Guidelines for Designing and Implementing
Effective Library Research Assignments
Mara Houdyshell, Reference Librarian, CSU, Northridge
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When designing research assignments for your students, it can be helpful to consult with a librarian regarding resources available at the University Library. Librarians will be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Prior to handing a library assignment to your students, consider providing the library with an advance copy. If there are specific sources you would like your students to use, please let us know. With a copy of the assignment in hand, librarians are better able to assist students.
When an assignment is over, feel free to ask librarians for feedback. You may learn that students had trouble understanding your assignment or that there were resource problems related to the assignment.
Checklist for Library Assignments
Check with the library in advance of the assignment to assure availability of and access to required library resources.
Test the assignment beforehand by "walking" through it. Try putting yourself in the studentsŐ shoes. Remember that their experience and perspective are generally much more limited than your own.
Request an instructional session for your class to familiarize students with research techniques and sources. Library orientation lectures [at CSUN] may be requested by calling (818) 677-2277 or online at http://library.csun.edu/instreq.html. [At CSUB, check with the Reference Librarian assigned to your department. Call Christy Gavin if you donŐt know who has this assignment.]
Tell students what purpose the research assignment serves.
Describe the specifics of the assignment. Students need to know what you are looking for in terms of length, acceptable sources, and format.
Give students a printed list of sources if there are specific ones you want them to use. Include library call numbers and World Wide Web addresses.
Characteristics of Effective Assignments
To avoid confusion, give library assignments in writing as well as orally. Be sure to carefully select terminology and to define any questionable words. Students may be confused by terms that they or the librarian cannot interpret definitively. For example, some instructors differentiate between magazines and journals, while others use the terms interchangeably. Be sure to explain what is meant by "primary" or "secondary" sources.
Similarly, does "use the library's computers" or "use the Internet," mean Geac, CSUN LibraryŐs online catalog, or another computer database? Does an assignment such as "find an article on the Internet" refer to the Internet in general or to one of the LibraryŐs paid subscription databases?
If you want your students to use a particular format for a reference or bibliography, let them know. Be specific as to the APA or MLA guidelines you want them to use. In setting due dates for library projects, remember to allow for students' inexperience and for the availability of materials.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Avoid assuming that most students know the basics. Keep in mind that many students have no prior experience using the CSUN Library. Even students who have attended a previous library orientation may not have received information relevant to the needs of your current assignment. Students may need an introduction (or re-introduction) to current library resources.
Avoid thinking that required sources are readily available. Be sure to check that sources you assign are available at the library. By checking your assignments, you can be sure that you are not asking your students to use outdated or withdrawn sources. The CSUN University Library may not own the identical items that you have used at other libraries.
Avoid giving the entire class the same assignment and sources. If an entire class has the same assignment, students find themselves competing for materials. If it is necessary for a whole class to use a particular source or set of sources, it may be helpful to place them on reserve in the Reserve Book Room. To place items on reserve [at CSUN], you may fill out the online form located on the LibraryŐs Home Page http://library.csun.com (under "Online Forms"). For questions about placing materials on reserve [at CSUN], call (818) 677-2072. [Check with your Reference Librarian if you have questions about placing materials on reserve at CSUB.]
Avoid assigning a scavenger hunt. The least effective library exercise asks students to locate random facts (e.g., "How many volumes comprise the Oxford English Dictionary?"). The most effective exercise balances the search process with identifying appropriate information sources. For example, an English literature professor might ask, "What source in the University Library Reference Room would provide an overview to literary criticism written about Maya Angelou?"
[CSUN resource references were omitted from this document. For help at CSUB, you can request a Private Lesson from your assigned Reference Librarian.]
Adapted [by Mara Houdyshell] from CSUSB (http://www.lib.csusb.edu/handbook/HBText.html#giving)
and West Texas A&M University (http://www.wtamu.edu/library/instruction/assign.html).
Reprinted with permission of the author.