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Designing Effective Library Assignments

When designing effective library assignments, consider these suggested characteristics in order to avoid common problems that might result in negative research experiences.

Common Library Assignment Scenarios

The Mob Scene - A large class looking for one piece of information or researching one topic. WHY? Resources will disappear quickly; either they will be taken off the shelf or checked out. Both scenarios prevent other students from completing the assignment and they will form the incorrect impression that they will never be able to find information in the Library.

The Shot in the Dark - Some common instances are: students working from incomplete or incorrect resource lists; assigned materials are not owned by the Library; or vague topics are assigned or approved. WHY? Students will get frustrated and again incorrectly assume the Library does not have or cannot get the information they need.

The Needle in the Haystack - Students are sent to the Library to find obscure facts or materials. WHY? A Library scavenger hunt, unless focused on the research process and the use of the information located, is usually an exercise in futility, a fact students quickly realize.

Considering the Student in the Assignment

Set objectives and state the purpose of the assignment.

Rationale: Stating the objective and purpose of your assignment helps students understand what they will learn as a result of the assignment and how the assignment can be applicable to finding information in the future.

Rationale: If you want students to become acquainted with key resources in your subject area, some relevant questions to consider are: What are the students going to do with the information once they have found it and completed the assignment? Are the students doing minor research or laying the groundwork for a research paper or semester-long project?

Discuss the research process

Rationale: A research strategy is an appropriate step-by-step method for organizing a research project. It takes into account the kinds of information sought, the corresponding resources that should be consulted, and the continuous need for evaluation of the results.

Tie the assignment to established course objectives and inform students of the it's purpose and how it relates to the objectives

Rationale: Understanding how the assignment relates to the course objectives promotes greater understanding and mastery of course subject matter. Students who understand the reason for an assignment and how it will enhance their subject knowledge should be more motivated to complete the work.

Consider student capabilities and resources when developing assignments.

Rationale: Considering student ability and the availability of resources strengthens the likelihood that they will become or continue to be "active participants in learning and increases the opportunity for student success in achieving educational goals. While professors need not lower standards to ensure that students can complete assignments, some questions should be answered before introducing an activity:

  • Do my students already have the background knowledge and skills to approach this assignment or do I need to prepare them with mini-activities that systematically lead to this project?
  • Would this assignment be more successful if students could work collaboratively to draw upon individual strengths?
  • Am I asking students to complete an activity that requires a significant leap beyond the text and supplementary research materials to develop and support a thesis?
  • Should I require regular progress updates from students so I can monitor their efforts and steer them back on course as needed?

Provide reality-based, problem-solving activities that expand students' capacity for critical thinking.

Rationale: Such activities encourage students to develop knowledge of past and current practices related to the subject matter and to develop analytical skills desired by most employers.

Use technological tools to enhance assignments.

Rationale: Using such tools provides unique access to information and promotes discussion that may be inhibited by traditional class-related communication methods.

Examples: Web pages allow ongoing access to class-related information that can be updated easily and can link to related sites on the web. Software programs which allow instructors the opportunity to give instant feedback to students such as Blackboard, an integrated writing environment, or e-mail (all available on campus) offer various levels of real-time and delayed-time discussion opportunities.

Employ assignments that highlight connections within and between disciplines or to real-world applications.

Rationale: Such assignments enhance learning as students will see the connections between them and other facts or ideas that they encounter outside of class.

Develop assignments that feature interpersonal skills essential in the workplace.

Rationale: Students can benefit from developing customer service skills in such areas as positive communication, problem solving, teamwork, and leadership since they promote positive relations with co-workers and clients.

Prepare a clearly outlined, written assignment sheet. You might even consider having the librarian or another faculty member review the document prior to distribution.

Rationale: Unclear assignments can lead to misunderstanding which can be corrected by allowing students to refer to original instructions when needed. Proofreading can obviously correct misspellings, but can also identify unclear information that may benefit from revised wording.

Example: Include assignment title and purpose, along with specific steps and deadlines. Provide explanation of terms that may be new to students. Realize that "resources delivered via the Internet" may also limit access to high-quality electronic databases and resources provided by the Library. Distribute the assignment in class allowing time for questions and answers from which the entire class can benefit.

Consult a reading/writing specialist at the college to identify potential assignment-related problem areas.

Rationale: Well-developed assignments minimize student anxiety related to course requirements and helps them target essential skills necessary for understanding the subject matter.

Example: Review syllabus and assignments with a developmental studies faculty member, noting where modifications may be made for students with deficient reading/writing skills while preserving overall course objectives.

Document adapted and modified from North Harris College Library, http://nhclibrary.nhmccd.edu/index.html