Designing Effective Library Research Assignments

The purpose of library research assignments is to develop skills in information competency (IC). IC skills are not separate from subject competencies, but are a set of skills essential to developing mastery within all disciplines.


  • Consult with a reference librarian before finalizing the assignment - The librarian who works with your department to order materials, or another reference librarian, can help you design an assignment to make use of appropriate resources to meet the assignment's objectives. The librarian may suggest a class presentation to prepare students to use specific resources.
  • Clarify and state your objectives, to yourself and your students - What do you expect students to learn about library and Internet research as a result of the assignment? What intermediate steps might your students need help with? For example, can you assume that they know how to look for scholarly articles? Do they know that there are separate indexes (some in electronic format) for periodical and newspapers?
  • Assume minimal library research knowledge - The world of information retrieval and access is dynamic and few students will know what's available to them or how to effectively search for information and evaluate what they find. Recommend that they attend the "Library Research Skills" workshops that gives them hands-on experience using the library catalog, online databases, web search tools and proper citation format.
  • Be explicit and clear with assignment - Give students a clear idea in writing of what the assignment involves, suggesting types of sources to be used and not used. If specific titles are required, check with a reference librarian so that complete bibliographic information is used.
  • Expect things to change - In the online environment things change quickly, so it's important to verify the availability and location of desired materials, web sites, and even electronic library services.
  • Allow a variety of topics or resources - Providing students with a range of topics helps to distribute access across more materials. One literature professor gives his students a list of 20 American short stories to select from for writing a critique, rather than expecting all students to evaluate the same one or two stories. A history professor suggests 10 professional history journals for students to select from for browsing purposes.
  • Promote critical thinking - Design assignments that require students to evaluate information or integrate the results of their research, rather than use "scavenger hunt" assignments for which students are unprepared. Most students have no idea how to find obscure facts, so they rely completely on the reference librarian, and as a result they learn very little about searching for and evaluating information. Consider for example:

1) Having students compare periodical articles on the same topic from a popular magazine and a scholarly/professional journal.

2) Evaluate the information retrieved from a web search for credibility, accuracy, or bias.

  • Use the Course Reserves  and/or Electronic Reserves - To avoid large numbers of students trying to obtain the one required book or article, use the Reserve Service. In addition to library materials, personal copies, examples of tests or projects can be placed on reserve for your class.
  • Emphasize respect for library materials - Ensure that students are aware that library materials and electronic resources are common goods and must be shared by many people.
  • Refer! - Let students know that the reference librarians are available and want to help them succeed with their assignments. Librarians can also refer students to nearby libraries or suggest other ways to obtain materials not owned or available in the CCSF Libraries.

(Compiled from a variety of college libraries' Web resources)