Tips for Creating Good Research Assignments
Let students know that the assignment has a specific understood purpose and communicate why learning how to find information is important to their success in class, in college, and throughout their careers. If they're not interested in scholarly research, point out that information exists on any topic, from buying a new stereo to planning a trip to Europe. If you have a personal story that illustrates the power of information, tell it.
Think about what you want students to gain from the assignment. Just as you cannot teach a semester course in one day, information literacy cannot be achieved in one assignment. For anything other than a large research paper, consider focusing on a particular collection, research tool, or skill, such as finding reference books on a topic, using a specific periodical database, or evaluating information.
Don't assume students know how to use the library, even if they tell you they do. The majority of students have never been presented with the number of information choices they find in a university library. They also do not enter college understanding the organization of information within a discipline, how to search computerized databases, or how to evaluate information.
Try to tie information seeking into class assignments or to some area of student interest. Assignments asking students to find things for no particular reason (i.e. the scavenger or treasure hunt) are often considered busy work by the students, are actively resented, and have been proven to be ineffectual.
Don't ask your students to do something that can't be done. An impossible assignment frustrates a student and turns them against the library. Try doing the assignment yourself to test its feasibility and see if there are enough books and periodicals available in the library to sufficiently cover the assignment requirements. For additional help on determining the feasibility of an assignment as it relates to the library's collections and holdings, check with one of the librarians.
Clarity and Accuracy
Be specific in what you want the students to do and how your direct them to do it. If you want them to use scholarly articles, be sure they are clear about what distinguishes a scholarly journal from a popular journal. If you want the students to look for articles in Academic Search Premier, do not tell them to go to a library computer and find it on the internet. Instead, direct them to the Library's web page/ Find Articles / EBSCOhost / Academic Search Premier. Provide a list of appropriate resources to give students a starting point.
Choosing a topic is often difficult for students. Although everybody writing on the same topic creates difficulty in keeping materials on the shelf, too wide a choice of topics paralyzes many students and often finds them researching inappropriate subjects for which they can find very little information. Consider offering your students a list of possible choices that you have pre-researched and know will result in a successful research experience.
Create an assignment that requires the student to think about the information they are retrieving. Often, students will take the first things they find on a topic if not given a reason to be more discriminating.
Pace the assignment
For large research assignments, break the assignment into smaller chunks so you can ascertain whether or not the student understands the research process and is finding appropriate sources. Looking at a draft of a bibliography a month before a paper is due can help direct student research and also gives students time to use the Interlibrary Loan services, if necessary. Additionally, pacing the assignment discourages procrastination.
Explain to students the difference between public web documents found through search engines (like Yahoo, Google and Dogpile), and structured scholarly information databases available via the web like (Academic Search Premier, ProQuest Computing, ERIC, Medline). Students are often told by their instructors NOT to use the internet for a class assignment, when in reality the majority of our periodical databases are only accessible via the internet.
Make sure students understand the technology required and have reasonable access to the computers and software necessary to complete assignments.
It is helpful to the librarians, if you provide a copy of your students assignment. This allows us to support your educational goals and be additional resources for your students. If you have questions, or would like a librarian to look over an assignment for potential problems, collaborate on an assignment, or talk with your class, please contact a Gateway Librarian
This document was first created by librarians Sarah Blakeslee and Kristin Tefts at the Merriam Library, California State University, Chico. September 23, 1999.