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Faculty - Tips for a good library assignment: Faculty - Tips for a good library assignment

Tips for a Good Library Assignment

Information Competent Students

Assignments that require the use of library materials can utilize skills beyond those necessary for just locating information.  Effective library-based assignments can also promote critical thinking by requiring the student not only synthesize the information, but to evaluate why a particular source is appropriate and reliable. If designed effectively, library-based assignments can encourage the development of skills that lead to information competency.

The criteria for an information competent person:

  • understands their information needs;
  • accesses information effectively and efficiently;
  • evaluates information critically;
  • uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose;
  • understands the economic, legal and social issues surrounding information and uses it ethically and legally.

Tips and Strategies for Effective Library Assignments

  • Tell your students why they are doing the assignment, what purpose it serves, and why it requires specific research materials from the library (books, peer-reviewed articles, primary sources, qualitative studies, etc.).
  • Provide specific directions and guidelines for your students about the sources you expect them to use. Without specific guidelines, students will rely solely on the Internet for their information.
  • Work through the research component of the assignment ahead of time to make sure there is a reasonable amount of information available on the topic.
  • Encourage your students to consult a librarian and remind them to bring along a copy of the syllabus or assignment. The information you provide on your syllabus can often clarify the type of information required in the event the student has difficulty articulating his/her needs to the librarian.
  • Ask students to evaluate or justify the resources they use for an assignment in a brief evaluation or annotation.
  • Ask students for feedback on the assignment; their comments will give you the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the assignment.
  • Schedule a course-related library instruction session that will direct your students to the appropriate resources and teach them how to use those sources effectively.  You may request a library instruction session online.

Pitfalls to Avoid


  • Many students are unfamiliar with even the basic components of a library. Encourage your students to seek the assistance of a librarian. You may also request a library instruction session customized to meet the needs of your students.

  • The majority of students are not familiar with the language associated with library materials. They do not understand the difference between the library's catalog and electronic article databases, and most have never heard of a "peer-reviewed," "scholarly," or "refereed" journal.  Take the time to explain terms that may be new to students (e.g., monograph, magazine vs. journal, periodical, editorial, peer-reviewed, qualitative study, citation, primary source, bibliography, annotation).

  • Verify that specific reading materials/resources required by all students are available from the University Library. Check the availability of a title with the library before assigning it as required reading. Materials that need to be consulted by all students should be placed on Course Reserves.

Empty Library Syndrome

  • Avoid assigning the same topic (or article, book, play, video) to the entire class.  Generally, two or three students will check out all of the materials related to that topic and the remainder of the students become frustrated by the lack of available resources. Materials that are needed by all students should be placed on Course Reserves.

  • If you provide a list of "approved" journals or magazines that students may use for research, check to make sure the library has subscriptions for them (either print or electronic). You can check the library's print subscriptions by performing a journal title search in Library Catalog; the library's electronic journal subscriptions can be checked by performing a title search in our Electronic Journals link.


Learned Helplessness

  • Scavenger hunts are generally ineffective as library assignments. Scavenger hunts do not teach students how to conduct meaningful library research, and they promote learned helplessness.  If you want to give your students practice in the kind of research they will need, librarians can help put that together.  Contact your liaison librarian or the instruction coordinator, Tim Held (664-6555,


Vague Directions or Information

  • Please include complete citations on your syllabi for the books or articles your require students to use. Quite often students will come to the Reference Desk with only an author or title, or an incorrect volume number, and it is time consuming for the student and the librarian to track down the desired document. Use full journal titles and avoid abbreviations. Do not hesitate to contact a librarian if you need a complete citation.

  • Explain to students how they can successfully narrow a search topic. Students often come to the Reference Desk with only vague notions of what topic they plan to research ("I just need ANY information on women in the twentieth century").

What about using the WWW?

Many faculty members are justifiably concerned about students' dependence upon Internet search engines as their only means for locating information. If you choose not to let your students use the Internet for research, please make sure they understand the difference between the Web and the full-text electronic journals that are accessible only through library databases.  Quite often a student will insist that they cannot use an article available full-text from a library database because they believe it is the same type of  source derived from the vastness of the Web.  Please stress the difference between the library's electronic resources and free, Web-based Internet sources. Visit our Electronic Journals link to find out what titles we subscribe to electronically or view our alphabetic list of electronic databases.

Questions or comments: Tim Held, Coordinator of Library Instruction Services at