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Creating Effective Library Assignments: A Guide for Faculty

The following are suggestions to more effectively introduce students to library resources.

The effective library assignment has a specific, clear purpose. It increases the student=s understanding of the subject and teaches the process of information seeking. Students learn the proper way to cite a work and their appreciation for the scientific method grows as they are challenged to organize, analyze, and think critically about what they read. They have obtained skills that are transferable beyond immediate classroom applications.

Talk with a Reference Librarian before the assignment. The Librarians will be glad to look at a draft and can be a valuable resource to tap when designing a research assignment.

Send a copy of your assignment to the Reference Department before it is distributed to the class. The reference staff will be better prepared to help your students.

Give assignment in writing to reduce confusion. Differentiate between primary and secondary sources, popular and scholarly, computerized and print. Include the title and call number when appropriate.

Give assignment early. Discuss it with the course syllabus and prepare students by explaining why they are doing it and what purpose it serves. If the assignment requires the use of specific sources, a list of the complete citations for these should be included and kept current.

Use correct terminology. Define any questionable words. Students tend to interpret library assignments very literally.

Check your assignment regularly so the students are not asked to use outdated methods and sources. The Library is dynamic. New sources and ways of accessing information replace old ones every day.

Use resources available in Nealley Library. Students will be very frustrated and the library assignment will not be successful if the material they are being assigned to use does not exist, has been discarded, or is checked out.

Appropriate time frame. Do the assignment yourself to see how long it takes. Remember to allow for your experience and their inexperience.

Assignment can be done by student with limited assistance from the Librarian. If your assignment requires a great deal of instruction, arrange for the class to attend a library instruction lecture. Call the Bibliographic Instructor Coordinator at x6718. Allow at least one week notice when scheduling, please.


Many students don=t understand the intricacies of subject headings, periodical indexes, or computerized databases. It is best to assume no previous research experience on the part of your students, especially in today=s technological environment.

The least effective assignment asks students to locate random facts with no prior instruction or guidance. Scavenger hunt assignments consist of a list of questions with no indication as to where a student would locate answers. Usually the librarians, not the students, end up locating the information. These assignments lack a clear purpose and create anxiety.

Instead of asking an entire class to research the history of IBM, ask them to research the history of a major, public corporation of their choosing. If it is necessary for a whole class to use a particular source, have it put in a special location like Reserves at the Circulation Desk.

Examples of Assignments to promote student library use

  • Read an article in a recent journal and compare it to a magazine article on the same topic. Cite sources using a style manual.
  • Write an abstract of a journal article of personal interest, not to exceed 150 words.
  • Compile a bibliography on one subject.
  • Work with a librarian to develop a core list of sources for your discipline. Explain how to use these sources and have students use each source.
  • Have students write a bibliographical essay.
  • Research an historical aspect of a profession and explain how a change has helped or hurt the profession.
  • Have students find a book review from a popular source and from a scholarly point of view and compare them.

Selecting the Right Source


  • Audience: general public to knowledgeable lay person
  • Coverage: local, newsworthy events, any subject of interest
  • Good for: local statistics, human interest articles, trends, events
  • Written by: journalists, some specialists
  • Timeliness: very current, 2 day to 1 week
  • Length: 50-2,000 words
  • Content: analysis, statistics, graphics, photographs, opinions
  • Slant: mainstream, neutral


  • Audience: general public to knowledgeable lay person  
  • Coverage: popular, current affairs
  • Good for: opinion, profiles, overview/introduction to topic
  • Written by: journalists, freelance writers, editorial staff, essayists
  • Timeliness: 1 week to several months, very current
  • Length: 250-5,000 words
  • Content: general discussion, graphics, photographs
  • Slant: may reflect editorial slant of magazine


  • Audience: scholars, specialists, students, experts, academics
  • Coverage: research results, emphasis on theory
  • Good for: case studies, comparison studies, psychological analysis
  • Written by: experts, specialists in the field, scholars with PhD's
  • Timeliness: 6 months to 3 years, current
  • Length: 2,500 - 10,000 words
  • Content: detailed examination, statistical analysis, graphics, bibliographies
  • Slant: objective, neutral, sometimes difficult to understand