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Tips for designing effective library assignments

Consider these suggested characteristics of effective library assignments.

Avoid these common problems which usually result in negative research experiences.

The mob scene

A large class looking for one piece of information or researching one topic.

WHY? Resources will disappear quickly- either they will be taken off the shelf or checked out. Both scenarios prevent other students from completing the assignment and they will form the incorrect impression that they will never be able to find information in the libraries.

The shot in the dark

Students working from incomplete or incorrect resource lists; assigned materials are not owned by the libraries; vague topics are assigned or approved.

WHY? Students will get frustrated and again assume incorrectly the libraries do not have the information they need.

The needle in the haystack

Students are sent to the libraries to find obscure facts.

WHY? A library scavenger hunt or treasure hunt, unless focused on the research process and the use of the information found, is usually an exercise in futility- and students will realize this quickly.

Consider WHY your students should do the assignment

  • Set objectives and state the purpose of your assignment
    • This helps students understand what they will learn as a result of the assignment and how this will help them in the long run.
  • Focus the assignment on the process of finding information which explains a phenomena, clarifies a viewpoint, or defines an issue.
    • Do you want your students to become acquainted with key resources in your subject area?
    • Do you want them to do the groundwork for a term project or research paper?
    • What do you want your students to do with the information once they have found it?

Consider HOW your students will do the assignment

Discuss the research process. A research strategy is an appropriate step-by-step method for 

  • Organizing a research project
  • Taking into account the 
    • Kinds of information sought
    • Corresponding resources which should be consulted
    • Continuous need for evaluation of the results.

For example:

    1. State your topic as a question or statement and develop a list of relevant keywords and synonyms.
    2. Use the online catalog (Addison) to find books on your topic. Which keywords worked best?
    3. Select and search appropriate periodical indexes (you may wish to list particular resources) to find more recent information in magazines and journals. Which indexes and searches worked best?
  • Research strategies often seem obvious to the experienced researcher but are generally unknown to undergraduate students.
  • Include the evaluation and analysis of information as part of the research process.

Help your students

Provide students with resource lists

  • Resource lists give students somewhere to start by suggesting specific sources (or types of resources) for a particular assignment. Make sure you provide accurate information!
  • Course guides can be created for your specific assignment. Ask your college librarian for more information.
  • Subject librarians have also created Subject guides listing useful library resources for specific subject areas.

Test your assignment

  • Run through the assignment yourself before it's distributed. Ensure
    • Your goals are stated clearly
    • Resources are listed correctly
    • Deadline allows for the retrieval of needed resources
    • Critical thinking skills are required
  • Ask others to try it out. Departmental colleagues may have useful suggestions about the subject content and your college librarian may see practical problems which you may have overlooked.

Consider alternatives to the traditional research paper

  • Annotated bibliographies
  • Comprehensive book reviews
  • Real life, practical, situational assignments
  • Comparisons between a popular magazine article and a scholarly journal article on the same topic
  • Research guides that introduce new majors to the information resources and research strategies in their subject field.
  • Comparisons of different accounts of the same event

Avoid library jargon

  • Define terms such as citation, database, annotated bibliography, and peer-reviewed journal. Visit our Glossary of library terms for more information.

Consult with librarians and use the libraries' services

  • Let us provide assistance with designing assignments, teaching your students about finding and evaluating information, or using our services such as Reserves, ILL, etc.
  • See our pages for Faculty and Graduate students for more information.
  • Help us help you!
    • Please notify the reference desk if you plan to visit with your class to work on your assignment. This will avoid conflicts when more than one class visits at the same time.
    • Sending us a copy of your assignment (and resource list or answer key) ahead of time will help us refer students to the resources you want them to use.

Remember: students will be more confident and willing to use the libraries and information resources once they have successfully completed your library assignment.

Taken in part from Reference Services - General libraries - University of Texas at Austin