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Hunter Library
Research Guides
Western Carolina University

For Faculty & Staff

Information for Faculty and Staff

Research Assignments: Common Problems--and Solutions!

Research Assignments: Common Problems—and Solutions!

Reference librarians have a unique view of the research process. The following tips are based on our experience helping students with their assignments.

Problem: The assignment limits students to using scholarly journal articles.

How is this a problem?

  • The student has chosen a topic like “How to Become A Professional Football Player” or “the upcoming presidential election.” Efforts to find scholarly journal articles on these topics can be frustrating and often futile.
  • Information on many topics is more readily available in books and websites.
  • Many articles are difficult for students to understand without some accompanying background information that is often found in book or website form.
  • The student is looking for a general overview of something, while articles tend to be very specific.

Problem: The limit is “nothing from the Internet” or “hard-copy articles only”

 How is this a problem?

The majority of the library’s periodical subscriptions are now online; most are exclusively online. The professor probably didn’t mean to exclude library databases with full text, but students can be very literal.

There are also many high-quality websites available that have exactly what the student needs. For example, MedlinePlus, a web resource from the National Institutes of Health, provides a wealth of statistics and reliable information about health topics.


  • Try the assignment yourself! Try out multiple “dream topics.”
  • Get an idea of your students’ topics ahead of time, and then guide them to the appropriate resources. They may have to refine their search, or you may want to refine your limitations.  [Tip: ask your library liaison to help you decide which resources will be best for your students’ topics].
  • Emphasize critical evaluation of sources. Have your students annotate their bibliographies with an explanation of why they chose each resource.
  • Show your students examples of the kinds of websites you want them to avoid and discuss why.
  • Give some specific examples of the kinds of resources you would like to see.

Problem: The student has been referred to resources or databases that the library doesn’t have.


Because the library’s resources are updated regularly, double-check to see if we still have the resource that you send your students to get. Is it still in print or is it online? Did the library cancel the subscription or database? Did the resource change names? Ask your library liaison for help!

Problem: The student has to find 3 scholarly journal articles, but gets information from magazines or websites instead. (The real problem here: The student doesn’t know what a scholarly journal is or how to find it).


Problem: The student’s bibliography has three poor-quality websites and one article that was the first hit from a general library database.


  • Create a staged assignment. Check in with your students along the way to make sure they are finding good information. This may take more time, but will save everyone a lot of grief in the end.
  • In class, talk about the journals you read and why they are important (and helpful). Explain that scholarship is a conversation between experts.
  • Schedule a workshop with a librarian for a time when the students are in the throes of their research. The librarian will teach them effective strategies for finding relevant, high-quality information. Generally, by the end of the session, each student will have found at least one or two high-quality sources to use.

Problem: The library scavenger or treasure hunt. 

Why is this a problem?

  • Scavenger hunts generally do not model an authentic research process.
  • They often involve an entire class of students looking for the same item—chaos!
  • Treasure hunts often result in frustration and a generalized disdain for library research.


Just want your students to get to know the library?

Work with a librarian to arrange a hands-on activity that your students can do in the library during a class session. This works best when it is tailored around a specific assignment (that your students already know about).

Looking for alternatives to the traditional research paper?

Talk to your library liaison, search Google for “research paper alternatives,” or ask your colleagues for ideas. Business plans, podcasts, infographics, and debates are popular options. This guide provides options for integrating multimedia into your course assignments.

Assignment Makeover!

This guide will help you consider your options for integrating multimedia into your course assignments. Each section offers student-created examples, tips from professors on assignment construction and deployment, and resources on assignment assessment.

Go to video resources.
Go to audio resources.
Go to infographic and image resources.
Go to poster resources.
Go to website resources.

Finding Inspiration

Looking for more inspiration? Contact your subject liaison in the library or take a look through The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and Remix for more ideas.