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Designing Effective Research Assignments

Topic Exploration & Anxiety

The topic exploration phase can evoke varied emotions. For novice as well as advanced students, library anxiety has been found to be a real phenomenon and academic procrastination has been significantly positively linked to library anxiety (Onwuegbuzie & Jiao, 2000). Similarly, library anxiety resulted in less accurate and lower quality reference lists in a study of graduate students (Jiao et al., 2008). 

Some experienced researchers find exploring a new topic and planning library research invigorating and enjoyable. However, when researchers asked students what they think about exploration, they expressed that it feels like gambling - students feel they are making guesses about what instructors want and they avoid the unfamiliar so as to risk the fear of failure (Head & Eisenberg, 2010; Rempel & Deitering, 2017). Kim and Sin (2007) examined the connection between the sources students select and several affective factors. They find that affective factors and students' ability and willingness to take risks in research strongly affects their evaluation and use of sources.

As a result, some behaviors librarians have observed over time about topic exploration are that students:

  • choose overly narrow topics, 
  • choose overly broad topics, 
  • feel rushed to arrive at final topics and miss the exploration stage as a result. ​

Learning to Read & Evaluate Sources is Hard Work


Similar to exploration, reading (especially for academic purposes) prompts a range of responses. When researchers have asked college students what they think about reading for academic purposes, here is a sampling of what they have found:  students think reading is unnecessary, too hard, and takes too much time (Clair-Thompson et al., 2018Ihara & Principe, 2016; Nelms & Segura-Totten, 2019). Researchers have also found that few university instructors explicitly introduce reading skills to students (Lambrecht et al., 2020). Reading for academic purposes falls in the black hole of skills we hope someone else has taught our students. But knowledge of how to read for different purposes (not just academic) is a necessary skill for evaluating information and developing a deeper understanding of many topics. 

Reading takes practice. With practice readers can develop skills like:

  • picking up on contextual cues about what the source type is and why that might matter, 
  • understanding differences in authors’ authority and expertise, 
  • knowing when to skim and when to read all the text.


Evaluation is one of the more difficult skills for students to learn because evaluation draws on the ability to apply often complex frameworks that need to be practiced and learned over time. It's also easier to default to simple evaluation approaches that allow biases to remain unchecked (Jastram et al, 2021). Researchers have found that while students do not think they allow bias or previous experiences to influence how they evaluated sources, this was not the case (Silva et al., 2018). Moreover, researchers from the Stanford History Education Group have found that students rarely ask who created online sources, make broad generalizations about information platforms, and use surface features of sites like graphic design to evaluate these sources (McGrew et al., 2018). 

Students find it harder to learn how to evaluate different types of sources when instructors and librarians use source evaluation terms that are unfamiliar and have different common meanings like the difference between scholarly and popular sources (Jankowski et al., 2018). However, students who have been taught evaluation techniques like lateral reading have been found to correctly evaluate the trustworthiness of information more often than students in a control group (Brodsky et al., 2021).

The ability to not only find sources but evaluate information is increasingly crucial. Evaluation takes practice. With guidance from tools like SIFT, IF I APPLY, lateral reading, civic online reasoning, or teaching students to focus on purpose, process, and product, students can learn to:

  • find unbiased sources
  • determine authority
  • find trusted sources
  • recognize when a source is relevant for a particular situation.

Limits to Previous Searching Experiences

A decline in high school librarians over the past 10 years, which was exacerbated by the pandemic (Tomko & Pendharkar, 2023), means that incoming first-year students are less likely to have previously worked with a librarian. Students default to using the search strategies they already know, including relying on Google and Wikipedia as key resources. However, as the Project Information Literacy lead researcher notes, these search strategies "only get them so far with finding and using trusted sources they need for fulfilling college research assignments" (2012).

Students' search habits are complicated by the fact that tools like Google have increased their focus on providing content based on past searching history, friend relationships, and promoted content, thereby reducing source diversity (Trielli & Diakopoulos, 2019). The result is that searchers increasingly see a narrower set of results intended to reinforce pre-existing preferences and biases including racist and sexist biases (Noble, 2018). 

Searching for sources - whether in library databases or using search tools like Google - takes practice and an awareness of the choices the search tools make about what content we see. With guidance students can learn to:

  • understand the basics of what content is being searched and why that matters
  • know when to use more targeted tools, e.g., newspaper collections focused on historically marginalized groups
  • refine their searches to focus on different source types, topic areas, geographic regions, or time periods.