Teaching Students Research Skills using Library-Based Assignments

Including well-designed library-based assignments in your courses can help build students’ research and thinking skills. Make the tools of research familiar to your students and the inquiry process more engaging by using the following tips on how to: 1) vary the type of assignment, 2) teach research strategies, 3) avoid common problems, and 4) consult with librarians.

Vary the type of assignment

Term papers are a common research assignment, but many other options exist that will engage students in the research process if used instead of or in combination with term papers. For example, students can be asked to:

  • Reflect on the research process by submitting reports outlining their library searches, providing a summary of the research through an annotated bibliography or a graphical map of the key concepts that includes key references, etc. Consider having students report on their progress 2-3 times over the course of a term-long research project.
  • Find a relevant newspaper or news magazine article and search the research literature for publications supporting or contradicting the news article. Write a brief article describing the claims made in the news article and comparing those claims to conclusions made in the research literature.
  • Go to the Wikipedia article on an individual who has done significant work in the research area of interest. Identify information or perspectives that are missing from the article and explain why they should be included. 

Teach research strategies

Assume students lack experience gathering and assessing information in any format. Basic skills learned in first year are not adequate for advanced tasks. Allowing students to engage with research strategies will help them develop these skills.

  • First, make it clear through assignment design, marking strategies, and instructions to students that research skills are important. Students often don’t understand the importance of research strategies. If you describe the skills they are expected to learn, list the information sources they are expected to learn to use, and explain why these capabilities are important, students are often more motivated to learn.
  • Provide a lecture on research skills and/or schedule librarian-led instruction in skills such as search strategies for your students. Alternatively, create a screencast on research skills which you can re-use from course to course, and which students can watch when needed. 
  • Make sure your instructions are very clear. Students unfamiliar with the research process need to have research terms defined (e.g., “No Internet references” – could mean no websites or e-journal articles), information on how to assess sources (e.g., explain how students can tell if an article is peer reviewed), and guidance on how to cite sources. You may want to require that students follow a well-known citation style (e.g., APA, MLA, etc) to introduce them to conventions in your field.
  • Consider providing a framework. Novice researchers might not know what steps to follow.
  • Have students reflect on their strategies and think critically about what they are doing at each step and what information they are finding. Steps can be a sequence of small assignments. For example, students could submit: 1) a brief description of their research topic and related keywords and phrases early in the term, 2) an annotated bibliography later in the term, and 3) the polished term paper at the end of the term.
  • Have students learn from each other by discussing research strategies in class and/or giving group research assignments.
  • Consider providing specific resources as starting points (e.g., library databases, books, journal articles, Open Education Resources).

Avoid common problems

Each one of these common problems has the potential to create frustration, anxiety, and resentment towards library research but can be easily avoided with a little advance planning.

  • Avoid providing vague or general topics (i.e., "some recent work in biomechanics") and setting obscure trivia questions (why did Einstein have such messy hair?". Novice researchers rarely produce useful results in a reasonable amount of time when confronted with these kinds of assignments. Your liaison librarian can give you feedback on the clarity of your assignment.
  • Prior to providing a resource list, check that it is up to date (titles, editions, and formats change) and that the titles are available to the students through the library. Consult with your subject librarian about new resources and library procedures (e.g., course reserves).
  • Make sure that the research assignment will not result in having the entire class compete for access to a limited number of sources. If specific books or journal articles are likely to be in high demand, have them placed on course reserve.

Consult with librarians

  • Discuss assignment plans and goals to learn what resources will support the assignments and identify items the library does not own or have access to. Subject librarians can give valuable feedback based on their experience helping students with many assignments.
  • Encourage students to contact their subject librarian for help. The information desks and virtual reference service (Ask a librarian) can also help.
  • Identify and resolve problems that your students had using library resources when planning assignment revisions for next year.
  • At the very least, send a copy of the assignment and due date to your subject librarian who will ensure that the reference staff members are prepared to help your students.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

(Adapted from similar tips sheets at : University of California, Berkeley Teaching Library; Queen’s University Stauffer Library; Virginia Tech University Library; University of Texas at Austin General Libraries; and University of Minnesota Wilson Library.

teaching tips

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