New from ACRL – “Embracing Change: Alternatives to Traditional Research Writing Assignments”

ACRL announces the publication of Embracing Change: Alternatives to Traditional Research Writing Assignments, edited by Silke Higgins and Ngoc-Yen Tran. The title collects existing alternative assignments from librarians and classroom instructors and examines their benefits and drawbacks, impact on various student populations, and the support needed to make them successful.

Learn more about Embracing Change in this Introduction from the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Discussions revolving around the pedagogical value and real-life applicability of traditional research writing assignments are not a novelty; Hood writes that since the 1990s, a significant number of publications have investigated the benefits and drawbacks of these assignments.[1] Initially focusing on first-year programs and composition classes, the discussion has since expanded to include all levels of undergraduate learning and begun to stretch into graduate studies. The increase in adoption of alternative assignments over time could be an indication that students are questioning the long-term benefits of participating in elaborate research processes and writing papers on topics they believe are not realistic contributions to establishing post-college career knowledge, skills, or experiences.

Over the years, as faculty librarians liaising with departments spanning the breadth from humanities to STEM, we had become familiar with students’ frustrations regarding traditional writing assignments. The feedback we continued to receive each semester during reference transactions and one-on-one research consultations left no doubt that a growing number of students no longer believed that traditional research assignments aligned with the goals and outcomes they had set for their academic journey. As we continued to listen to students and began to ask questions about what they imagined useful real-life assignments would look like, the idea for this book was born. In order to investigate the extent of existing alternate assignments and their benefits and drawbacks, impact on various student populations, and support provided by librarians, we decided to invite librarians and classroom instructors to share their experiences with creating, implementing, and maintaining nontraditional assignments. The result is this collection of chapters offering the reader a wealth of insight into the theory and practice of utilizing alternative assignments; case studies sharing the development, implementation, and lessons learned; and examples and reference materials for those wishing to embark on the path of incorporating or refining alternative assignments to their curricula.

Divided into the two sections of analog- and technology-driven alternative assignments, the chapters of Embracing Change: Alternatives to Traditional Research Writing Assignments broaden the understanding of alternatives to research and writing assignments, heighten awareness of the value of different types of assignments, and provide librarians and educators with guidance for practical application on how to create, implement, and support alternatives to research writing assignments. Most importantly, the chapters highlight the incredible breadth and depth alternatives to traditional writing assignments have to offer. In Part I, the analog-driven chapters detail how students engaged with writing gray literature, produced a local voting guide, created museum-level exhibit labels, composed and printed original poems using a letterpress, made zines, developed finding aids, and wrote a children’s book. In Part II, the technology-driven chapters describe how students became actively involved in editing Wikipedia entries, planned a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, created infographics and lightning talk videos, learned digital literacy using podcasts, and engaged in a variety of digital humanities projects.

The chapters are also a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, highlighting how the core tenets of librarianship thrive when integrated into classroom teaching and learning methodologies, and emphasize the importance of librarians playing a central role in building the foundation on which students build knowledge and understanding of the research process. Last but certainly not least, the chapters speak to the ability and willingness of librarians to constantly pivot and adapt their pedagogical practices, traits that became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which drastically altered the educational landscape quite literally overnight. During this time, existing, well-planned assignments needed to be efficiently and effectively restructured or adapted to online learning environments and modalities, all the while taking into account the inaccessibility of physical library resources and services.

At the time we write this introduction in mid-2021, parts of the world are only just beginning to reemerge from the most obvious damages the COVID-19 pandemic has caused; yet while the general sentiment is shifting to one of positive outlook and a desire to return to a state of normality, there is no mistaking that a long road to recovery and rebuilding still lies ahead and a new normal for higher education teaching and learning is likely to emerge. As a result, it could be argued that this is the perfect time to continue to build on the significant and important changes to student learning brought about by the pandemic. With this in mind, it is thus our hope that the chapters in Embracing Change: Alternatives to Traditional Research Writing Assignments will serve as inspiration and idea generators for librarians and classroom instructors on how to initiate or adapt the use of alternate assignments and also as guidance for how to use theory and practice to secure buy-in from the various stakeholders involved in creating and approving curricula. Even more importantly, we hope this book will provide support to the community of students wishing to learn and engage with their courses and assignments in a meaningful, real-life-related manner.


[1]. Carra Leah Hood, “Ways of Research: The Status of the Traditional Research Paper Assignment in First-Year Writing/Composition Courses,” Composition Forum 22 (Summer 2010),