Shared by Jennifer Lau-Bond, Coordinator of Library Instruction

Research assignments, whether an essay, a speech, or some other kind of project, are an important part of college. Small changes in wording, though, can have a big impact on student learning. Harper librarians see a lot of assignment descriptions when helping students; here are some common phrases we see, along with suggestions to get you thinking about how you can make your assignments even stronger.

Jennifer Lau-Bond, Coordinator of Library Instruction

“No websites”

There’s a lot of excellent information on the web, so telling students to avoid all websites may actually prevent them from getting the information they need. Plus, students may not understand the difference between something found in a database they accessed online and something found on Google.

Instead, focus on evaluating sources. In your description or rubric, require students to use authoritative and reliable sources, no matter the format. If appropriate to the assignment, you can also ask for a diversity of formats, such as one book, one scholarly article, one website, etc. This pushes students outside their comfort zone and encourages them to consider how each type of source might be used.

“Submit your thesis to me before you start researching.”

Ideally, a thesis should be created after a student has started learning something about their topic. Having students submit a thesis first encourages them to be inflexible and stick to their (potentially) uninformed opinion, despite whatever evidence they might find.

Instead, consider having students submit a general topic idea or, even better, a research question, at the start of their process so you can offer feedback or approval. This is an excellent time to get a librarian involved with the class, as they can help students do pre-research, provide suggestions on topics, or teach students how to develop a research question. By starting with a question, students will have a clearer direction for their entire project.

“Research first, then write.”

Research and writing are iterative processes that don’t happen in isolation. Rarely do research projects proceed in a linear fashion!

Instead, encourage your students to return to research throughout the process. For instance, bring your class to the Library for two visits instead of just one. If you require a first draft, make a point to comment on sources and/or suggest places the argument needs more evidence, and offer ideas for finding such evidence. Make it clear, through your assignment structure, in-class conversations, grading, etc. that research and writing overlap.

“Don’t use Wikipedia.”

There’s nothing wrong with this requirement, but consider providing additional explanation. Telling students not to use Wikipedia without giving any context doesn’t help them learn what kind of research you do expect.

Instead, address when sources like Wikipedia are useful and when they aren’t and how they fit into the overall research process. Wikipedia is often useful as a first step for background, but explain why it may not be the kind of source you want to cite in a college assignment. Show alternative sources for background research, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries from the Library.

You might also consider activities that encourage students to think critically, such as comparing articles in Wikipedia to articles from Library resources, creating their own Wikipedia articles, or researching Wikipedia’s editorial standards.

“Don’t cite encyclopedias and other background sources in your project.”

When you tell students not to cite encyclopedias, they usually interpret it as “don’t USE encyclopedias.” Remember, students are new to your discipline and research in general. They may require background information before they can even understand the topic you’re asking them to write about, and encyclopedias and other reference sources are one way to get background. In general, students assume they only need to consult the sources they actually cite in their essay/project; they may not understand the need to read widely to establish understanding first before selecting which texts to cite/quote.

Instead, let students know you expect them to read more sources than they cite. Build in time at the start of a project for students to gather background information, perhaps during a visit to the Library, as part of an annotated bibliography, or a small group activity in class, etc. Spend time in class comparing sources and how they might or might not be used to support an argument. Show academic reference tools and how to use them to learn about a topic.

“I assume the Library will have something.”

Often, students come to the Library struggling with assignments the Library can’t support, either because we simply don’t own/can’t find the necessary materials or because such materials don’t exist.

Instead, consult a librarian in advance. The librarian can let you know whether we’re able to support that research or make suggestions to create a more achievable assignment. Try the research yourself, too. If you struggle to find information, your students probably will as well.

“Go to the Library if you don’t know how to do this kind of research.”

Don’t get us wrong, this is great advice! You might want to consider offering more information, though. First, library anxiety is a genuine problem facing some students. Many students don’t understand what supports the Library offers or how to access them. Plus, students are busy and struggle to use campus resources outside of class. For all these reasons, students may never take that first step of reaching out to the Library to get help.

Instead, give students concrete details about the Library and how it can benefit them. Identify points in the research process where a librarian’s involvement might be most useful. Give course credit to meet 1:1 with a librarian. Explain what happens when you ask a question at the Library. The Library has dozens of helpful video tutorials; share the most relevant ones in class instead of expecting students will be able to identify relevant videos on their own. Bring students to Building F for a 20-minute tour. And, of course, consider inviting a librarian to be embedded in your Blackboard site or do an on-campus or synchronous online lesson.

Little changes or additions can have a big impact when it comes to information literacy skills. Our librarians would be happy to discuss your assignments or offer resources and support for both you and your students. Email Jennifer Lau-Bond, Coordinator of Library Instruction, at