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C/I Assignments: Some of the Best

The Top Ten Characteristics of an Effective Library Assignment


With credit to various websites (Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Montana State University, University of California at San Diego, University of California-Berkeley, Bowling Green State University, University of South Alabama, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Maryland, IUPUI, University of Washington, South Dakota State University, University of Miami, Delta College, University of Oregon, Winston-Salem State University, Xavier University, and the California Clearinghouse on Library Instruction) for the use of terminology and ideas. - Dr. Larry L. Hardesty

Effective library assignments involve “Substantial intellectual engagement of students in the use of library resources in such a manner as to support the course goals.”

Characteristics of Effective Library Assignments include (Okay, there are only five; aren't you thankful!):


The assignment is relevant to the goals of the course, ideally, in such a way that students do not recognize it as anything other than an integral and necessary element in the successful achievement of the course goals.


The purpose of the assignment and directions for its completion are obvious to the students.

Do students understand what is meant by “scholarly journals in the discipline,” how to locate them, and how they differ from popular magazines? Does “Do not use the Internet for this assignment,” mean do not use resources available through Internet, such as JSTOR, Wilsonweb, or Project Muse? Do students understand the jargon used to describe library resources (citation, database, stacks, scholarly journals, periodicals, etc.)? If students have trouble understanding the assignment, they will have trouble doing it.


Successful completion of the assignment is possible within the resources available through the Abell Library, the ability levels of the students, and the timeframe allowed.

What is a modest project for an upper-level student can be a substantial (and overwhelming) challenge for a first-year student. Assignments requiring, for example, extensive use of Interlibrary Loan impede students understanding of how to use the resources available and may implant in first-year students the mistaken (and lingering) impression that the Abell Library resources are inadequate for their needs.

Challenging: The assignment requires substantial intellectual engagement appropriate to the level of the students in the use of library resources to foster critical thinking and integration of knowledge.
The assignment should go beyond rote recall and the location of resources to require students to use higher order cognitive skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. Such an assignment often requires students to compare and contrast information sources. At the same time, neither the assignment nor the instruction to complete it tries to do “too much.” That is, the assignment is not so simple that students are not challenged, nor so difficult that they find it frustrating.

Requires a Variety of Resources:

The assignment requires students to use a variety of resources (periodicals, general collection books, websites, electronic databases, reference books, etc.) in accomplishing the goal of introducing them to the library in C/I.

Students acquire a very limited understanding of the library if, for example, they can complete the library assignment by only using one journal title. The assignment should make students aware of the variety of information resources available (e.g. print, electronic, microform, video, etc.).

Top Ten Ways To Achieve An Effective Library Assignment (There are only nine, but if you insist we will think of another one!)

State the Purpose of the assignment, preferably in writing, so students will understand what they will learn as the result of the assignment and why this will help them. How does the purpose relate to the active intellectual engagement of students in use of the library to support course goals? (See Clarity)
Work with the Librarians

To ensure that resources are available to support the assignment

To provide instruction that is both appropriate to the assignment and clear

To ensure that the instruction is done at the desirable time

To ensure accuracy in the descriptions and locations of library materials is provided

Test the Assignment to determine if, in fact, it is doable. Are the goals and process to achieve them clear to others outside the field? Is sufficient time allowed for a novice library user? Are the descriptions and locations of materials accurate? Does the library have the resources needed to complete the assignment? Share it with a colleague in your department and a librarian.

Clearly Define Expectations by discussing deadlines, plagiarism, definitions of terms, criteria for evaluation, etc.

Discuss Research and Writing Strategies with students so they know effective strategies for selecting topics, researching for information, and using the results. Those strategies that may seem obvious to the experienced researcher and writers are often unknown to first-year students.

Pace the Assignment to discourage student procrastination and to improve the final product. Appropriate time management skills may be one of the most important skills we can teach students in their first year. The assignment can be staged to require preliminary research to focus the topic, a thesis statement or statement of purpose, a beginning bibliography to ensure adequate resources are available, and a formatted or annotated final bibliography before the paper is due to ensure more than cursory research has been done. All these, of course, require time, but the alternative can be reading through a stack of poorly-researched and written papers.

