Skip to Main Content

Creative Research Assignments

This guide offers suggestions for faculty interested in designing research assignments as alternatives or complements to the traditional term research paper.

Designing Creative Research Assignments

Start with Outcomes

What exactly is it that you want your students to be able to do? How can they demonstrate that to you with observable actions?

Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) often take the form of an action phrase, something that students do, followed by an "in order to" phrase that describes its larger purpose.

Example Info Lit Outcomes

  • Construct a search strategy using a library search tool in order to efficiently generate viable secondary sources which fit the requirements of a given assignment.
  • Assess the results of a database search for scholarly sources in order to select the most relevant sources for a given question or research problem.
  • Explore primary source collections in order to find documents that could serve as evidence of a historical event or phenomenon.
  • Describe the main argument of a scholarly article in order to determine its contribution to knowledge about a given subject.
  • Map the citations of a group of scholarly sources in order to observe how scholars engage with the ideas of other scholars in their field.


What skills does your current assignment measure? What tacit skills and practices does that assignment assume students already know or do?

Not all action verbs are easily observed, especially those associated with learning like understandcontemplate, and consider. While understanding is certainly a worthy goal, how will we know if students understand? How will we know if our teaching was effective? This is where we can get creative. What can we ask students to do that will make visible what we cannot ordinarily observe? While a formal research paper may reveal students ability to craft an argument, cite sources, and write for an academic audience, the final paper does not show how students engaged in the information literacy skills and practices listed in the example SLOs above, all of which might be considered prerequisite to writing a successful term paper.

Phase the Assignment: 

Break term projects into discrete steps. These allow you to observe more of students' skills and practices, creating opportunities for support and feedback in the learning process. For example, consider:

  • Research proposals. Give students an opportunity to describe their research interests in their own voice and to speculate about the steps they will need to take to achieve their goals. This gives teachers a chance to give feedback on research design and topic development, provide guidance on additional steps needed, suggest project management strategies, or recommended resources to consult early in the process.
  • Search logs. Ask students to document or briefly narrate their early search process, including search tools selected, keywords used, and satisfaction level with their results. This may reveal students' facility with search strategies as well as how they conceptualize their topic. Perhaps more importantly, this process may show which students could benefit from meeting one-on-one with a librarian and create opportunities to make personalized referrals. 
  • Annotated bibliographies. The traditional annotated bibliography may still be helpful as students begin organizing their sources. However, alternative outputs may be more effective in helping students synthesize the scholarly discourse. Ask students to group their sources in meaningful ways or map their connections spatially, showing where authors agree, disagree, or build on earlier works. Teachers can still give feedback on individual sources, but also guide students' practice putting sources into conversation in discipline-appropriate ways.
  • Research narrative. Instead of focusing on a polished final research paper, ask students to instead write more about their own research process, including discoveries and dead ends, successful and unsuccessful process strategies, and the emotions experienced along the way. Written in the first person and in student's natural voice, this type of paper directly describes the research process and ideas learned along the way, making visible and giving value to the skills and practices that aren't typically included in formal academic writing.

Additional Sources of Creative Assignment Ideas

Pedagogical Resources

This guide was originally authored by Jason Ezell. Updates and revisions in 2024 by Adam Beauchamp.