Term Paper Alternatives: Ideas for Information-Based Assignments

Adapted from materials developed by the University of Newfoundland, University of Michigan, University of Puget Sound, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Information skills, which involve finding, evaluating, analyzing, and using information in the most effective and efficient manner, are vital to mastery of a subject.  These complex skills must be taught and practiced in the context of a discipline.

Traditionally, information literacy skills have been most commonly used for evaluating students’ information literacy skills.  Many instructors, however, have lost confidence in the learning effectiveness of the traditional undergraduate research paper.  Concerns over “cut-and-paste” plagiarism and term paper purchasing have created a need for different approaches towards information-based assignments.  Fortunately, there are numerous ways to incorporate information resources into assignments and to foster information literacy skills, without requiring a full-scale research paper.  Students may actually respond better to alternative assignments that enable them to focus on specific resources, aspects of the research process, or aspects of the discipline.

This document provides suggestions for alternative assignments which are intended to foster the development of information literacy.  When adapting any of the ideas listed below, please note that the clarity of your directions, details, and examples contribute to the assignment’s and your students’ success.


Please also note that when developing information-based assignments, the following resources are available to King's College instructors:
Faculty Consultations: Librarians at King’s College are available to discuss various information resources and term-paper alternatives with you.  Faculty consultations with librarians help to clarify the learning goals of the assignment, particularly as those goals relate to information literacy.
Study Guides: In addition to consultations, the library has a number of instructional handouts and online research guides that assist students with different types of assignments.  Topics covered include writing annotated bibliographies and writing book reviews. Copies of the handouts, or “Study Guides,” are available on the first floor of the library, as well as online at http://www.kings.edu/academics/library/study_tools/study_guides. Online research guides can be accessed at http://kings.libguides.com.



These assignment ideas listed in this document have been grouped into the following categories:


Anatomy of a Term Paper
Assignment: Conduct the research for a term paper.  Do everything except write it.  At various stages, students submit: 1) a clearly defined topic, 2) an annotated bibliography of useful sources, 3) an outline of paper, 4) a thesis statement, 5) an opening paragraph and summary.

Purpose: Focuses on stages of research and the parts of a paper, rather than on the writing of it.


Research a News Item
Assignment: Find an article in a popular magazine, such as Time, Newsweek, Psychology Today, or Life, which references an original research study.  (Look for a phrase such as, “According to a study….”)  Then locate the original research or the actual study in a scholarly journal.  Compare the authorship, content, format, and the conclusions of the two articles.

Purpose: Highlights the distinctions between popular and scholarly sources, and between primary and secondary sources. Helps students understand differences in audience and in authority of sources.

Compare and Contrast Sources

Assignment: Locate a popular magazine article; then find a scholarly article on the same subject. Compare the two articles for content, style, bias, audience, etc.

Purpose: Demonstrates the characteristics of various types of sources and develops evaluative skills.

Distinguishing Between Credible and Non-Credible Sources
Assignment: Find an article in a non-credible publication such as The National Enquirer.  Then research the topic of the article in an attempt to support or refute the claims made in the article.  Search online databases, the library catalog, and/or the Internet.  Document your research – both what you were able to find and what you were unable to find.  Indicate what evidence you uncovered, and from what source.  Finally, give an overall assessment of the article’s credibility.

Purpose: Learn to critically analyze claims and to question the credibility of sources.  If searching through multiple research tools (e.g., catalog vs. databases), understand differences in content in and search strategies for these different tools.



Comparison of Information Sources
Assignment: Select a research topic.  Compare how that topic is treated in two to five different types of sources, such as journals, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, the Internet, and books.  Provide a brief comparative assessment of how the topic was presented in the different resources. (Depending on the discipline, research topic or learning goals, instructors may wish to provide students with more targeted criteria for evaluation [e.g., author and audience, bias, etc.].

Purpose: Develop awareness of the characteristics and usefulness of a variety of information sources.

Variation: Use an index to locate two articles that present differing viewpoints (e.g., scholarly/popular, conservative/liberal) on an issue.  Identify the similarities and differences in perspective evident in the sources.  Provide the reasoning given in the articles for the differing opinions. Finally, offer your own assessment of each author’s perspective; support your evaluation with evidence and reasoning.

Purpose: Reveals that most journals appeal to a defined constituency and that their reporting and editorial policies reflect the attitudes of that constituency.  Encourages critical evaluation of arguments.



Understanding Primary Sources
Assignment: Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources on the same topic.  Note the similarities and differences in the sources’ content, purpose, audience, and treatment of the topic.  Summarize the major connections between the primary and secondary sources, and note major distinctions between them.  Address what information the primary source provides, and how this compares with that given in the secondary source.  
Purpose: Teaches differentiation between primary/secondary sources in a discipline.  Shows when and why to use each.

