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Making assignments that force students to use libraries is easy. Making one that actually is "successful" is not.
What is a "successful" assignment? A "successful assignment"...
- teaches a student a research methodology, by starting with a question, guiding them through a search, and indicating what type of output is expected.
- improves your students' comfort level with the libraries by teaching them how to use resources to satisfy their information needs—where to start and where to go for help.
Below is a list of tips for successful library assignments. Included (with permission of the professor) are examples of actual assignments that meet with high degrees of success.
Steps to a successful assignment:
- The least successful, but most common, library assignment is the treasure or scavenger hunt. It requires the student to answer several questions, but provides no starting point, no methodology, and no guidance. These assignments tend to overwhelm students, who then rely on librarians to provide the answers. Because the assignment is a non-progressive, random list of questions, it fails to educate the student on how to use library resources methodically and effectively.
- Keep your students' level of scholarship in mind. While you may use some of the more specialized databases and indexes for your research, they may not be appropriate for your students. Generally databases such as MLA Bibliography, PsycInfo, and ABC PolSci are unnecessarily complex for students in introductory classes. It's usually better to ease them into their experience in our libraries by teaching them to use our catalog and full-text databases first.
- We'll be happy to go over your assignment with you prior to your distributing it to your students. Failing that, please provide clear instructions that tell students (and helpful librarians) who, what, where, why, when, and how. Be sure to modify instructions within the assignment if you expect something different for specific question numbers. Please include your name and class number so that we can contact you should a problem arise.
- The assignment should lead a student through the research process--each question's answer should lead into the next question/section. For example, you could ask students to "use an electronic journal article database called Expanded Academic Index and find two articles. One should be full-text on the computer, and one should have an abstract only." In the next section, follow up by asking, "print out the full-text article, and find the call number in the catalog, then retrieve and photocopy the other article." A further follow-up would be, "where, in Gorgas Library, are the bound periodicals located?" And so forth.
- Topics should be well-represented in our collection so that one person doesn't check out all of the books. If the resources are limited, assignments should offer a choice of topics. This is especially important with emerging, or obscure writers, or little-read writings of famous writers, especially regarding poetry and short stories.
- Please be aware that just because some material is indexed in our resources doesn't mean we own it. [By the way, we encourage recommendations for purchases. Contact your area specialist.]
- If your students will need to use one or two resources that are not in the reference collection, they should be placed on reserve one week before the assignment is distributed to allow for processing. This prevents one student from monopolizing the resource. It is your responsibility to put the items on reserve. If one student checks them out, the rest of your class will be unable to complete the assignment.
- Define "Internet resource" for your students, and tell them whether or not they are acceptable to use in your assignment. Remember that while we access many databases through the Web, they are not equivalent to a typical "Internet site." If you say, "use no more than one Internet site" please distinguish between library resources accessed/connected to from the Web and a freely-accessible internet site on the Web.
- Require limited use of interlibrary loan. Undergraduates have limited borrowing privileges from the ILL office. Please be aware of this before constructing a term paper assignment.