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Creating Successful Research Skills Assignments

  1. Purpose of Research Skills Assignments
  2. Example Assignments
  3. Tips for Creating Assignments

Purpose of Creating Assignments to Teach Research Skills

Many students never develop good research skills during their years at Penn. These students are often unaware of research tools or don't understand the expectations of scholarly disciplines. Assignments that teach research skills can help students gain confidence and facility in using research tools, a better understanding of disciplinary criteria, and a sense of how scholars use resources in their research.

What is a Research Skills Assignment?

The most common research skills assignment is the research paper or project, which helps students learn to synthesize, analyze and interpret information using appropriate disciplinary content and methodology. In and of themselves, however, research papers may not help students learn the many intricacies of research that go into completing a good paper.

Research skills assignments help students answer the following sorts of questions:

  • What is a scholarly article?
  • What is considered a primary resource in this discipline?
  • How can I thoroughly search the scholarly literature on my subject?
  • How do I evaluate a resource's appropriateness for this assignment?
  • How does scholarly communication function within this discipline?
  • What sort of information is most appropriate for answering my question?

These are not remedial skills! Scholars must be able to answer these questions and others like them, but many Penn students-freshmen and upperclassmen alike-can't.


Tips on Creating Library Research Skills Assignments

Set Clear Goals

Be clear about what the assignments are meant to accomplish. What skills do you expect the students to learn, and how do they relate to scholarly practice in the discipline? Don't assume that students understand basic concepts such as 'databases,' 'abstracts,' or "citations."

Make Assignments Relevant and Content Oriented

Successful assignments require students to work with information that is significant to them. Try to link research skills assignments to other assignments or otherwise integrate them into the course. Furthermore, assignments are more valuable if they require students to think critically about the resources' content, function, and relationship to the discipline.

Timing is Everything

Consider how your assignment relates to the class as a whole. For example, an assignment to teach students about types of disciplinary methods will work best when accompanied by a lecture or discussion on method.

Make Use of Library Support Services

Using the library's resources to assist with your research skills assignment can provide students with a more valuable learning experience.

  • Subject specialist librarians can provide a research skills session designed specifically to your class' needs in an electronic classroom.
  • Librarians can visit your classroom or use the electronic classroom to teach particular skills, such as evaluating Internet resources or locating primary materials.
  • Librarians can work with your students individually or in small groups to teach advanced research techniques.

Consult with Librarians

Librarians can help during all steps in the process of creating research skills assignments.

  • If you aren't certain what sort of assignment you want to create, a librarian can provide ideas and suggest assignments that have been successful in the past.
  • If you're in the middle of creating an assignment, a librarian can suggest ways in which the library can support your efforts.
  • If you've already designed an assignment, notifying a librarian will allow the Library to flag problems and provide appropriate support when students have questions.

Example Assignments

Breaking down a research assignment

One effective way of teaching research skills is to divide a research assignment-such as a paper or other project-into its component parts. The requirement of completing each step and handing it in for approval motivates students to become familiar with the steps. Some professors make each step in the process a part of the final grade (e.g., annotated bibliography, 10 points) thereby emphasizing the importance of each step.

For example, a research paper might be divided into the following steps, which must be handed in at intervals throughout the semester.

  • Define your topic using appropriate encyclopedia articles, class readings, or scholarly reviews of the literature for background information.
  • Develop a list of relevant keywords and phrases to search in the library catalogs. Record which keywords best identify relevant resources and explain why.
  • Use databases to find books, articles and web sites that are relevant to your topic. Complete an annotated bibliography explaining why each resource is appropriate for your paper and how it will support the thesis.
  • Hand in a rough draft, the instructor's critique of which will include an evaluation of the types and appropriateness of information used.

Familiarizing students with the scholarly literature

Assignment: Browse relevant parts of the stacks, examine one or more subject-specific encyclopedias and browse through articles in several appropriate journals. With the information you have learned, describe themes, questions and methods that are important to the discipline how does the discipline relate to other disciplines?
Purpose: Become acquainted with the sort of questions, issues and methodologies that are central to the discipline.

Assignment: Browse through several years of a major journal in your discipline. List the articles that are relevant to a topic in your class. Choose one of the articles, state the thesis and describe the sources the author used for evidence to support the thesis. Are those sources available at penn?
Purpose: Become acquainted with the sort of questions, issues and methodologies that are central to the discipline. Learn to evaluate and locate sources used as evidence in scholarly articles.