Autobiography and Secondary Sources
Assignment: Choose an autobiography of someone whose life is related to the course content. Then find secondary sources which deal with an idea or event described in the autobiography. Compare and contrast the sources.  Summarize the major connections between the primary and secondary sources, and note major distinctions between them.  Address what information the primary source provides, and how this compares with that given in the secondary source. 

Purpose: Teaches differentiation between primary/secondary sources in a discipline. Shows when and why to use each.  Demonstrates how secondary sources include interpretation and analysis of events described in a primary source.

How Conditions Have Changed
Assignment: Compare and contrast an economic or social condition from XX years ago with the current situation of that condition.  Use reports, statistics, and articles to describe each era and to support your response.

Purpose: Develops a student’s ability to use a variety of resources and to compare and critically evaluate the findings.



Annotated Bibliography
Assignment: Find a specified number of sources on a topic and write descriptive or evaluative annotations for each source.  (The instructor may wish to provide students with more specific details on what to include in the annotations and how to format them.)

Purpose: Sharpens skills in literature searching and mastering a bibliographic style.  Students learn to identify the essential details of a work and its relevance to the topic. Create an AnthologyAssignment: Compile an anthology of readings written by one person or focused on one topic. (A model for this format is an annotated book of readings, like those frequently used for college courses.)  Include in the anthology an introduction that: 1) displays an overall understanding of the subject and 2) gives biographical information about the authors.  Explain the rationale for the choice of works included.  Also include reviews or critical materials to justify the choices.

Purpose: Encourages critical reading and evaluation.  Requires that students identify similarities and differences between articles, as well as relate various writings to a common theme. 

Update a Bibliography or Review Article
Assignment: Select (or assign) a bibliography or review article written a number of years ago. Update that bibliography or review article.  Explain briefly why the new publications which you added to the updated document were chosen.

Purpose: Introduces students to literature reviews and reference sources.  Provides practice in searching for up-to-date information from various sources.  Requires students to apply critical thinking and evaluative skills as they analyze, synthesize, and integrate the information they find.

Read the References
Assignment: Read two to three articles cited in a research paper.  Explain how each is related to the paper.  Also identify in what circumstances it is appropriate to cite other papers, and what different purposes the citations serve.

Purpose: Assists students in understanding the use of information resources in one’s writing, as well as the relationships between ideas presented in different sources.  Shows when it is appropriate to recognize the contributions of previous authors in the development of new work.



Abstracting an Article or Book
Assignment: Read and prepare a summary of an article, chapter, or book.
Purpose: Assists students in identifying the basic information needed when quickly evaluating the relevance of a given article or book for a given project.  Students learn to summarize without evaluative comment while giving potential readers the most pertinent information in a brief format.

Literature Review
Assignment: Review the literature on a specific topic for a given time period.

Purpose: Reveals the purpose of a literature review, and provides experience in writing one.  Students must identify appropriate articles and use them to describe the current thinking or research on a topic.

Understanding "The Literature" of a Discipline
(also listed under “Discipline-Specific Assignments”)   
Assignment: The class begins with a discussion of the following questions regarding disciplinary research and scholarship within a given field. Following the discussing students are given the assignment: What does "the literature" of a discipline look like?  What comprises it?  How is it produced, disseminated, and accessed in a given discipline?  How is the knowledge produced?  By whom?  In which media is it presented?  What is the publishing cycle?  How important is informal communication in the field? 

After reflecting with the class on these questions, conduct research on a specific topic relevant to the given discipline in order to develop answers to these questions.  Then provide answer responses which are supported by your experiences researching your topic. Keep in mind that there are no single or simple “correct” answers to the above questions; rather, there is a multitude of ways one might define the literature of a discipline.  What is important is that you develop your assessment of the literature in the relevant field through careful analysis of the research you gather.  (Students may be asked to respond in oral or written form, or through another kind of project, such as a poster or other visual document.

Purpose: Demystifies the elusive term "the literature" and provides students with an understanding of the mechanisms, organization, and structure of the literature in a given field.  Also encourages students to recognize differences and similarities among disciplines, as well as to see diversity of literature within a given discipline.

Examining a Classical Work
Assignment: Explore through book reviews, biographical information, and indexes how and why a work becomes a "classic."  What effect does a classical work have on a discipline?

Purpose: Demonstrates the evolution of ideas and identifies factors that make a work "important."

Following Research Trends
Assignment: Select a present day issue or concern.  Search the past literature on the topic at 5- or 10-year intervals.  Note themes and trends in the literature.  Then articulate (in written or oral form) how theories or attitudes toward the issue have changed.

