Developing Student Researchers - The Faculty Role (4 unit workshop)

A series of workshops for faculty on integration of information literacy into their instruction and assignments.

Follow the student narrative

Designing research assignments to meet research processes goals is not easy. It needs to recognize the boundaries of your discipline and the narrative of a typical research project. Above all, it needs to enable students to get on the quest.

Every student project is a narrative, a personal story of taking on a project, making sense of it, and taking steps to develop a product. The journey can be tentative or chaotic. It can involve missteps, lost time, and procrastination. What if we gave students a map for the journey? That, essentially, is what we do when we create faceted assignments.

Step by step may seem to be foreign to actual research work, which tends to be more like running through the jungle, falling in holes, and sometimes swimming with alligators. But I have found over many years that students learn research skills best when we give them clear steps that show a clear path from problem to completed project.

Here's another rationale: Faceted assignments head off the problem of some students getting undue support from outside players like essay mills and the increasing power of artificial intelligence, for example ChatGPT.

Student Design Process

Research problem statement formulation is the most challenging part of student research. Students tend to:

  • Assume that a research project is a "finding out" exercise - gather data about a subject so you can explain it. If there is a research question it is something you can look up to find the answer.
  • See information discovery and synthesis as the goal of the project.
  • Lack much sense of how a research project could be problem-based.

Be prepared to have students struggle to find a research problem statement that actually addresses a problem or issue. Watch out for:

  • Statements that merely call for the student to look up the answer and report it.
  • Statements that call for data compilation but no analysis or problem solving.
  • Statements that use vague language or are open-ended (for example, What are the implications of legalizing marijuana?)
  • Statements that are multi-part rather than singular. A research problem statement must have one goal.

You will need to be careful to troubleshoot student research problem statements. A poorly formulated statement will sabotage the whole research process.

It is not at all easy to teach research questions. I provided some tutorials in the previous workshop (Design). Beyond that, see the attachment at the top of this box (an excerpt from Appendix One of my textbook: Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog (7th ed., 2021).

Suggested Assignment Template

1. Present basic information about your topic (8-10 lines) using Wikipedia or an encyclopedia from one of our Research Guides (

2. Brainstorm 3 or 4 possible research questions for your topic. Be sure your questions deal with a problem to address rather than asking for an answer you could simply look up in a book or online.  List the questions you have thought of.

3. Choose one of those questions as the one you will use, and state it. (You will have opportunity to revise and improve your question in assignments that follow).

4. Drawing on your chosen question, create a preliminary outline of 3 or 4 points you will need to cover to respond to your chosen research question.  Be sure to include terminology from your question in your outline.

Suggested Rubric

A well done assignment will include the following features:

1. Possible research questions are narrowly focused, require analysis to answer (not just the compiling of existing information) and show promise to be researchable.

2. Chosen research question is the best of the questions in part 1.

3. Outline is logical and deals directly with the requirements of the research question.

Finding and Using Resources

Students tend to search on topics rather than research problems. Thus, instead of searching on "How can the Kingdom of God be both present and future?" they will search on Kingdom of God. I thus encourage them to draw their search terminology directly out of their research problem statement (question or thesis):

Today's academic databases are sophisticated and well able to focus student searches down to highly relevant results. Students need to optimize advanced search features. This is a good point to enlist the support of a librarian who can work with students to help them do more sophisticated searches.

TWU Library has a whole suite of short video guides to major databases: as well as to Library OneSearch: 

(Open in full screen)

Suggested Assignment Template

1.  In relation to your research question:

     a. Do a search for books and book chapters relevant to your research question (using the Books tab in Library OneSearch)

     b. List the search words you used. Include subject heading limiters if your first result list has more than 30 entries in it.

     c. List eight books that speak to your research question (use APA, MLA, or Turabian format). Put your citations in alphabetical order by author, and do not number them.

[Note: Books tend to be broad, so you may need to find books that cover your topic in only one chapter or section.  For example, if you have a research question like this – To what extent was Descartes a Deist though claiming to be a Roman Catholic? – you might find that a search on Descartes Deism gets you nothing.  I that case, look for works on Descartes and find information about Deism within them.]

2. In relation to your research question:

    a. Do a search for journal articles related to your research question (using the Articles tab in Library OneSearch or choosing a subject-relevant database from the Databases tab)

    b. Once you are on the results page, limit your search results, using one or more subject headings..

    c. List the search terms/subject headings you used.    
    d. Create a list of 8 citations in proper APA, MLA or Turabian format. Put them in alphabetical order and do not number them.  


