Designing an Effective Library Research Assignment
- Clearly state the purpose. Explain the specific purpose of the assignment in writing with learning objectives clearly identified in unambiguous language.
- Set expectations. Let students know what you expect to see: the length of the paper, what sources are acceptable and should be used, the citation style they should use, and where they should seek research assistance. Examples and models are helpful. Set the standard, and students will strive to meet it.
- Communicate the evaluation criteria. The assignment should specifically state the criteria by which the assignment's product will be evaluated.
- Relate to the course. The assignment should relate to some aspect of the course subject material or to the learning objectives of the course and lead to their increased understanding of a subject or locating information related to the topic or discipline.
- Include a variety of sources. Students should be asked to use a variety of information sources and formats available (e.g., print, electronic, video). More broadly, students should be able to identify, locate, access, evaluate, and integrate information sources into their final product.
- Reinforce ethical scholarship. Students should understand the ethical use of information and follow proper citation.
LOEX of the West 2004, "Partnering to Integrate Information Competence into the Learning Outcomes of Academic Departments," presented by Dr. Ilene Rockman and Suellen Cox.
University Libraries. University of Maryland. 2011. "Creating Effective Research Assignments." University Libraries. University of Maryland. Accessed December 1.http://www.lib.umd.edu/guides/assignment.html
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid
- Assuming students all have the same library knowledge. You cannot assume that all of your students have the same background in using a library for academic research, knowledge of how Musselman Library is organized, or the resources appropriate to your course and academic discipline.
- Requiring resources that are not available. Before you give an assignment, test it. Make sure that the sources you expect students to use are available in the library collection. Subscriptions to resources may change from year to year. Discuss with a librarian new or similar information sources that will support students answering the same research questions.
- Giving students the same assignment. Keep in mind the availability of resources if you are giving all students the assignment and know they will all be drawing upon the same material. Ask a librarian about placing materials on Reserve or purchasing additional materials to support your course.
- Giving a scavenger hunt. We have found that scavenger hunts that require students to track down random facts often lack a clear purpose or learning goals and are the least effective way to provide students with a meaningful learning experience on how to do library research and to be effective consumers and creators of information. Rather than developing research habits, such as evaluating authority and appropriateness, or contributing to a greater understanding of course content, these assignments typically results in frustrated students who quickly forget the information sources being consulted. A member of the Reference & Instruction Department would be happy to discuss ways in which students can actively use the library and develop information literacy skills in the context of your course.
University Libraries. University of Maryland. 2011."Creating Effective Research Assignments." University Libraries. University of Maryland. Accessed December 1.http://www.lib.umd.edu/guides/assignment.html
Examples of Course Assignments
Course assignments that integrate library research and information literacy are an effective way to develop students' critical thinking skills with the additional benefit of discouraging plagiarism. A well-designed research assignment provides students with an opportunity to explore and integrate information resources and encourages them to think critically about information sources.
- Select a scholar/researcher in a field of study and explore that person's career and ideas. In addition to locating biographical information, prepare a bibliography of writings and analyze the reaction of the scholarly community to the researcher's work.
- Identify significant people in a discipline. Consult a variety of biographical resources and subject encyclopedias to gain a broader appreciation for the context in which important accomplishments were achieved.
- Identify a significant event or publication in a discipline. Ascertain the important people and other factors involved by consulting a variety of library resources.
- Compare and contrast two journal articles that present opposite points of view on the same topic or from different time periods. For example:
- Contrast journal articles or editorials from recent publications reflecting conservative and liberal tendencies. (It might be interesting to carry out this exercise again using publications from the late 1960s.)
- Assign readings on a topic from both primary and secondary sources. Compare and contrast the sources and content.
- Find a short article in the popular press and the original research finding on which the popular article was based. Review related findings, discuss the relationship between the popular article and original research, and critique the popular article with regard to its accuracy.
- Read an editorial and find facts to support it.
- Verify assumptions or opinions on a specific topic. For example, for a course about inequalities of race, gender, and economics, students could be asked to find the average income for black women and white women in the U.S. What source did they use? How did they find it? Is it reliable? What other sorts of information could the source provide?
