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Designing Effective Research Assignments

1. Pre-search reflection question prompts

Before students begin researching their topic, ask them to respond to questions that give them space to reflect on their previous knowledge of the topic, any potential lived experiences, and emotions the topic may elicit.

Sample questions to ask to encourage students to explore their pre-existing emotions and knowledge (including lived and academic) of the topic:

  1. What memories, places, or people does this topic make you think of?

  2. What emotional responses do you have when you think about this topic? Emotional responses could include positive, negative, and neutral responses, e.g., enjoyment, wonder, curiosity, annoyance, etc…

  3. What have you learned about this topic in other classes?

2. Early exploration strategies

Students need guidance to learn that different audiences create different types of sources. Students also need an opportunity to explore how different audiences consider different types of sources more or less appropriate as valid forms of evidence. Before students begin gathering their own evidence from sources, ask students to explore stakeholders who might be interested in this topic, and then consider what that audience’s interest or perspective on the topic might be, and what types of evidence that audience uses when sharing information.

Sample question prompts for encouraging students to explore who else might be interested in this topic and why:

  1. Who are some of the specific stakeholders who might be interested in this topic, e.g., consumers, scientists, activists, policymakers (this stakeholder group likely even includes the instructor)? 

  2. What parts of this topic interest each of the stakeholders you identified?

  3. Find some sources created by each of these stakeholders. In these sources, what kind of evidence do these stakeholders share to illustrate their points or to make an argument?

Direct students to this table as a systematic way to start thinking about how audience, claims, criteria and evidence intersect, along with search tools that are useful for different types of questions.  Ask students to fill in the Stakeholder column based on their topic.

Questions Evidence    Stakeholders Example Research Tools
What does the research say? Scholarly articles, Whitepapers, Books, etc.  

Scholarly databases

Google Scholar

News databases and sites

What do the numbers say? Statistics, Profits, Ratings, etc.  

Government websites

Business Information

News databases and sites

What do the tastemakers say? Editorials, Celebrity testimonials, Reviews, etc.   

Image Search

News databases and sites

Google Trendspotting 

What does the public say? Box Office, Attendance, Sales rates, Votes, etc.  

Business Information

Public Opinion

Rotten Tomatoes

The Numbers

What do the experts say? Reviews, Editorials, Opinions, Books, etc.  

News databases and sites

Film reviews

Consumer Reports

3. Later stage exploration strategies

After students identify their topic and delve deeper into searching for sources, they can find it tempting to move away from exploration behaviors. However, the more information students have, the more sophisticated their exploration strategies can become. At this stage, reinforce the concept that asking questions is an iterative process, and find ways to reward students for using the information they are finding to ask new (and hopefully richer) questions. Occasionally, these questions will be targeted questions, in which the student seeks specific facts - and there is a place for those types of questions. But encourage students not to get hung up on fact cherry-picking missions, and instead demonstrate the advantages of more open-ended question asking.

Sample question prompts that encourage iterative searching:

  1. What else has this author written about?

  2. Does anyone have different perspectives on this topic? (e.g., from other cultures, research frameworks, disciplinary perspectives)

  3. Did you learn any new terms or ways of thinking about this topic? What do you find if you repeat your searches with those new terms?