University Libraries

Research, Study and Learning at UE Libraries.

Designing Effective Library Assignments

Assignments and Information Literacy
Common Problems
Characteristics of Effective Library Assignments
Considerations for Faculty


Developing lifelong learners is central to the mission of higher education institutions. Colleges and universities provide the foundation for continued intellectual growth by providing both a framework for learning how to learn and by contributing to the development of critical thinking abilities. Library research assignments are an effective way to teach students information seeking skills.

An effective library assignment provides students with an opportunity to explore an academic library's information resources and to integrate their findings into class assignments. A well designed research assignment can provide a student with the positive initial library experience that is essential in laying a foundation for future success in using an academic library.

Assignments and Information Literacy

When asked to do "library research" or use "library resources" to complete an assignment, many students use methods that have worked for them in the past. For students who have grown up in the "Information Age", this usually means turning to a computer for information. Using Web search engines like Yahoo or Google comes naturally to students and provides quick and convenient access to information.

While students may stumble across scholarly works or authoritative sources using search engines, there are, in most cases, more appropriate resources to use. Students, on average, spend more time than is necessary to locate the information they seek. The research experience is often negative and frustrating. It need not be.

Effective library assignments enable students to appropriate resources and promote information literacy skills. To be information literate, students need to be able to recognize:

  • When information is needed
  • How to locate it
  • How to evaluate it
  • How to use it effectively
  • How to incorporate it into their knowledge base
  • How to understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information

More information on Information Literacy Competencies can be found here.

Tips for Designing Effective Library Assignments

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

1. The "Mob Scene"
Problem: An entire class looking for the same information resource or researching the same topic. What happens in the Library: Resources disappear, they are taken off the shelf and/or checked out. They are also often hidden in the library or mutilated.
Solution: Provide a variety of research topics to reduce the competition for resources. If the assignment requires the use of specific resources: students should be given a list of them and arrangements must be made with the library to place the resources on "Course Reserve".
2. The "Shot in the Dark"
Problem: Assigned information materials are NOT held by the library. What happens in the Library: Students waste time and energy looking for information the library does not have. Students quickly become frustrated.
Solution: Check the availability of prescribed resources before assigning them. Keep in mind that the pace of change in the Library's collection has drastically increased. Information resource titles change almost annually: they may be discontinued, replaced by a better product or the access point may have migrated from paper to online.
3. Tossing them in the deep end to see if they "Sink or Swim"
Problem: Assuming students have had prior experience in doing library research. What happens in the Library: Few students select and use information research tools effectively. Research effectiveness is very low. Large amounts of time are consumed executing inappropriate research strategies. The research experience is negative.
Solution: Teach research strategy in class, when appropriate. Students need to be oriented to complex sources or research strategies. Explain relevant library jargon (see Glossary of Library Terms). Keep in mind that electronic resources typically require specialized instruction and substantial practice for effective use. One methodology that is tried and tested to be effective is to ask students to keep a research diary. Ask them to keep notes of what their research strategies were, which sources they consulted, the terms used in the search and to note both the successes and failures.
4. Plagiarism
Problem: Students copy verbatim from scholarly works and fail to cite ideas. What happens in the Library: Students angrily have to re-do the research because they have not written down the information necessary to properly cite.
Solution: Make sure the students know what information is needed to cite a work used.

Considerations for Faculty

Consider WHY your students should do the assignment:
Set objectives and state the purpose of your assignment
  • Stating the objectives and purpose of your assignment helps your 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, the corresponding resources which should be consulted, and the 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 (ACE) 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!
  • The librarians have also created web pages listing useful Internet resources for specific subject areas and online databases by subject.
Test your assignment
  • Run through the assignment yourself before it's distributed to make sure your goals are stated clearly, resources are listed correctly, the deadline allows for the retrieval of needed resources, and critical thinking skills are required.
  • Ask others to try it out. Departmental colleagues may have useful suggestions about the subject content and any of the librarians 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 "scholarly 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.
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.