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Designing Effective Library Assignments

Note to Instructors: Please review this list of suggestions on ways to create effective library assignments. Library assignments, especially complex ones, work best when instructors and librarians work together.

Creating Effective Library Assignments

  • Put materials on reserve if students have to use the same sources.
  • Send or drop off a copy of your assignment to the Reference Desk. At the Reference Desk, we keep a notebook to let librarians know about current assignments.
  • Choose assignments that require integration of knowledge rather than "scavenger hunt" assignments.
  • Inform your students that it is easier for the librarians to help them if they bring a copy of their assignment to the Reference Desk.
  • Do not require students to use sources that the library does not own.
  • Design your assignment so that students are asked to find information and use it in a meaningful way, applying information not just retrieving facts, constructing meaning not just regurgitating it.
  • Work through the assignment yourself, even if you're just revising an old assignment, making sure that the assignment does what you want it to and the library has the resources you're requiring students to use.
  • Clearly define the task and identify any sources students should or should not use.
  • Give students a copy of the assignment, which, if you have very specific requirements, includes a list of resources you'd like them to consult.
  • Check to see if the library has already created a research guide for your subject area.
  • Schedule a course-related instruction session or discuss the assignment with your department's subject librarian.
  • Give students enough time to complete the assignment successfully. Remind students that even under the best of circumstances, research takes time.
  • Contact the Reference Desk if, in the course of your students' assignment, you need to clarify something with the librarians or if your students are experiencing a problem that we can solve.

Common Problems in Library Assignments

  • Don't give a large class the same exact assignment. Students may have trouble accessing the materials.
  • Don't use an incomplete or inaccurate name when referring to a library source. For example, don't tell your students to use Standard & Poor's since S&P publishes many well-known reference books. Be more specific by asking them to use Standard and Poor's Industry Surveys.
  • Don't require a source that the library does not own.
  • Don't give students hard-to-answer trivia questions since librarians usually end up having to do the searching, and the students learn nothing having only written down what they were told by the librarian.
  • Don't give students a generic assignment out of a textbook or handbook, unless you check to make sure it works ahead of time.
  • Don't assign "scavenger hunt" assignments, but rather give assignments that require integration of knowledge and critical thinking.

Alternatives to the Traditional Research Paper

If you want to give your students a meaningful assignment but don't want to make them write a traditional term paper, consider these alternatives and ask students to:

  • Develop an annotated bibliography.
  • Compare and contrast discussions of the same topic in a scholarly journal and popular magazine.
  • Identify key issues or scholars in a discipline.
  • Compare the way two different disciplines handle the same topic.
  • Analyze a key publication in a discipline.

At the reference desk, we often hear students say that they aren't allowed to use Internet or Web sources. Many users don't realize that many very reputable sources are available full-text on the Web. In fact, some very scholarly journals are available on the Web as well as in print. The University at Albany Libraries of the State University of New York subscribes not only to certain full-text databases like Ebsco Academic Search Complete and LexisNexis Academic, but also to scholarly electronic journals. You may need to stress the difference between the resources the library subscribes to and "free" Web and Internet sources

MANY THANKS! To Nancy Noe and Marcia Boosinger of the Auburn University Library for the use of this text.