Assignments with Library & Online Resources

Librarians are always available to meet with faculty who are designing or revising library-related assignments. This collaboration helps faculty to generate assignments that refer to the best possible sources and also lets us make arrangements within the library to accommodate the needs of the assignment. A well-designed assignment can teach students valuable research skills and improve the quality of their papers. Unfortunately, assignments also have the potential to confuse and frustrate students, leading to a poorly written product. To collaborate on creating an effective assignment, contact your subject librarian.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when developing assignments that require library or Internet research.

Set objectives and make them clear to students

A statement of objectives helps students focus on the research-related skills they should learn as a result of the assignment. The following example might be appropriate for a term paper in the social sciences or humanities. As a result of this assignment, students should learn to

  • Develop a suitable topic for research, using the library reference collection and other sources of background information.
  • Select and use the most appropriate library catalogs, article databases, printed indexes, and Internet search tools to locate relevant and timely materials.
  • Distinguish between popular and scholarly sources and detect signs of bias, whether the material is in printed form or on the Internet.
  • Quote and cite sources in a way that gives proper credit and avoids plagiarism.

The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education provide an extensive and thought-provoking set of possible objectives.

Teach research strategies

Research strategies may seem obvious to experienced researchers but are often unknown to students. Breaking down the assignment into research strategy steps will help them accomplish your stated objectives. The following research strategy might be appropriate for the term paper described above.

  1. Define your topic using an encyclopedia article or textbook chapter for background information.
  2. Develop a list of relevant keywords and phrases to use in searching.
  3. Use the library catalog to find books on your topic.
  4. Use article databases and printed indexes to find more recent information in magazines and journals.
  5. Use Internet directories and search engines selectively to locate authoritative, high-quality websites.

Research, whether in a library or on the Internet, is a complex process that requires--and teaches--flexibility and adaptability. Students benefit from opportunities to reflect on their research strategies and think critically about what they are doing.

Provide resource lists

Resource lists give students a starting point, directing them to the most useful information sources for a particular assignment. Because so many reference sources are moving from print to electronic formats, you may want to check the library's listings of article databases to be sure you are including the latest versions. We can also work with you to create a guide specifically for your class.  See these examples:  POLS 2311, MANA 5333, EDAD 5376, and CE 1105.

Our subject guides offer web pages listing important sources in their subject areas. Feel free to print and distribute these, copy from them, or link to them if you have a course-related web page.

Consider alternative designs for the assignment

Here are some possible examples:

  • Students keep a "research log" documenting where they looked for information, analyzing what search techniques worked and what didn't, and discussing how the material found affected their thinking on the topic.
  • Starting with a significant event or publication in your discipline, students find out more about the people and issues involved.
  • Students, working in groups, prepare a guide that introduces others to information sources in a subject field.
  • Students analyze the content, tone, style, and audience of three journals and/or websites considered fundamental to your discipline.
  • Students compare how a given topic is treated in several different reference sources, both print and electronic.
  • Students compare results from a general Internet search engine, a selective web directory, and a database of scholarly journal articles.

For other alternatives, see Ideas for Library/Information Assignments (Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries)

Avoid these common problems

  • Students are forbidden to use anything from the Internet, when in fact many scholarly resources are only available online (see "What about the Internet?" below).
  • An entire class is looking for one piece of information or researching the same specific topic; this problem becomes especially difficult when printed materials are involved.
  • Students are required to use printed materials the library does not own (or does own, but not in sufficient quantity) or online sources they are not licensed to access.
  • Students are working from incomplete/incorrect information.
  • Students are assigned excessively vague or general topics, e.g., "women in America," without guidance on narrowing a topic.
  • Students are given obscure trivia questions and told to find the answers.

Resentment toward rather than appreciation of library research is the likely result of these assignments. Library assignments are more meaningful if students use the information they find for an authentic task related to the topics covered in the course.

What about the Internet?

Many faculty members are justifiably concerned about the deteriorating quality of student papers caused by overreliance on Internet search engines and unquestioning acceptance of the first website they see. However, forbidding all use of the Internet may not be the best solution. Some scholarly journals are only available online, and there are reliable, teachable ways to find and identify high-quality websites.

  • Encourage students to find scholarly material through the article databases available on the Library website. These will lead them to both online and printed copies. Accept the online versions if they are properly cited.
  • If appropriate for your class, advise students to use selective directories of high-quality websites. Examples are ipl2 and UC Riverside's InfoMine.
  • Remind students that there are techniques for evaluating websites. Consider having them evaluate sites as part of the assignment.

Adapted with permission from the University of California, Berkeley Library.

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