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 .


Some faculty members have lost confidence in the learning effectiveness of the traditional research paper for undergraduates.  Concerns over ďcut-and-pasteĒ plagiarism and term paper purchasing have created a need for different approaches towards information-based assignments.  Term papers have been the most commonly used method of evaluating whether students can successfully apply information skills, but there are other ways to incorporate information resources into assignments 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.

Students need to acquire information skills.  But the skills required to find, evaluate and use the best information in the most efficient manner must be taught and practiced in the context of a discipline.  Information skills are tools for fostering mastery of a subject and achieving course objectives.

Librarians are available to discuss various information resources and term-paper alternatives with you.  A number of handouts are available to help students with different types of assignments such as writing annotated bibliographies, book reviews.  Consultation with librarians helps to clarify their understanding of the assignment so that they can better assist your students.

When adapting any of the ideas below, please note that the clarity of your directions, details and examples contribute to the assignmentís and your studentsí success.

 Learning Research Skills

Anatomy of a Term Paper

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

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

Annotated Bibliography

Assignment: Find a specified number of sources on a topic and write descriptive or evaluative annotations for each source.

Purpose: Sharpens the skills of literature searching and mastering a bibliographic style.  Students learn to identify the essential details of a work and its relevance to the topic.

Abstracting an Article or Book

Assignment: Read and prepare a summary of an article, chapter or book.

Purpose: Learn to identify the basic information needed to determine if reading the entire article or book is appropriate for a given project.  Students learn to summarize without evaluative comment while giving potential readers as much pertinent information as possible in a brief format.

Compare Internet and Database Searches

Assignment: Provide a precise statement of the search topic. Run the search on the Web (try more than one search engine) and on a database (EBSCOhost, Lexis-Nexis, Wilson , etc).  Students will need instruction in the basic concepts of database searching, such as using Boolean operators and selecting effective search terms. Present some representation of the search results and compare the findings. Was one source better than the other? If so why and how? Justify the choice of databases.

Purpose: Demonstrates the differences between these searches with respect to content and search strategy. Teaches students that Internet access is not just one thing and that Web searching is not the same as database searching.

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 doing one.  Students must identify appropriate articles and use them to describe the current thinking or research on a topic.

Update a Bibliography or Review Article


Assignment: Select (or assign) a bibliography or review article written a number of years ago and update that bibliography or review article and explain briefly why the new publications were chosen.

      Purpose: Introduces students to literature reviews, subject indexes and reference sources. Provides practice in searching for up-to-date information from a variety of sources.  Demonstrates the evolution of a particular topic and the scholarly communication surrounding it. Requires students to analyze, synthesize and integrate the ideas they find utilizing critical thinking and evaluative skills.

Create an Anthology

Assignment: Compile an anthology of readings by one person or on one topic. A model for this format is an annotated book of readings, like those frequently used for college courses. Include an introduction that displays an overall understanding of the subject and gives biographical information about the authors. Explain the rationale for including the works. Include reviews or critical materials to justify the choices.


Purpose: Encourages critical reading and evaluation. Requires the student to identify similarities and differences between articles and to relate various writings to a common theme.

Poster Session

Assignment: Research a topic and present it as a poster that other students will use to learn about the topic.

Purpose: Gives the opportunity to conduct a search and requires students to express the important points succinctly.

Understanding the Structure of "the Literature"


Understanding "The Literature" of a Discipline

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?

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.

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 at 5 or 10-year intervals.  How have theories or attitudes toward the issue changed?

Purpose: Demonstrates that the problems and concerns of humankind have not really changed through the years.  What have changed are our attitudes and understandings of these concerns. Illustrates the explosion of research and how its issues, content and methods change.

Assignment: Forecasting in retrospect, what did articles written in the [1960s] predict about the future of [computers].  Did the forecasts come true or not?  Why?

Purpose: Demonstrates the importance of historical perspective and how unexamined assumptions and other variables can produce unexpected results.


Tracing a Scholar's Career

Assignment: Students choose (or are assigned) a scholar/researcher. Explore that person's career and ideas by locating biographical information, preparing a bibliography of the scholarís 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.

Identifying Major Journals

Assignment: Identify (with professor's help) major journals in the discipline. Compare and contrast them. Analyze their content, tone, audience and impact.

Purpose: Emphasizes the importance of journal literature. Makes the point that journals differ in approach and perspective.

Understanding Primary Sources

Assignment: Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources on the same topic.  Contrast the sources, their content and treatment of the topic.

Purpose: Teaches students to differentiate between primary/secondary sources in a discipline. Shows when and why to use each.

Assignment: Find a short article in the popular press and the original research findings on which the popular article was based.  Review related findings, discuss the relationship between the popular article and the original research, and critique the accuracy of the popular article.

Purpose: Helps students to critically evaluate resources and their contents.

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.

Assignment: Select a topic and compare how that topic is treated in 2 to 5 different types of sources.

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

Autobiography and Secondary Sources

Assignment: Choose an autobiography of someone related to the course content. Find secondary sources which deal with an idea or event described in the autobiography. Compare and contrast the sources.

Purpose: Demonstrates how secondary sources include interpretation and analysis of events described in a primary source.



Simulations of Real-Life Projects

Assignment: Prepare a grant or research proposal, marketing or business plan, or solution to a tax, accounting, or financial problem.  State the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished.  Provide background on the problem.  How have these issues been dealt with in the past?   What is the current thinking on this issue?  How do you propose to solve the problem or what are the questions you need to ask to solve the problem?  What support can you offer for your solution?

Purpose: Simulates for students how they will apply their information skills in the context of problems they will encounter in their discipline or career.

