Characteristics of Effective Library Research Assignments

  • Library assignments should originate from and be directly related to the course subject matter. If we want students to learn how to effectively choose among, evaluate, and use information sources, they must have a concrete purpose for applying the research and measuring its value. Research projects should arise from course work and the results should be examined, discussed and incorporated into the course. Never should a library research project be added to a class merely to teach library use. Research without a purpose surely serves no educational goal.

  • The students should understand the purpose of the project and how it will benefit them. All too often students feel that research projects are assigned in order that they might demonstrate their proficiency at paraphrasing sources. The situation is not improved when topics and lists of resources are approved that the students freely admit are familiar to them. Rather, they should demonstrate that the true value of library research is to learn something new or see an issue from a new perspective.

  • Analysis should be emphasized over answers. Many poorly executed research papers result from a student's belief that he or she must come up with a solution to a problem through the project. This would certainly be an unfair expectation; many scholars spend a career trying to come up with an answer. Learning to analyze, question, delve into the scholarly debate surrounding an issue, rather than presenting an easy, immediate answer, are the key skills students should learn through their research.

  • Students should be introduced to academic information sources. Students often cite the reason for using general internet search engines for research as these sources are "convenient," "easy to use," and "there is information on everything available." These same characteristics (access anywhere/anytime, keyword searching, large content databases, full text research materials) are true of academic research guides. Students should be introduced to the links and access to the communication channels scholars use in their field.

  • Students should be encouraged to plan their research before and continue to revise that plan as they retrieve information. One difference between novice and expert researchers is the amount of time spent in planning and analyzing an issue. Student researchers should be taught that background reading, outlining relevant perspectives, and investigating the amount and type of information available are necessary parts of effective information use. If they plunge directly into the first information sources they locate rather than following a plan, serendipity is likely to direct their projects rather than any true information need.

  • The assignment should be a progressive project, with time and opportunities for concrete feedback from a variety of sources. Students should see that building our personal or our societal base of knowledge is a progressive, often collaborative, process. Regular feedback from their instructors, fellow students, outside experts, and others should help them to see questions, requests for more information, and criticisms in a positive light.

  • Consider the level of your student's subject area expertise when writing assignments and approving topics. Broad, general surveys or research topics that encompass "whole" complicated issues are difficult for a non-expert to deal with in a critical, analytical manner. This is particularly true as students approach research with the large online information systems available to them.

  • Library research and information use should be presented at increasing levels of complexity, moving from basic retrieval of information to evaluating information sources. Many faculty members have expressed concern about their student's preparation to perform sophisticated analysis and evaluation of information, and prefer less demanding projects as a beginning point for their classes. While this approach is certainly valid, care must be taken to move students beyond basic library exercises. If the only assignment made in the class is to locate one periodical article on any topic, or to find their birth dates in the New York Times, students are left with the impression that library research is simplistic and irrelevant. These preliminary assignments must be developed with more demanding follow-ups.

  • Students should be helped to generalize the skills they learn in one research project so that they may be applied in others. To accomplish this goal, the research process itself, and not just the subject of the research, must be discussed, reviewed, and evaluated. Students can be encouraged to reflect upon the successes and weaknesses of the sources and methods of research they used. The quality of the research, i.e. information selection, should be questioned, commented upon, and graded in the same way as the quality of the presentation, i.e. communication skills.

Original document taken from "Promoting Information Literacy through a Faculty Workshop," by Emily Werrell and Threasa Wesley, Research Strategies v8 no4 (Fall).

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