Assignment: Use periodical and book indices to update a literature review done several years ago on a topic being addressed in the class. Explain why some resources were included and others weren't. What criteria were used to evaluate resources?
Purpose: Learn how to conduct a serious literature review. Gain a more thorough knowledge of the methods used and approaches taken in considering an issue. Identify how arguments, positions and ideas take different tracks in different parts of the literature.

Assignment: Examine the importance of a seminal scholarly work or pivotal scholar by learning how the relevant ideas have impacted on and been developed by later works and figures. Use databases and citation indexes to identify relevant articles and books.
Purpose: Learn to trace the development of an idea through the scholarly literature. Gain a better understanding of how ideas evolve and of what make a work seminal to a discipline.

Assignment: Use an ISI citation database to locate multiple articles citing one that is assigned for the class, and then consider how each of the articles uses the cited article. Write about what this reveals about the cited article, its importance, acceptance and wider implications within the discipline.
Purpose: Learn to trace the development of an idea through the scholarly literature. Gain a better understanding of how ideas evolve and of what make a work seminal to a discipline.
Have students identify opposing viewpoints on a controversial social issue and document how the viewpoints are developed in popular and/or scholarly literature.

Teaching students types of resources (scholarly, popular, primary, secondary)

Assignment: Identify an article from a popular publication (e.g., The New York Times, Newsweek, Science News) that reports on an issue being addressed in your class, then track down the scholarly source of the information and answer the following questions: is the information in the popular article accurate? Why would you rely on one of the articles instead of the other? What is the intended audience of each article?
Purpose: Learn about the differences between popular and scholarly resources.

Assignment: Identify opposing viewpoints on a controversial social issue and document how the viewpoints are developed in popular and/or scholarly literature.
Purpose: Learn about the differences between popular and scholarly resources.

Assignment: Identify opposing viewpoints on a controversial issue and select one to work with. Compare popular and scholarly work supporting your chosen viewpoint. How do the scholarly and popular works differ? What sort of argument and evidence does each type of work offer? Is it clear which works are popular and which are scholarly?
Purpose: Learn about the differences between popular and scholarly resources.

Assignment: Look at newspaper articles about an important event or issue from several newspapers. Compare how the event is covered in different newspapers and try to explain discrepancies.
Purpose: Become familiar with an important type of primary resource. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Use newspaper, magazine and journal articles to follow an event, trend or viewpoint as it develops, considering and researching the parties, ideas and issues involved.
Purpose: Become familiar with important types of primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Have your students trace a piece of legislation from inception to final resolution, including debates, hearings, political and social contexts.
Purpose: Become familiar with an important type of primary resource. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Have your students identify a cluster of primary resources that would be relevant to answering a question or issue that is being addressed in your class.
Purpose: Become familiar with primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Visit a museum or historical site that allows access to objects relevant to your class. Have the students choose a particular object to research and then write a short paper that includes an analysis of the object as well as social, historical and economic context.
Purpose: Become familiar with primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Provide each student in your class with a historical artifact without revealing its purpose. Have the students use all the historic resources at their disposal to attempt to identify and explain the purpose of the artifact.
Purpose: Become familiar with primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Provide each student in your class with a piece of art without revealing its time period or style. Have the students use all the resources at their disposal to attempt to explain the artwork from different angles.
Purpose: Become familiar with primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Assignment: Provide each student in your class with the name of a person relevant to the class. For instance, students taking a course on the history of jazz might be given names of more or less obscure jazz musicians. Have the students learn as much biographical information about the person as possible, and then have the class compile information to search for themes and trends.
Purpose: Become familiar with primary resources. Gain a better understanding of the contexts in which primary resources need to be understood to take account of perspective and bias.

Finding and Evaluating information

Assignment: Complete a 'scavenger hunt' given to you by the professor. This might include locating books, journals, articles, citations, special collections and other sources of information.
Purpose: Learn basic techniques for finding scholarly information.

Assignment: Complete and submit for approval an annotated bibliography of information resources that are highly relevant to a topic you want to address. Be sure to explain why each resource is both relevant to and appropriate for your topic.
Purpose: Learn how to locate and evaluate information.

Assignment: As you search for books, articles and other sources of information, record the databases you use as well as the specific keyword searches and subject headings they use. Explain why some searches worked better than others and what led them to alter their search strategies.
Purpose: Become more proficient at locating sources of information by efficiently searching scholarly tools.

Assignment: Provide a precise statement of the search topic, a list of keywords or thesaurus terms (as appropriate), and an outline of search logic. Justify the choice of databases. Carry out the search.
Purpose: Shows the background research necessary for a successful search, and teaches the mechanics of searching.

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