Research a Company, Organization, or Prospective Professor


Assignment: Assemble background information on a company or organization in preparation for a hypothetical interview. For those continuing in academia, research prospective colleagues' or professors' backgrounds, publications, current research, etc.


Purpose: Develops critical thinking and skill in using resources to research companies or individuals and their contributions. 

Create an Interview

Assignment: Have the class prepare an interviewóeither one to be actually carried out or one that they canít because the subject is long dead or otherwise unavailable. To generate useful questions they would have to become familiar with the personís life and work and understand its significance. They could either write up results of a real interview or write their own imaginary responses based on available evidence.

Purpose: Develops the studentís ability to search for information about an individual in a chosen discipline, and requires that the student think critically about the personís work and contribution to the field.

Investigation of a Disease and Prescribed Treatment

Assignment: In biology or health classes, assign each student a 'diagnosis'. Have them act as responsible patients by investigating both the diagnosis and the prescribed treatment. Results presented in a two-page paper should cover: a description of the condition and its symptoms; its etiology; its prognosis; the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, its side effects and contradictions, along with the evidence; and, finally, a comparison of the relative effectiveness of alternate treatments. This can also be accompanied by oral or visual presentations, slideshow, poster session, etc.

Purpose: Teaches the application of information in print to real-life situations. Acquaints students with medical literature. 



Critical Reading


Look Behind the Book

Assignment: Examine the credibility of a major monograph in the field. Who wrote it? What are the author's credentials? What is the point of view of the book? Find three reviews of it and compare them. Suggest comparable works (with reasons).

Purpose: Emphasizes that ideas and people have contexts.

Analyze the Argument

Assignment: Read an editorial and find facts to support or refute it. Cite sources.

Purpose: Encourages critical reading and develops research skills. Provides practice in applying principles of citation style.


Assignment: Identify and examine the assumptions implicit in an article. Identify the author's thesis. Outline the theoretical framework used to account for the results. [Professor may want to hand out specific questions, in order to focus on different aspects of the article].

Purpose: Provides practice in reading what is implicit, rather than explicit, in a paper.

Assignment: Examine the experimental design, data, and interpretation of the data in a research paper for adequacy and consistency. [Professor may want to hand out questions, to pinpoint specific aspects of the article].

Purpose: Focuses on the critical evaluation of research.

Compare Book Reviews

Assignment: Locate and read [three, four, etc.] reviews of a work.  Do the reviews vary?  If so, why?  What viewpoints, biases or assumptions do the reviewers exhibit?

Purpose: provides insight to the importance of critical reception.

Contrast Journal Articles

Assignment: Use an index to locate two articles that present differing viewpoints (scholarly/popular, conservative/liberal).

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

Assignment: Read several articles that appear to address the same question but reach different conclusions. Account for the differences by examining the methods used, the experimental design, and the interpretation of the results. [Professor would select the articles].

Purpose: Encourages students to approach research with a healthy skepticism, and develops evaluative skills.

Write a Book or Film Review

Assignment: Review a book/film (either of the students' choice or one assigned to them). What is the authorís thesis?  Identify the authorís main ideas and how they are developed?  Discuss the author's credentials. Compare the book/film to similar works in the field. A film can also be compared to its source e.g. a book, a play. 

Purpose: To place a book/film in its intellectual context.

Read the References

Assignment: Read the articles cited in a research paper. Explain how each is related to the paper. In what circumstances is it appropriate to cite other papers? What different purposes do the citations serve?

Purpose: Shows when it is appropriate to recognize the contributions of previous authors in the development of new work.

Examine Coverage of a Controversial Issue or Event

Assignment: Examine the treatment of a controversial issue or event in several sources [newspapers, editorials, magazines, scholarly journal, journals from different disciplines, etc.].

Purpose: Emphasizes that there are multiple perspectives on any issue or event.

Research and Summarize a Significant Year

Assignment: Have the class develop a snapshot of a year that is significant for your course. Starting with a chronology (such as Timetables of History) have groups report on politics, the arts, science and technology, or whatever categories make sense for the course. 

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

Write a Newspaper Article

Assignment: Write a newspaper story describing an event (political, social, cultural, whatever suits the objectives) based on their research. The assignment can be limited to one or two articles, or it can be more extensive. The assignment gains interest if several people research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.

Purpose: Develops skills in researching, reading critically, and summarizing.

Using the Web


Finding Additional Information

Assignment: Give students an article to critique.  Have them locate two Internet sources that support their response to the topic. Have them cite the URLs and highlight the points that show support of their response.

Purpose: Gives students an opportunity to appreciate that information can come from a variety of sources.

Finding Suitable Information

Assignment: Give the students a set of Web pages to look at. Have them note any reasons why these pages are or are not appropriate for college level student research or for in-class use.

Purpose: A source that is useful in one instance may not be useful in all instances. Either scholarly or popular sites might be appropriate depending on the requirements of the class assignment.

Locating and Evaluating Internet Sites

Assignment: Have the students find a Web page or site of interest to them, or one that is appropriate to a project they are working on. Have them cite this page using a style manual and write 2-3 paragraphs evaluating the site they have chosen.  Ask them to include a print copy of the first page of the Web site and to present a log of the search strategy that they used to locate the site.

Purpose: Helps students learn to use appropriate criteria when evaluating Web sites.

Comparing Print and Web Resources

Assignment: In groups of 3-5, have students examine pairs of items (books, articles, web sites) to determine indicators of quality in each item, where exactly they found those indicators, and the appropriate use for each item. Have them report their findings to the class after the class has also had a chance to evaluate the sites.

Purpose: Students learn that the Web has not replaced print resources, but it should be used as a complement to them.


Additional sites:

University of Michigan

Gustavus Adolphus  http://www.gustavus.edu/oncampus/academics/library/IMLS/assignmentsuggestions.html