- Identify key issues or scholars in a discipline. Each student is assigned to:
- Find out what the major reference sources on the subject are
- Find out "who's doing what where" in the field
- List three major unresolved questions about the subject
- Prepare a 15 minute oral presentation to introduce this aspect of the subject to the class
- Compare the way two different disciplines handle the same topic.
- Browse the library stacks where the books in the discipline are shelved. Consult a volume of a relevant specialized encyclopedia. Examine the contents of several journals in the discipline. Students write an essay in response to these questions:
- What is "discipline"? i.e., how might it be defined?
- How might the resources consulted be utilized in other courses, especially in other disciplines?
- From this exercise, what have students learned about the scope of the discipline?
- Evaluate a web site based on specific criteria.
- Prepare an annotated bibliography of sources on a specific topic.
- Update an existing bibliography or review of the literature.
- Keep a research log of progress on a specific project. This could include a list of resources searched; search strategies; search results; selection criteria; bibliographies; and notes from discussions with faculty, librarians, and peers.
Working with Primary Sources
- Use bibliographies, literature guides, primary source databases to which we subscribe, materials in Musselman Library's Special Collections, or the Internet to find primary sources on an issue or historical period. Contrast the treatment in the primary sources with the treatment in the secondary sources.
- Locate primary sources about any event. Any type of material can only be used once, i.e., one newspaper headline of a major event, one quotation, one biography, one census figure, one top musical number, one campus event, etc. Compile a minimum of six different sources. Write a short annotation of each source and include the complete bibliographic citation.
Alternatives to the Term Paper
- Create a video project on a topic relevant to the course that requires students to conduct background research using a variety of sources. Students must construct a cohesive narrative and model ethical research habits through proper citation.
- Create a webpage or wiki on a narrow topic relevant to the course.
- Create or edit an existing Wikipedia entry on a topic related to the course.
- Write a grant proposal addressed to a specific funding agency; include supporting literature review, budget, etc. (Best proposal could be submitted for funding of summer research).
- Conduct the research for a paper except for writing the final draft. At various predetermined deadlines, turn in 1) a choice of topic; 2) an annotated bibliography; 3) an outline; 4) a thesis statement; 5) an introduction and conclusion.
- Write a newspaper story describing an event--political, social, cultural, whatever suits the objectives-based on their research. (Limited to one or two articles, or be more extensive.) Research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.
Biology or Health
After being assigned or choosing a "diagnosis," act as a responsible patient by investigating both the diagnosis and the prescribed treatment. Results should cover: a description of the condition and its symptoms; its etiology; its prognosis; the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, its side effects and contradictions, along with the evidence; and, finally, a comparison of the relative effectiveness of alternate treatments. Results can also be presented: oral or visual presentations, slideshows, poster sessions, etc.
To develop the ability to evaluate sources, prepare a written criticism of the literature on a particular issue by finding book reviews, and by searching databases, like MLA Bibliography, to see who is quoting the context of the scholarship in a particular field.
Describe a career and research the career choice. What are the leading companies in that area? Why? (If they choose something generic like secretarial or sales, what is the best company in their county of residence to work for? Why?) Choose a company and find out what its employment policies are-flex time, family leave, stock options. If the company is traded publicly, what is its net worth? What is the outlook for this occupation? Expected starting salary? How do the outlook and salaries vary by geography?
Write a review of a musical performance. Include reference not only to the performance attended, but to reviews of the composition's premiere, if possible. Place the composition in a historical context using timetables, general histories and memoirs (when available), in order to gain insight into its current presentation.
Judge variant editions and formats of a particular piece (for example, a piano concerto). Critically think about performance practices exhibited in the various editions and formats. Conclude what each source employs, and state the implications for one's own performance.
Political Science or History
Follow a piece of legislation through Congress. What groups are lobbying for or against a piece of legislation? How does campaign financing affect the final decision?
Follow a particular foreign policy situation as it develops. Who are the organizations involved? What is the history of the issue? What are the ideological conflicts?
Select influential studies published in Psychology. Have students place the study in both its intellectual and historical context. Who influenced the author? What were the major concepts or trends in the discipline at the time of its publishing? What impact has the article had on the discipline?