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Creating effective research assignments

It is suggested that you consider following the guidelines provided below to create research assignments require the use of research skills, improve critical thinking skills, and encourage the use of a variety of library materials.

Having a well-designed research assignment can be key to students having a positive experience during library instruction. Library instruction is most effective when students research assignment that requires them to utilize the various resources in the library and the information seeking skills that they have learned as a result of the instruction.  Such an assignment ensures the retention of those skills and provides an opportunity to determine whether the instruction has been successful.  It also highlights the areas in which the students require additional or repeat instruction.

  • Provide a clear, simple, written definition of the task. Verify that students understand the assignment.  Include a list of resources you would like them to consult or ask the librarian to develop a list of materials available in the library that will support their research.
  • Encourage critical thinking skills by posing a problem or question for which students must develop a solution.  Ask students to find information and use it in a meaningful way rather than just locate facts.  Have them evaluate the information they find by analyzing it, questioning it, and comparing various information sources.
  • Define the terms you use and be specific about the tools that students should use to complete their assignment. Make sure they know the difference between magazines and scholarly literature (professional, peer reviewed, refereed journals).  For instance, indicating that students should not use encyclopedias as sources eliminates the use of the World Book, but also the use of excellent, subject-specific encyclopedias written by experts and scholars in the field.  Forbidding the use of the Internet often confuses students into thinking that they cannot utilize subscription databases (accessed through the Internet) that provide citations and the full text of scholarly journal articles.
  • It is not advisable to require that all students utilize a specific resource in order to complete an assignment. Even if the material is placed on reserve in the library to guarantee access, this type of assignment increases the possibility that materials will be unavailable when students need them because so many students are using them.  Allow students to choose between a variety of topics and utilize a variety of resources.
  • Avoid giving assignments that consist of hard-to-answer, very specific questions or random facts (i.e. scavenger hunt) because librarians usually have to do the research and give the students the answers to these questions.  This defeats the purpose of the assignment.
  • Faculty familiarity with the library and the resources that the students will be using are key so that students can experience success with completing an assignment with resources that are available to them.  Try doing the assignment yourself at the library students will use before giving the assignment to your students.
  • Assign writing assignments early. Help students to recognize that research takes time.  Wading through articles and selecting relevant information is time consuming.  The best articles for their topic might only be available through Interlibrary Loan.
  • Communicate with library staff in advance about assignments and/or provide a copy of the assignment and course syllabus. Advance warning about specific assignments allows librarians to gather and create helpful materials, plan ways to assist students, and give you feedback if the assignment will be difficult for students to complete in our library.
  • Do not assume that students have been to the library, know how to use the library, or even that they recognize that the college library has different resources than the public library. Students may be familiar with some library resources such as regular encyclopedias and searching the catalog by title, but may not understand searching by subject heading, the use of paper periodical indexes and electronic databases, the difference between popular and professional literature, or the need to evaluation the information they locate.
  • Present a realistic picture of what is and what is not on the Internet. Refrain from allowing the students to use the Internet as the only source for information.  Make sure they understand the nature of information found in the electronic databases the library purchases for their use.  When the Internet is a good source for the kind of information you require, recommend specific sites, lists of links compiled by experts, or subject directories of evaluated sites to help students find authoritative, timely and useful information.  Invite a librarian to your class to teach how to locate quality Internet sites, searching strategies for the major search engines, and evaluation of Internet sources.
  • Schedule a course-related instruction session with the librarian to introduce students to the resources in the library that would be most helpful to them in conducting their research.  Provide a list of the topics chosen by the students for the librarian so that the session can be individualized to their needs.
  • Encourage students to ask for an individual consultation with the librarian to obtain help with their research and with understanding how to use the library and its resources.  We can teach them how to find information more efficiently so that they can spend more time synthesizing their information and doing their writing.

Suggestions based on:
“Library Assignments:  Challenges that Students Face and How to Help” by Necia Parker-Gibson (College Teaching, Vol. 49, No. 2, p. 65-70).