Research Paper Alternatives

FYW encourages students to engage deeply with sources and develop writing projects that do much more than simply cite or respond to sources. In important ways, the familiar “research paper” students may be used to writing may be at cross purposes with the more deliberate and sustained work with sources required in most FYW assignments. Strong Info Lit assignments work against students’ expectations in regard to research, then, by weaving researched sources into a larger conversation already taking place students’ work and by building onto the content matter, thinking, and writing students have already been doing. You can find examples of strong Info Lit essay prompts in our Baseline Syllabus Sequences and on our Assignments Database page.

For instructors who would prefer to avoid a “research paper” altogether, however, there are some creative options that help students learn the skills and critical thinking required in academic research and writing but that make use of those skills for shorter “feeder” projects. Strong shorter projects may take the place of or be in addition to a researched essay in fulfilling the FYW Info Lit component. Consider the following, and consult with the Assistant Directors of FYW for ideas on adapting these or creating other Info Lit projects of interest to you.

Everything but the Paper

Have students do all the research necessary to write a critical, argument-driven project on a chosen topic. Have them create a works cited list of relevant sources and a brief one to two sentence description of why each is useful, then propose an argument and a summary of how they would construct the paper if they were to write it.

Annotated Bibliography

Have students compile an annotated bibliography that summarizes and evaluates the sources students have found. It’s important to stress that this research often includes a lot of excess—simply choosing the first hit is often not the right match for a research project. Consider asking students to locate and annotate more sources than are necessary to include in the final project. Possibly even include a list of “rejected” sources (to emphasize the sorting aspect of research).

Class Archive

An annotated bibliography could also become a class-wide collaborative project, where students contribute the sources they have found to a class archive that other students are encouraged to draw on in their writing projects. Google Docs (or a related technology) enables your class to create a “living” bibliography that each can alter, add to, and improve throughout the semester.

Classroom Resource/Context Project

Ask students to choose a topic relevant to the conversations the class has been having all semester, and then research one of these topics with the goal of creating some sort of presentation or document that will help the whole class more deeply understand readings and ongoing conversations. The instructor can provide a list of recommended topics or let the students generate their own. This works well as a collaborative project, but can also be an individual one.

What Is This Text? Who Is This Author?

Any assigned text can be accompanied with a small research component designed to help students place the text in a larger context. If you assign a text by Judith Butler, for example, students could be assigned roles to establish this context. One set of students could research Butler the person; another set could say more about what her influential writings are (and what they seek to do); a third set of students could trace the reception and influence of these texts.

Citation Trail

Working with the texts used in class, invite students to choose one of the works that the author has cited. Have students locate that source, read it (in its entirety if it’s short or just the relevant section if it’s long), and document the context of the citation and how this (new) text is helpful in understanding the original author’s project. Then students should repeat their process with a source cited in their newly discovered text.


You can find more alternatives to research papers at