Effective Assignments

An effective library assignment has a specific, understood purpose. It relates to some aspect of the course subject matter or learning objectives. It will lead to increased understanding of the subject and the process of locating information related to the subject. Working together, instructors and librarians can develop assignments that are beneficial to students and build strong information literacy skills. (What is information literacy?)

Examples of Effective Library Assignments


1. Help Students Determine Their Information Needs

Many college students struggle with identifying an appropriate scope for their research and with matching their research strategies to the needs of their work or project. By spending time on determining their information needs, students can begin to see both when a focus is too broad or too narrow, and how to target their research efforts toward relevant information, rather than whatever appears first.

As expert researchers, we often determine our needs without necessarily writing them down. Through our training, we make decisions and choices through an implicit process. By guiding students through this process—sharing what may be implied in a more explicit, transparent way— you can help them improve their own research process, gain insight into their thought process, and provide targeted feedback as needed. Students are eager to hear how experts do their work and sharing your methods can serve as a model for students to use as they develop their own expertise.

Small Changes

  • Use phrases like “gathering sources” or “curating a list of sources” instead of “finding sources.”
  • Share with your students how you developed your own research focus.
    • How did you become interested in that particular area of inquiry, and what helped shape your focus?
    • How do you get started on a new project and what strategies are helpful for you?
    • What happens when you reach a dead end?
  • Build in more than one opportunity to explore potential sources, so students have time to read and learn from a few sources before identifying additional information needs. Consider incorporating sources that offer background information (such as book chapters) to complement more narrowly scoped sources (such as peer-reviewed articles).
  • Instead of assigning an annotated bibliography, ask students to develop an evaluative bibliography that explains why they selected each source, what they learned, and how they might incorporate that source into their own work.
  • Allowing students to choose their own topics can encourage creative exploration but may also be overwhelming to novice researchers. Consider workshopping topics during class time to help students develop an appropriate scope of inquiry.
  • Make your library instruction session meaningful by scheduling it when students are beginning their work.

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2. Facilitate Students' Ability to Learn From Sources

Locating relevant sources is only one step of the research process, but for many students, it’s the end goal. By shifting the focus away from sources as merely containers of information, the act of locating sources is reframed as one step in a process that changes constantly as more information is gathered and as you learn more about what you are writing. To the seasoned researcher, a source of information will provide details about the context in which the source was created, the process through which it was created, and whether the source is relevant to their work. In the eyes of students, however, most sources are created alike, and their relevance is determined only by whether or not they are academic or scholarly.

Although the process of learning from sources will vary from person to person and from situation to situation, situating a source of information within a certain context and disciplinary practice can provide the student a lens through which they’ll be able to see their own research. By focusing on learning from sources, rather than on just finding them, you can help encourage your students to think critically about which sources they are incorporating into their work and why those particular sources matter to their project

Small Changes

  • Instead of talking about “using” sources, discuss how students can “learn from” sources or “incorporate” sources into their own work. Consider using examples from your own practice and research to facilitate this discussion.
  • Adopt the Transparent Assignment Template to help you clearly communicate the goals and tasks associated with any activity/assignment.
  • Describe the process of how you (as the instructor) chose the course materials. Why was a particular work or creator chosen? How does this work fit into the broader context of your discipline?
  • Instead of requiring certain “types” of sources, discuss with students the idea of authority and expertise in your discipline, and explain how that connects to their own research. 
    • For example, why might reading peer-reviewed research studies be necessary for this project?
    • Talk with students about who gets to be part of the scholarly conversation(s) in your discipline, and who is left out. (For example, women in STEM or #BlackintheIvory)
  • Discuss with your students the potential impact of one’s assumptions and biases on the research process. (For example, students may go into a project seeking to support one specific viewpoint rather than being open to multiple perspectives.)
  • Encourage students to recognize that while research is often conducted by individuals, that work relies on the work of others, and may also inform the work of future researchers.

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3. Encourage Strong Research Habits in Students

When talking about locating sources for an assignment, students often remain task-oriented and focus on “finding” rather than on learning. Students may already know how to search for information but are unable to apply what they already know into a new context. In other words, students need guidance with framing research questions, seeing patterns in the literature, weighing the relevance of evidence, and identifying the gaps in their research.

Similarly, assignments may sometimes fall into a similar trap. When we ask students to find a certain number of sources, we are signaling that what matters is the number of sources. Focusing on the process (learning from their sources, for example) rather than on the outputs or products will help shift the focus of the assignment and align it closer to the learning outcomes of a course or program. By making a few small changes, you can help students learn transferable research practices and develop new habits of mind and ways of thinking.

Small Changes

  • Model good behavior by always giving students complete and accurate citations to sources you wish them to use. For assistance, contact a librarian at lib.uncw.edu/ask
  • Use phrases like “exploring resources” instead of “finding sources” in order to shift the focus toward building understanding throughout the research process. This shift in language will also help to emphasize that research is iterative and not something that happens just before writing an essay.
  • Avoid the reification of sources, which leads students to think of sources as containing a single piece of information to insert into their own work (like the conduit metaphor).
  • Model your own research practices and ways of thinking for students before handing out an assignment or as students work through their own research.
    • Explain and demonstrate how you use a particular discipline-specific database, or how you “read” or engage with a list of search results.
    • Depending on the context, the focus should be on your disciplinary expertise or the goals of any particular assignment.
  • Consider when and whether or not academic or scholarly sources will be most relevant and useful to complete student work.
    • If academic sources are useful and relevant, explain why this is the case beyond the fact that this is what is expected of them while they are in college.
    • If academic sources are not useful or relevant, explain why other sources of information might be more appropriate for this particular task.
  • Similarly, avoid unnecessarily specifying the format of information that students have to use (e.g. "You must have at least one source on microfilm"). 
    •  The old model that scholarly sources are only on microfilm or are in print is outdated; students will find a source that "fits" the assignment rather than the best source. 
    •  Be sure to explicitly define what you mean when banning "online" or "Internet" resources. The majority of our library resources are searchable only through our online resources (databases and the online catalog); it is nearly impossible to locate an article without using a database that is delivered through the Internet. If you do not want students to use freely available websites, specify what they should use.
  • Build in opportunities for students to learn from failure, such as an unsuccessful search for relevant sources.
    •  Work with students to see that unsuccessful searches are common and part of the research and learning process, and that “failed” searches are moments to reflect, reconsider their approach, and try again..
  • Assign meaningful, productive tasks to gain research skills.
    •  Avoid activities like scavenger hunts outside of First Year Seminar courses. Roaming around the library looking for trivia is not research and tends to promote learned helplessness.
    •  Avoid requiring all your students to "meet with a librarian." Requiring students who may not have a need to schedule a research consultation with a librarian diminishes the value of a consultation.
  • Reflect on both when you are teaching students your expert methods of research, and when you are slowing down to explain the research process to someone who is not an expert.

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