Term Paper Alternatives
So you'd like your students to use the library but don't want to assign a research paper?

Miriam E. Joseph, Ph.D., M.L.S.
Reference Librarian/Professor
Pius XII Memorial Library
Saint Louis University

No problem! There are many ways to incorporate the use of library resources into class assignments without requiring a full-blown research paper. In fact, students may respond better to "alternative" assignments which enable them to focus on and master specific resources or aspects of the research process.

Many students, especially those whose exposure to library research is not well-developed, may be overwhelmed by a major paper. Smaller scale assignments help students build confidence in their own research abilities; this leads to less frustration in library use and probably even better grades.

Please contact a librarian for assistance in developing alternative library assignments.


1. Ask students to browse the library stacks where the books in the discipline are shelved. They consult a volume of a relevant specialized encyclopedia and an index. They also examine the contents of several journals in the discipline. Students write an essay in response to these questions:

Source: Spangler, G.A. (1984). Philosophy in the library. Teaching Philosophy, 7, 139-141.

2. Identify significant people in your discipline. Have students consult a variety of biographical resources and subject encyclopedias to gain a broader appreciation for the context in which important accomplishments were achieved.

3. Identify a significant event or publication in your discipline. Have students try to ascertain the important people, etc., involved by consulting a variety of library resources.

4. Contrast two journal articles or editorials from recent publications reflecting conservative and liberal tendencies. It might be interesting to carry out this exercise again using publications from the late 1960s.

Source: Huber, K., & Lewis, P. (1984). Tired of term papers? Options for librarians and professors. Research Strategies, 2, 192-199.

5. Assign readings on a topic from both primary and secondary sources. Have students compare and contrast the sources and content.

6. Inherent in research is the critical evaluation of resources and their contents. The following assignments can help students develop the frequently overlooked skill of critical evaluation.

Source: Spaziano, V.T., & Gibbons, J.L. (1986). Brain chemistry and behavior: A new interdisciplinary course. Journal of Chemical Education, 63, 398-399.

7. Ask students to update a literature review done about five years ago on a topic in the discipline. They will have to utilize printed and electronic resources to identify pertinent information.

These and similar publications in other disciplines are good sources for "alternatives" to the research paper:

• College Teaching
• JME: Journal of Marketing Education
• Journal of Chemical Education
• Teaching Philosophy
• Teaching of Psychology
• Teaching Sociology

Students will require preparation before they will be able to comfortably tackle some of the assignments described here. A librarian can work with you to ensure a positive library learning experience for all.

This article originally was posted on the BI-L online discussion, on June 12, 1996. Subsequently it was posted on the website of the Library of the University of California-Berkeley.

Reposted with minor edits on January 4, 2012

  Copyright ©1992-2012, Miriam E. Joseph, Ph.D., M.L.S., Reference Librarian/Professor, Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University.  All rights reserved.

Permission is granted for the reproduction of print copies of this guide for educational purposes only. Electronic links to this web page are permissible but electronic copies may not be made and loaded locally. Contact the author regarding any other usage.