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Faculty Resources for Research Instruction: Research Assignments

Tips for Assignments

Librarians and faculty both seek to help students learn. Librarians want to help students develop information literate thinking processes; faculty work to indoctrinate students into the norms of their chosen discipline.

For both groups, this includes cultivating students' research skills. By collaborating with librarians in developing assignments, we can ensure that students learn how to find the most appropriate information, as well as use it and cite it properly.

Examples of Common Library Research Assignments:

  • Writing a research paper.
  • Developing an annotated bibliography on a particular topic.
  • Comparing and contrasting discussions of the same topic in a scholarly journal and a popular magazine.
  • Identifying key issues or scholars in a discipline.
  • Comparing the way two different disciplines handle the same topic.
  • Analyzing a key publication of the discipline.

Some Tips for Effective Library Research Assignments:

Ask a librarian to provide instruction sessions for your class. Most students have never learned how to perform college-level research. We can tailor instruction sessions to the needs of a particular assignment. We’re happy to cover resource selection, search strategies in particular databases, citing sources, and more.

Library instruction works best if students already have an assignment in hand and a topic in mind. Like most things in life, if research techniques aren't applied immediately then they will be forgotten before they are needed. Try to schedule instruction sessions at least two weeks in advance.

Never accept the excuse, “They didn’t have anything on my topic”. If we don’t have it, we’ll gladly get it through interlibrary loan from someone who does. Remind students that just like you, librarians are not mind readers. We can’t help if we don’t know they need it. Emphasize that you expect them to ask at the reference desk if they need help researching a topic or finding materials.

Explain clearly if you don't want students to rely solely on what is freely available on the Internet. When students are told, "don't use the Web” or “you can only list 3 Web sites in your bibliography,” they think that includes costly subscription databases too.  Please review our "Should I Require That Bibliographic Sources Be..." handout (see right-hand box on this page) about choosing the best types of sources for your assignments.

Let students know that the research/writing process requires steady, incremental progress; that gathering information needs to be done in stages. Each stage requires narrowing the scope of the search and discovering what else they need to know in order to respond to their research question. Assignments requiring research simply cannot be put off until the night before the assignment is due. They can’t hear it often enough.

Monitor student progress throughout the semester through meetings, evaluated stages of the assignment (such as an annotated bibliography), or a research journal. This step-by-step approach encourages reflection and prevents academic dishonesty.

Let students know that you will evaluate sources included in their bibliographies, and that their grade will be based in part on the quality, appropriateness, and selection of sources.

Include specific, written instructions for the assignment and give expectations for learning objectives. Feel free to forward assignment sheets on to your library liaison so that we know what’s coming and can be prepared when students arrive with questions.

Check to see if the library has already created a research aid (bibliography or Webliography) for your subject area. These aids list commonly used reference materials, research databases, and Web resources. If we don’t have one, contact us as early as possible and we’ll create one.

Put materials on reserve (except for reference books since they do not circulate) if all students have to use the same resource.

Define terms that may be unfamiliar such as ‘citation’, ‘annotated bibliography’, ‘primary sources’, or ‘peer-reviewed’.

Offer general suggestions for resources, but don't be too proscriptive. It is more effective to limit sources to scholarly journals than to limit searches to particular titles. Give suggestions for particular sources only after checking the citation and the item's availability.



Adapted from the original with permission from Rebecca Eve Graff, User Education & Outreach Librarian at Southern Methodist University.

Research Assignments

Tools for Students