A well done assignment will include the following features:

1. The databases chosen are specific to the subject matter of the research question or at least cover the subject matter well.

2. Search terms are drawn from the research question and are formulated correctly.

3. Good subject headings are used when the database has them.

4. Results are specifically relevant to the research question and are of good quality (scholarly).

Suggested Assignment Template

1. Have another look at your research question, revise it if necessary, and state your final research question.

2. State your final outline in point form, preferably with both main headings and subheadings.

3. Present a bibliography, based on your research question and outline, of 14 items, at least 6 of them being scholarly articles. You may have more than 6 articles if you wish, but you must have a minimum of 6.  You can use resources that you have identified from previous assignments. 

4. Conclude with a brief paragraph explaining why you believe the bibliography is of high quality and relevant to your research question.

Present a Sample Assignment Answer

Sample Assignment 

  1. Have another look at your research question, revise it if necessary, and state your final research question.

How can the healthcare system in Canada best overcome systemic racism?

  1. State your final outline in point form, preferably with both main headings and subheadings.

I. Introduction – The nature of systemic racism

II. The problem of systemic racism in Canadian healthcare

  1. Behaviour of healthcare workers
  2. Healthcare policies
  3. Hesitance of patients to access racially biased healthcare
  4. Entrenchment of views in the system.

III. Possible solutions

  1. Review of policies
  2. New anti-racist regulations
  3. Education of healthcare workers
  4. Mediators between health system and patients subject to negative bias

Conclusion – Best approach.

  1. Present a bibliography, based on your research question and outline, of 14 items, at least 6 of them being scholarly articles. You may have more than 6 articles if you wish, but you must have a minimum of 6.  You can use resources that you have identified from previous assignments. 

Agnew, V. (2009). Racialized migrant women in Canada: Essays on health, violence and equity. University of Toronto Press.

Arya, A. N., & Piggott, T. (2018). Under-served: health determinants of Indigenous, inner-city, and migrant populations in Canada. Canadian Scholars.

Boyer, Y. (2017). Healing racism in Canadian health care. Canadian Medical Association Journal189(46), E1408-E1409.

Dryden, O., & Nnorom, O. (2021). Time to dismantle systemic anti-Black racism in medicine in Canada. Canadian Medical Association Journal193(2), E55-E57.

El-Mowafi, I. M., Yalahow, A., Idriss-Wheeler, D., & Yaya, S. (2021). The politest form of racism: sexual and reproductive health and rights paradigm in Canada. Reproductive Health18(1), 1–5.

Fraser, S. L., Gaulin, D., & Fraser, W. D. (2021). Dissecting systemic racism: policies, practices and epistemologies creating racialized systems of care for Indigenous peoples. International Journal for Equity in Health20(1), 1–5.

Gajaria, A., Guzder, J., & Rasasingham, R. (2021). What’s race got to do with it? A proposed framework to address racism’s impacts on child and adolescent mental health in Canada. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry30(2), 131–137.

Matthews, R. (2019). Health ethics and indigenous ethnocide. Bioethics, 33(7), 827–834.

Noor El-Dassouki, Dorothy Wong, Deanna M. Toews, Jagbir Gill, Beth Edwards, Ani Orchanian-Cheff, Paula Neves, Lydia-Joi Marshall, & Istvan Mucsi. (2021). Barriers to accessing kidney transplantation among populations marginalized by race and ethnicity in Canada: A scoping review part 2—East Asian, South Asian, and African, Caribbean, and Black Canadians. Canadian Journal of Kidney Health and Disease8.

Neufeld, H. T., & Cidro, J. (2017). Indigenous experiences of pregnancy and birth. Demeter Press.

Phillips-Beck, W., Eni, R., Lavoie, J. G., Avery Kinew, K., Kyoon Achan, G., & Katz, A. (2020). Confronting racism within the Canadian healthcare system: Systemic exclusion of First Nations from quality and consistent care. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(22), 8343.

Sanzone, L., Doucette, E., Fansia, N., Fu, C., Kim, E., Lo, K. P., Malhi, P., & Sawatsky, T. (2019). Indigenous approaches to healing in critical care settings: Addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s calls to action. Canadian Journal of Critical Care Nursing30(3), 14–21.

Sexton, S. M., Richardson, C. R., Schrager, S. B., Bowman, M. A., Hickner, J., Morley, C. P., ... & Weiss, B. D. (2021). Systemic racism and health disparities: Statement from editors of family medicine journals. Canadian Family Physician67(1), 13-14.

