, articles, web sites) to determine: indicators of quality in each item; where exactly they found those indicators; the appropriate use for each item. Have them report their findings to the class after the class has had a chance to also evaluate the sites.
    Purpose: Students will learn that the Web has not replaced print resources, rather it should be used as a complement to them.

Flow of Information

Cannell Librarian Joan Carey adapted a great timeline that looks at different types of information sources (radio/TV/internet news, newspapers, magazines, journals, books, reference sources, web pages). A chart lists the time frame from an event to “publication” and lists the appropriate tools for searching the source. Assignment ideas: After a brief introduction to the types of sources, give students a list of questions or topics and have them select the most appropriate tool to use. Alternately, assign a topic to groups of students. Have each group explore a topic in each of the types of information, then have each group report on which type was most effective for the topic. Lots of other variations.

How to Read a Database

Using the databases available at Cannell Library, students will locate and read the HELP or SEARCH TIP menus. Students will complete a worksheet focusing on the features of one particular database, or they can compare the features across two or more databases.

Information Ethics

Students look at a headline on the same day from three different online newspapers (i.e. New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Irish Times - Dublin). Students will analyze the headlines, language, story content. Kate Scrivener uses this exercise in class to discuss information ethics, but it could also be a written assignment. (From Kate Scrivener, Clark College English Department)