Writing Research Assignments

Research assignments are very different to tests. Tests function to show what the students have learnt throughout a unit while research assignments are a learning experience in themselves. As a result, if you ask your students to recall what they have learnt in a research assignment, they will usually copy and paste the answer. The antidote for this is to ask the students to do something with the information that they are finding.


The following example comes from the History curriculum but the process is the same no matter what the topic is.

The History curriculum says that students need to be able to understand ‘the role and achievements of a significant individual and/or group‘ in Japanese feudal society. A copy and paste assignment would ask the students to explain the social structure in feudal Japanese society and the students would copy and paste something like the text in the image above. Job done. Even if they tried to put this in their own words, they would struggle – there just aren’t that many words for ‘top’, ‘under’, ‘followed’ and ‘bottom’.

This is the same for any project where they are asked to write a biography of a person (scientist, artist, etc.), describe the achievements of a person or describe the role or function of an object.

Questions stems

Enter question stems. These give us prompts that can help us to generate questions where students access and create information at different levels.

Consider the question ‘what would happen if..?’ from the understand column. The question ‘what would happen to a samurai if their Daimyo lost a battle?’, seems more simple than ‘explain the social structure…’ but to complete it the kids need to read closely and pick the correct information to answer the question. Once they have the concept that these classes were fluid and people could move down the social structure, you could ask them if there was any evidence that people could move up the pyramid as well.

‘What would happen if..?’ is also a good alternative to ‘Describe…’ for biographical assignments. ‘What would the world be like without..?’ allows the students to appreciate the contribution of a person or invention, consider if others were at a similar stage of innovation and consider alternative solutions.

Now consider the prompt ‘Do you believe…’ from the Evaluate column. Going back to the history task, the position of farmers in feudal Japanese society is very interesting. You could ask the kids why they think farmers were above artisans, whether they believe farmers are more or less important in our society and what these positions reflect about society.

‘Do you believe..?’ can be applied to many comparative tasks such as, ‘do you believe strength is more important than endurance?’ or ‘do you believe that price is more important than quality?’.


Once you have created your questions, organise them so that the lower order questions come first and the higher order come later – this way you will be able to tell right away how deeply a student has engaged with a topic based on how far they got through the assignment.


Getting question stems to work requires practice. Students will need formative exercises and feedback before they embark upon their major assignment to make sure that they know what is expected of them.

Both writing these questions and answering them is a skill that needs to be developed. Once the practice is ingrained though, copying and pasting becomes at-best insufficient and the whole process of researching, writing and assessing these assignments becomes more interesting for everyone.


About timthelibrarian

Tim Harwood is a Teacher Librarian and eLearning enthusiast.
This entry was posted in Research Skills, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Writing Research Assignments

  1. Al says:

    These are really straight forward but effective tips to overcome a prolific challenge. Thanks Tim!

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