Shaheen-Hussain, S. (2020).  Fighting for a hand to hold: Confronting medical colonialism against indigenous children in Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

  1. Conclude with a brief paragraph explaining why you believe the bibliography is of high quality and relevant to your research question.

The bibliography represents high quality, scholarly resources that are relevant to the elements in my research question – systemic racism, healthcare, and Canada. The citations show a good mix of statements of the problem and proposed solutions. Most resources are recent and thus reflect current conditions.

The Risks on Plagiarism and Formative Assignments

Let’s look at some newer and very concerning reasons why developing faceted assignments is crucial. First, our students, and particularly our international students, are being targeted by unscrupulous essay mills which, for a price, will write your project for you. This has long been an issue, but our technology has made it far easier for students to get access or to be contacted.

Second, there are now online sites like ChatGPT that will create text that is not easily detectable. Students can work these systems to guarantee that even a plagiarism detector like Turnitin will not find them out. For example, Elizabeth Steere in her Inside Higher Education post on November 2, 2022:  “Text Spinners and the Problem of Paraphrase Plagiarism”:

A colleague recounted first learning about text spinners when one of his students described watching a classmate paste text into a text spinner, then copy the altered text it generated into an online plagiarism detector to see what was flagged and then repeat the process until the “unoriginality” score hit an acceptably low percentage.

Artificial intelligence is getting so good that it can produce a rudimentary essay from a title and a few keywords. 

Foundations of Formative Education

Higher education, for centuries, has been essentially adversarial. The professor demands a certain level of performance from the student and will provide rewards or punishments for student performance. Students seek for understanding of the professor's research project assignments and are constantly looking for "what the prof wants from me." This is adversarial in that students know that professors hold their fate in their hands, with good performance being the difference between acceptance or doom.

The formative assessment movement over the past few decades has attempted to move from an adversarial, summative assessment (submit your work and discover your fate) to a mentoring model in which students are given opportunity to submit their work in stages, getting feedback from the professor in order to improve their work in the next stage. It is akin to apprenticeship in a trade. Generally it calls for breaking a large research project into several parts. The student submits each part in turn, gets feedback from the professor, then either enlists the feedback to complete the next stage or resubmits work that did not initially reach the professor's threshold of competency. The whole stance is not adversarial but consultative. The goal is to improve performance to the point at which it meets the goals of the assignment. 

See: Nicol, D., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2004). Rethinking formative assessment in HE: a theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice. In C. Juwah, D. Macfarlane-Dick, B. Matthew, D. Nicol, D. & Smith, B. Enhancing student learning though effective formative feedback. The Higher Education Academy. 

A Formative Plan

Identification and Rationale

Any plan for formative assessment should be simple, easy to implement, and in line with your existing goals for student research. I am not calling for a radical realignment of your instruction or a new type of research project. The real difference will be that one big project, due at the end of term and graded some time after that, will become four or five smaller assignments then compiled into the final project.

The primary challenge is that formative assessment involves more work for both the professor and the student. It is often said that people find the time for the things that are priorities in their lives. Formative assessment priorities which would need to be embraced include:

  • The opportunity to develop students as researchers, which should be a dominant goal of all of us
  • The opportunity for students to improve their performance over time rather than just receiving one summative assessment
  • The opportunity for professors to mentor students and thus improve student understanding of the discipline and how it functions
  • The opportunity ultimately to get much better student work that reflects mature thinking in the discipline

The Plan

Study your research assignment carefully. Is the language clear, not just to you but to your students? For example, do you state that the project must be problem-based and explain what you mean by that? Are you sure that your students understand the meaning of such terms as "scholarly," "peer reviewed," "article," "critical thinking," and so on? Do you make it clear that found resources need to address the research problem in some way rather than just being about the topic.

Identify key break points in the larger assignment. Generally, these involve something like research problem development and preliminary outline, searches for information (books, articles, etc.), distilling out a final problem statement/outline/ bibliography, and the final paper. Each division determines an assignment. Students much complete each assignment and receive comments from the professor before moving on to the next assignment.

Discussion Questions

1. I've suggested that research design entails having a working knowledge of the relevant subject matter, a research question or thesis statement, and a preliminary outline. Are each of those elements important? Can you suggest others?

2. Why do students have so much trouble formulating problem-based research questions or theses?

3. What facets would you include in a research project in your discipline?

4. What do you think of formative education in general? Does it take away from individual student responsibility? Is it spoon-feeding?

5. Do you have a story from your own experience of how a mentoring approach made a different in a student's life?