Purpose: Demonstrates that many of humankind’s problems and concerns have in many respects not really changed through the years, though our attitudes and understandings of these concerns have shifted significantly.  Illustrates the explosion of research and how its issues, content, and methods evolve.

Tracing a Scholar's Career
Assignment: Choose (or be assigned) a scholar/researcher to investigate.  Explore that person's career and ideas by locating biographical information, preparing a bibliography of the scholar’s writings, analyzing the reaction of the scholarly community to the researcher's work, and examining the scholarly network in which the scholar works.

Purpose: Introduces students to the use of biographical and bibliographical tools, and exposes them to examples of scholarly dialogue.

Dissecting a Scholarly Article
Assignment: Select an article from a scholarly journal (pertaining to a specific discipline).  Get the instructor’s approval of the article.  Prepare a 4- to 6-page article review which includes the following:1) an introduction to the topic of the article and the issue being discussed, 2) the hypothesis being studied, 3) a description of the study sample (e.g., random/non-random, sample size), 4) the methods used, 5) major findings, and 6) conclusions.  Then discuss the author’s opinions, views, clarifications, or claims regarding the research.  Attach the article to your critique.

Purpose: Students develop an appreciation for research and scholarship in a given discipline.  Students also are introduced to the process of analyzing and evaluating a scholarly journal article.



Compare Internet and Database Searches
Assignment: Choose a defined research topic, and develop a search strategy for retrieving information relevant to the topic.  Then run the search on the web.  Search in more than one search engine and in at least one database (e.g., Academic Search Premier, Lexis-Nexis, Criminal Justice Periodical Index).  Present some representation of the search results and compare the findings.  Was one source better than the other?  Justify your evaluation of the sources which you found most useful, as well as your choice of databases.  (To complete this assignment, students will need instruction in the basic concepts of database searching, such as using Boolean operators and selecting effective search terms.)
Purpose: Demonstrates the differences between database and Internet searches, particularly with respect to content and search strategy.

Database Comparison
Assignment: Identify a relevant research topic and explore it through two research tools (such as an interdisciplinary database and a specialized database, or the online catalog and one journal database).  Compare and contrast the databases, noting differences in purpose, subjects covered, types of resources indexed, and availability of full text.  Comment on the usefulness of each database (or catalog) in providing information on your particular topic. Note major differences and similarities between your search experiences with each research tool.

Purpose: Familiarizes students with databases and/or the library catalog and how those tools can be used for locating and retrieving relevant and timely materials.   Assists students in understanding differences between and similarities in different research tools, and in determining effective search strategies when using these tools.



Finding Suitable Information
Assignment:  Examine a set of web pages. (Instructors may wish to recommend certain websites, depending on the course content and learning goals.) Note reasons why these web pages are or are not appropriate for college level student research or for in-class use.  Explain the value (or lack thereof) of each web page to academic research.  In your assessment provide the criteria you used to evaluate the pages and the reasoning behind your evaluations.

Purpose: Students develop skills in evaluating the usefulness and relevance of information in a specific rhetorical situation.  A given source might not be useful in all instances.  Either scholarly or popular sites might be appropriate, depending on the requirements of a particular assignment.

Locating and Evaluating Internet Sites
Assignment: Find a web page or website of interest to you, or one that is appropriate to a project you are working on.  Cite this page, using a style manual to assist you.  Then write 2-3 paragraphs evaluating the site you have chosen.  Include a print copy of the first page of the web site, as well as present a log of the search strategy that you used to locate the site.

Purpose: Helps students learn to use appropriate criteria when evaluating web sites.  Provides practice in academic citation.

Comparing Print and Web Resources
Assignment: In groups of 3-5, examine one print resource (e.g., book, print journal) and one online resource (e.g., web site, online journal).  Determine indicators of quality for each item, where exactly you found those indicators, and the appropriate use for each resource.   In your evaluation note similarities and distinctions between the print and the online materials.  Compare these sources in terms of your evaluative process of them, their quality, and the appropriate uses of the sources.  Report on your findings to the class after everyone has also evaluated the sites.

Purpose: Students develop a greater awareness of differences and similarities between print and online resources, as well as a heightened sensitivity to evaluative criteria for such sources.

Create a Web-Based Information Source
Assignment: Create a web page on a narrow topic relevant to the course.  Begin by conducting research that informs development of the web page content.  Then write an introduction to the topic and include links to major sites, e-journals, discussion lists, and newsgroups. Write a brief paper explaining your choice of sites included on the website.  (The instructor may also want students to include a brief bibliography of important print resources available in the library.)  

