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Waidner-Spahr Library

English Department Research Scaffold: English Dept Research Scaffold

Ideas to incorporate information literacy instruction in research-intensive course.

Pre-Assessment of Research Skills

The library staff has created an assessment that you can use to gauge your students' research proficiency early in the semester. Upon request, your librarian will set this up and send you a link to provide your students. Following the deadline you set, you will be provided with results, which may help you determine which of the following lessons are most critical for your course.

A sample of this assessment can be viewed here: Humanities Assessment.

English Department Research Scaffold


 Lesson 1

Timing: when reviewing your syllabus

Expectations for a Research Project

These resources should be added to your syllabus or Moodle and discussed in class along with other introductory course activities.

Required Readings:

Activity Suggestion: 

Have students read the section entitled "Searching as Strategic Exploration" from the Association of College & Research Libraries' Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Then write in about 250 words:

  • What level of researcher do you consider yourself to be (novice, expert or somewhere in-between) and why? What research practices described here are you already performing/are good at?
  • What do you need to do to “level up”?

Lesson 2 

Timing: when required supplemental course readings are assigned 

How to Locate and Access a Journal Articles, Print Books, and eBooks

Rather than posting on Moodle copies of required readings that the library owns, provide students with a citation and ask them to retrieve readings themselves. Having students access their own material familiarizes them with the library’s resources, reinforces the idea that not all research material is free and accessible through Google, and provides the library with statistics needed for making purchasing decisions. 

Students who already know how to look up and retrieve these items can skip these tutorials, which otherwise should be required:

Lesson 3

Timing: after students have been asked to retrieve and read several different source types.

Distinguishing Among Source Types

Students often have a difficult time discerning what type of source they are using, particularly in the online environment, which has the effect of equalizing the value of material. Students may therefore use sources that are inappropriate to their needs (e.g. using a book review instead of a critical article, or a magazine instead of a scholarly journal).

Required Tutorials:

Activity Suggestions:

  • Bring hard copy examples of various source types to class. Have students examine, identify, and discuss differences among them. Look up the items' online counterparts and find the elements that are indicative of each source's category.
  • Discuss when and how various source types relevant to your course should be used, and what the limitations of each source might be.

Lesson 4

Timing: following or in conjunction with lesson 2 and after a few resources have been read and analyzed in class

This lesson is optional and is included as an idea and for convenience; other course activities and discussion may likely replace it.


Identifying a Thesis

Have students critically read a secondary source article or book chapter relevant to your course. Students should then identify the thesis and answer the following questions in writing in about 200 words total. 

  • What is the thesis of this article?
  • Why is the thesis significant? What is the “so what?” aspect of it?
  • What is controvertible/arguable about the thesis?
  • What are two examples of evidence the author uses to support the thesis?

Handout: What is a Thesis?

Activity: There are samples of "good" and "bad" thesis statements all over the internet, but if possible, find some that are relevant to your course, or make up a few. In discussion, ask students to collectively to explain the elements of a "good" thesis, and/or ask them to improve samples. 

Lesson 5

Timing: when a research project is first introduced. 


JumpStart vs Discipline-Specific Databases

Students need to be in the habit of selecting the best tools for their research needs. Have students select a topic for investigation, discussion or preliminary research before completing the activity.

Required Tutorials:

Activity: Choosing Appropriate Databases. Outcome of this activity: students in most literary studies courses should conclude that the MLA International Bibliography is an indispensable resource that they must consult for most research projects in English courses.

Lesson 6

Timing: when a research project is first introduced, in conjunction with Lesson 5.


Efficiently Searching Databases

This lesson teaches students that searching in academic databases is different from searching Google, and how to use databases efficiently. 

Required Tutorial: Choosing Search Terms

Required Reading: Boolean Operators and Truncation Symbols

Activity: Searching Databases Efficiently

Lesson 7

Timing: As needed when bibliographies/works cited documents are due. 

Citing in MLA

Required Resources:

Handout: Common MLA Mistakes and How to Fix Them


After completing Lessons 5 and 6, students should create a bibliography of 5 - 10 sources in the MLA format.  Students should be required to revise their initial attempt after reviewing the documentation above.

Lesson 8

Timing: As needed when students are gathering information for their research project.

Finding Primary Sources

This module helps students understand different types of primary sources and teaches them how to to find them. 

Required Tutorial: Introduction to Primary Sources

Required Reading: 

Activity: Finding Primary Sources

Lesson 9

Timing: When students are preparing a source list or annotated bibliography, after or in conjunction with Lessons 6, 7, and 8. 

Annotating Sources

Students should learn to critically analyze primary and secondary sources, and avoid simple descriptions that simply restate an academic title or draw too heavily from a published description.

The should repeat any tutorials necessary to refresh their skills in order to complete the activity.

Activity: Annotating Sources

Lesson 10

Timing: Any time


Zotero is an open-source tool that allows you to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources easily, using a web browser extension along with a stand-alone program on your computer. Students often ask us why we don't teach Zotero sooner!  Our guide and tutorials can help them get started using Zotero. 

While this is optional, we recommend that students learn Zotero before their senior seminar experience using our Zotero Guide and Tutorials page.

Notes about this Scaffold

Although the lessons are numbered, they need not necessarily be assigned in this order.  Please assign the lessons as they best fit into your course. 

You may plan to have a librarian visit your class for a date following the completion of the lessons that are relevant to your course.  To contact your librarian, go to:  Ask a Librarian.

We recommend requiring students to complete a task following all tutorials and videos. Unfortunately, we cannot verify completion of the lessons created in YouTube. However, you can ask students to submit proof of completing the interactive tutorials. To do this, they should click the "Submit" button on the left side of the screen after completing the tutorial. Their results will be emailed to them.