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Designing Effective Research Assignments

1. Pre-reading prompts

There are many tips available for practicing the tactile components of reading for academic purposes, but each of them involve adopting active reading strategies. Early in the class is a good time to encourage students to explore personal preferences - some of us love highlighters, others use online information management tools, some of us immediately open new tabs to explore new ideas in the text we’re reading, and some need to read in print. 

Sample reflection prompt

1. Ask students to try a new active reading practice.

2. Then ask students to reflect on how well their new and old strategies for interacting with texts work for them. 

2. Practicing reading for academic purposes

One approach to teaching students how to practice reading is using a three-stage framework adapted from work by Robert DiYanni. The three stages and their accompanying actions are:

  • Reading to Understand
    • Action - annotate the text, verbally summarize
  • Reading to Look for Meaning 
    • Action - Make connections outside of the text, consider personal connections, information from other classes, or connections to larger global or social events
  • Reading in Conversation
    • Action - generate questions in response to the text and research those questions

Sample reading activity prompt

1. Divide a larger reading into smaller sections.

2. Assign students to small groups and give them each a section to read.

3. Within the small groups (or on a discussion board), ask each student to verbally summarize the text they read, share a connection they made to the text (course-related or otherwise), and generate a question or two they have based on having read the text.

Reading scholarly articles is daunting for many students and requires some extra reading guidance. Breaking the article sections into components, and providing guiding questions for students to answer for each section can provide signposts for them to follow while reading.

Sample scholarly article reading activity prompt

1. Either ask students to find a scholarly article (using this guidance on identifying articles) or give them a relevant article to read.

2. Suggest that students use the ADIRM method to read the article in this order: Abstract, Discussion, Introduction, Results, Methods.

3. Give students the following prompts for each section of the article (adapted for your discipline):

Abstract - What is the purpose of the study? Can you tell what the main findings might be?

Discussion - How does this study compare to other researchers' results? Why does what was learned in this study matter?

Introduction - What problem or question is the study addressing? What have other researchers already learned about this problem?

Results - What kind of data did they collect? What kind of visuals do they use to describe the information they gathered?

Methods - What did they do? What special equipment, processes, or techniques did they use?

3. Evaluating sources exercises

For some students, it can be helpful to have a framework to apply as they evaluate sources in new ways. A commonly used framework for evaluating websites is the SIFT method developed by Mike Caulfield. The four stages of the SIFT method encourage students to: 

  • Stop, 
  • Investigate the source, 
  • Find trusted coverage, 
  • Trace to the original. 

This method is a way to encourage active reading of websites and is similar to recommendations to read laterally.

Another evaluation framework for many source types (both scholarly and general public use) is the IF I APPLY model. This model asks readers to account for their personal responses to a source as they consider bias from a number of angles, as well as the authority of the author and how arguments are presented and backed up. Steps in the IF I APPLY model include: 

  • Identifying emotions, 
  • Finding unbiased sources, 
  • Determining authority
  • Looking at the author(s)’ point of view.

Note - Emphasize that these models aren’t meant to be used as a checklist but rather as a starting point for looking at sources with a new - more evaluative - lens. 

Sample search exercise

1. Ask students to do a web search on a topic recently discussed in class.

2. Ask students to apply one of the evaluation frameworks (e.g., SIFT or IF I APPLY).

3. Ask them to identify one source they believe was written by someone with a record of expertise and authority (perhaps relevant to your disciplinary community, e.g., a scientist or policy-making organization).

4. Ask them to find a second source that was written by someone with limited expertise and authority or with notable bias (again, this could be discipline-dependent and might include social media or discussion website posts or information provided by non-profit organizations). 

5. In small groups, ask students to share their two sources and discuss the criteria they used to choose their two sources.

Instructor modeling exercise

1. Use an example of your own work that incorporated sources (e.g., an article, presentation, letter to the editor, social media post).

2. Discuss how you chose to include the sources you did. Break down how you evaluated these sources for characteristics like relevance, currency, or provocativeness. (Likely, your evaluation is based on years of accumulated knowledge of your discipline and audience - so you may have to practice remembering these intermediate decision steps).

3. Then ask students to carry out the same approach of breaking down their evaluation process with sources they regularly consult - either in their coursework or their everyday life.