Purpose: Students learn to select, evaluate, and organize electronic resources in order to communicate information on a researched topic.



Look Behind the Book
Assignment: Examine the credibility of a major monograph in the field.  Consider the following questions: Who wrote it?  What are the author's credentials?  What is the point of view of the author?  Then, after doing your own initial evaluation of the publication, find three reviews of the book and compare those assessments of the monograph.

Purpose: Emphasizes that texts are created within complex rhetorical contexts, and that many publications exist “in dialogue” with other writings.  Stresses that analysis of information resources involves evaluating rhetorical situations, including authorship and dialogues that develop about original writings.  

Analyze the Argument
Assignment: Read an editorial.  Then find facts which either support or refute the views expressed in the editorial.  Using the research you compiled, present your own assessment of the editorial.  Explain the reasoning behind your evaluation, and cite the sources that inform your views.

Purpose: Encourages critical reading and develops research skills. Provides practice in applying principles of citation style.
Evaluate a Research Report
Assignment: Locate a research paper relevant to the given field of study.  Examine the study’s experimental design, data, and interpretation of the data for adequacy and consistency.  (The instructor may wish to hand out targeted questions which pinpoint specific aspects of the article.)

Purpose: Develops skills in the critical evaluation of research.  Familiarizes students with the writing conventions for research articles in a given discipline.

Compare Book Reviews
Assignment: Locate and read three or four reviews of a book.  Compare and contrast the reviews.  Comment on the viewpoints, biases, or assumptions that the reviewers exhibit.

Purpose: Encourages students to think critically about an author’s point of view, as well as others’ responses to an author’s perspectives.  Provides insight into the importance of critical reception and dialogue.

Viewpoint of a Culture/Country
Assignment: Find journal, magazine, or newspaper articles from different cultures or countries which represent views on a particular event or topic.  Then compare and contrast the various views.

Purpose: Students develops skills in analyzing differing cultural perspectives on issues. Encourages students to broaden and enhance their own perspectives on these issues.

Write a Book or Film Review
Assignment: Review a book/film (either of the students' choice or one assigned to them).  Identify the author’s thesis and main ideas and how they are developed.  Discuss the author's credentials and the credibility of their ideas, and explain why those ideas are or are not convincing.   

Purpose: Helps students to identify key arguments and concepts expressed in an information resource and to evaluate the authority and credibility of information resources.

Variations or Add-On:
Compare the work analyzed above (including its thesis and main ideas) to similar works in the field.  Note similarities and differences in the viewpoints and the reasoning used in each work.  (The instructor may wish to provide students with targeted criteria for evaluation.)

Variations or Add-On:
Locate a film which was adapted from a book or a play.  Compare the film to its original source. (The instructor may wish to provide students with targeted criteria for evaluation.)
Places a book/film in its intellectual context and communicates that ideas and publications exist within dialogues among their authors.  Encourages synthesis and critical analysis of multiple information resources.

Examine Coverage [across Disciplines] of a Controversial Issue or Event
Assignment: Examine the treatment of a controversial issue or event in several sources.  Consult resources such as newspapers, editorials, magazines, websites, and scholarly journals from different disciplines.  Compare and contrast each resource’s use of documentation, viewpoint, audience, objectivity, and quality of argument.

Purpose: Emphasizes that there are multiple perspectives on any issue or event, and that various disciplines approach a common topic from both similar and differing vantages.

Research and Summarize a Significant Year
Assignment: Develop a snapshot of a year that is significant for your course.  Starting with a chronology (such as those provided in Bernhard Grun’s Timetables of History ), report on politics, the arts, science and technology, or whatever categories make sense for the course. 

Purpose: Develops the student’s ability to use a variety of sources to obtain information about a period of history.

Write a Newspaper Article
Assignment: Conduct research on a particular event (e.g., political, social, cultural).  Then write a newspaper story which is based on your research and that describes the event. 

Variations: The assignment can be limited to one or two articles, or it can be more extensive. The activity gains interest if several people research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.

Purpose: Develops skills in researching, critical reading and thinking, and summarizing.

Forecasting in Retrospect
Assignment: What did articles written during a given time period (e.g., the 1960s) predict about the future of a cultural practice or a phenomenon (e.g., computers and computer use).  Did the forecasts come true or not?  Why?  To answer these questions locate articles on the topic.  After reading and comparing the articles, give a brief presentation (oral or written) on your findings. 

Purpose: Demonstrates the importance of historical perspectives, including how writing and research are situated within given historical and sociocultural circumstances.  Encourages students to consider the reception and evolution of writing and research over time.


Bernhard Grun, The Timetables of History: A Linkage of People and Events, 3rd edition. (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1991).