Research Paper Alternatives

This semester I have made it my goal to learn as much about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as I can. UDL is an educational theory related to the accommodations and accessibility standards that we tend to think of as being for students with disabilities, but it’s about so much more than just accessibility. According to the National Center for Universal Design for Learning, it is “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

I was excited to learn about these ideas and to figure out ways to give options to my students to spark their curiosity, challenge their intellect, and get them to consider trying new things. One of the primary themes of UDL is to start with a goal in mind. Thinking about this principle helped me to realize that sometimes a traditional paper or standard exam is not necessary, or even the best option, to reach the goal. Coming up with a variety of options that contain the standard of rigor I expect is challenging, so I decided to do some research. In the process, I discovered that I was reinventing the wheel. Our very own library beat me to the punch. For her sabbatical research project, Suzanne Bernsten created an entire Research Guide called Designing Effective Research Assignments. I’ve listed a few of my favorite ideas below, but I definitely recommend that you check it out.

The following ideas are adapted from Kings College Term Paper Alternatives page.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

If you are interested in exploring more ideas for alternative research assignments, contact Martha Madigan at or stop by the CTE, TLC 324.

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