Schedule the Assignment and Instructions to maximize their effectiveness. Prepare students for the instruction and explain to them why it is important for success in your course. You may want to give them the assignment ahead of the instruction so they will be thinking about it and can ask relevant questions. Timing can be critical. Students are being exposed to so much information that often the first week is not a good time to have instructions on how to use the library. Having instructions near the end of the semester may not allow them time to complete the library assignment and also misses the opportunity to use the library to accomplish other goals in the course. Separating the instruction and the completion of the assignment by several weeks does not allow immediate application and reinforcement of what was presented.

Provide Lists of Resources to the students if they are required to use specific resources. Librarians can work with you to provide an accurate list and the locations of resources that can provide students with starting points to direct them to the most useful information sources. Often what can seem most obvious directions to the experienced scholar (“use the scholarly journals in X discipline”) leaves the neophyte researcher perplexed and frustrated because he or she neither knows the names of the journals nor where they are indexed.

Reinforce the Assignment by preparing students ahead of time, attending the instruction session, adding to the discussion, following up the assignment through discussions and evaluations. Students are highly effective detectors of what they perceive as “busy work” or something not supported by the instructor. Students will take their cues from you, and the attitude you take towards the assignment and the library will inevitably communicate itself to the students.

Top Ten Pitfalls to Avoid (Okay, there are more than ten, but we made up for it by our lack of brevity. Yes, there is some overlap with previous lists, but we have assigned our Department of Redundancy Department to look into this.)

The Mob Scene:

Assigning a class or a large portion of a class to research one topic or look for one piece of information.

If an entire class is going to use a particular resource, place it on reserve. Otherwise, there is a good chance that the resources will quickly disappear either by being checked out or deliberately or accidentally being misplaced by even the most well-intended student. Telling the students to “put it back on the shelf” usually is not sufficient since it only takes one student to accidentally or deliberately misplace a work. Students can become needlessly frustrated and form the incorrect impression that they can never find information in the library.

The Shot in the Dark (also known as Stump the Librarian):

Assigning students to complete an assignment working from incomplete or incorrect information.

Incomplete titles and abbreviations (however widely known by experienced researches) often confuse those unfamiliar with the discipline. A resource commonly known among scholars in the discipline may have a different “official name” used in the library's catalog. An electronic database may change its protocol. The library may not own or subscribe to certain resources.

The Needle in the Haystack:

Assigning students to look for obscure information.

Library scavenger hunts or treasure hunts seldom successfully engage students intellectually in use of library resources but tend to trivialize the library experience. Such assignments often teaches students little about independent research but usually emphasize location of isolated bits and pieces of information at the expense of the more important and challenging skills of evaluation and synthesis. Often such assignments become exercises in futility to students as items are misplaced or disappear (see Mob Scene). In addition, librarians, not the students, end up hunting up the information for the students one-at-a-time and it can promote learned helplessness.

Tell Them All They Might Need to Know--Someday:

Asking librarians to tell students information, albeit useful, but not applicable until later in the students' academic careers.

Conveying to students all the needed information they might need to know to complete successfully their first assignment involving using the academic library is a challenge. But, conveying successfully all that they might need to know for some assignment in the distant future is impossible. The phrase this is “good for you to know for later” is an invitation for glaze eyes. Often the more that is taught, the less that is learned!

Separating Instruction from Application:

Allowing several weeks between instruction and application of the instruction.

Separating the instruction and the completion of the assignment by several weeks violates a basic instructional principle of having instruction near the time of application and allows students to forget what they had been told. At best, it requires further instruction at the reference desk one-at-a-time. At worst, it results in confusion and frustration. (See “Schedule the Assignment and Instructions” and “Tell Them All They Might Need to Know—Someday”).

Assuming too Much:

Assuming students already know how to use the library, particularly since they have said that they do.

Typically when asked many students will say they have written library papers in high school or even junior high. This does not indicate they have gone beyond non evaluative compilations of descriptive information nor does it demonstrate they know how to use an academic library with its more sophisticated resources. The same pitfall can occur when asking students if they know how to use the Internet. They may know how to download music files, or how to participate in chat rooms, but they may not know how to construct searches effectively, nor now to evaluate an information resource when found. First-year students often overestimate their understanding of the library, which becomes evident both at the reference desk and with the quality of the results of the library assignment.

Sink or Swim:

Closely related to “Assuming Too Much” is the practice, in effect, of tossing students into the deep end of the library to see if they “Sink or Swim.”

The result is often a highly negative library experience as a result of which most students, even those who somehow manage to learn how to “swim,” never learn to enjoy an important element of the scholarly process. Hopefully, we are instilling in students both the ability and the desire to continue their learning. (Closely related to “Good Medicine Must Taste Bad” and “Adversity Builds Character”)

Avoid Assignments that Promote Vandalism or Theft of Library Materials:

Requiring or requesting students to turn in original materials

(photos, advertisements, illustrations, etc.) often leads to some students taking the “easy way out” and stealing or mutilating library resources. Make it clear that ONLY photocopies, printouts, or forwarded digitized images will be acceptable.

Neither Oversell nor Undersell The Internet:

Telling students either not to use the Internet or telling them that all information is available online.

Precluding use of the Internet can mean--from a student's perspective--precluding the use of scholarly resources found in JSTOR, Project Muse, and numerous other sources that have the same information as scholarly journals in print. At the same time, the huge bulk of recorded information, even most of currently published information, is not available in electronic formats. The critical skill is learning how to evaluate information for accuracy, timeliness, and authority.

Overly Vague or Overly Narrow Topics:

Assigning topics that could fill (and often do) encyclopedias or topics that are extremely narrow (but showed up in yesterday's newspaper).

Students assigned overly vague topics (e.g. “women in American history, global warming, etc.) may be frustrated by the huge amount of information available and may not successfully distill it into a quality paper. Students assigned an overly narrow topic (e. g. “SARS in Vietnam”) may be frustrated by not finding enough information. Topics readily narrowed or expanded by an experienced scholarly may present a frustrating challenge to the beginning scholar without proper guidance.

Not Providing a Copy of the Assignment to the Librarians Ahead of Time or Discussing it with Them:

Assuming that, of course, the students will accurately explain the assignment to the librarians and that the librarians will have the answers immediately at their fingertips.

Sometimes the descriptions offered to us at the reference desk by students have little resemblance to the careful explanations you made to them several days earlier. We can better reinforce the purpose of the assignment when we understand it and can prepare to answer it appropriately. (See “Stump the Librarian”)

Calling a Librarian and Telling Him or Her, I will be out of Town at a Conference Next Friday, May My Class Come to the Library for Instruction That Day::

It it is important, then it is important enough to do it right with the librarian and classroom faculty member working together and reinforcing the instruction and the assignment.

Students take their lead as to the importance of the instruction and assignment from the emphasis (or lack of it) put on by the faculty member. An absence speaks loudly to them.


“Copying from one source is plagiarism; copying from many sources is research.” These are the following sources we copied from in doing the research on "The Effective Library Assignment". Our apologies in advance if we did not copy well (or is copyright?).


Alternative Assignments to the Term Paper

Often the typical high school paper is a descriptive compilation of information with more emphasis on the quantity of information than the quality of thought. The following are a few examples that require students to employ higher order cognitive skills through comparing and contrasting information they found. For other examples see the University of Newfoundland's ”Ideas for Library/Information Assignments” at


Seven Principles for Good Practice In Undergraduate Education

Originally published as Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" AAHE Bulletin 39 (7) March 1987: 3-7. Available as The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, 1989 from Winona State University (P. O. Box 5838, Winona, MN 55987-5838) and at

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