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Library - Lake Land College, Mattoon Illinois

Creating Effective Library and Research Assignments

The Lake Land College Library is here to help all faculty in your goal of teaching students to find, evaluate, and use information effectively. To this end, we offer the following librarian's perspective on creating effective library and research assignments.

Know the Library

  • We are a community college library. We don't always have the same kinds of resources you will find at a large university library. We welcome you to familiarize yourself with our collection and resources in your subject area before you design research assignments. If you'd like to meet with a librarian to discuss what's available in our library, please email libref@lakeland.cc.il.us or call 234-5440.
  • Our resources are constantly changing. What might have worked for you in the past may not be available this semester, or we might have a new resource that could better fit your needs
  • Do we have that resource you've told your students about? Sometimes we have groups of students in the library who have been sent here looking for something that we can't locate. Before handing out an assignment, a quick call to the library to check that we have all the necessary resources could save frustration on your students' part

Know your Students

  • Your students may not know the basics of research. Students are often either intimidated by, or ignorant of, library catalogs, databases, indexes, and other library resources. In addition, they often have trouble choosing the most appropriate sources of information. There's nothing like that deer-in-the-headlights look that a student gets when confronted with an assignment that's over their head. If you would like a librarian to introduce your class to library resources, feel free to schedule a library instruction session.
  • What motivates your students? Like all assignments, library assignments are most effective when the students are motivated to complete them. Here are some questions to think about when designing library assignments:
    1. Do the students understand the context for the assignment?
    2. Are the directions and expectations clear? Do students have examples to work from?
    3. Does the assignment support the broader objectives of the course?
    4. Will the entire class have to compete for the same 3-4 books? (The student "feeding frenzy.")

Communication is Vital

  • Give clear written and verbal directions. Students often come to the library who are unsure of what they're supposed to be doing. We know that this is often the result of inattentive students, so having it written down can help to avoid much of the confusion.
  • Talk to the library. The better we understand your expectations for a particular assignment, the better we can help your students. Sometimes we get bombarded by the same request over and over again for something that we can't locate. In most cases, the instructor has something specific in mind that library staff is not aware of. Let us know ahead of time what your expectations are, and we'll be better equipped to help your students.
  • Don't catch us by surprise. When 20 students suddenly show up in the library with no warning, no one gets very good service. Let us know when you plan to send students to the library and we can adequately prepare for them.
  • Define your terms. Librarians and subject faculty use all kinds of different jargon that may mean different things to different people. Some examples:
  1. Do you differentiate between library online databases and "internet sources" such as free web pages found on Google, Yahoo, etc?
  2. When you limit students to "books", does that include e-books? What about online databases that reprint the content of reference books?
  3. Do your students know the difference between "reference" and "reserve"?
  4. Are your students supposed to search for periodicals or the articles within them?
  5. Can your students tell the difference between newspapers, magazines, and journals? If you say "journal", do you mean only peer-reviewed sources, or will trade journals or commentary publications work, too?

Make Success Possible

  • Give students enough time to complete the assigment. If they need to order materials from other libraries, make sure they have time to do so. If extensive research is not the focus of the assignment, then make that clear to students and librarians before hand.
  • Model the assignment. Before asking your students to do it, complete the assignment yourself to make sure we have the necessary resources. If you have trouble with it, you can bet your students will, too. Give students an example of what their results should look like.
  • Encourage students to ask for help. Some instructors feel that asking a librarian for help is somehow "cheating." But many students are intimidated by, or don't know the basics of, library resources. It is not our intention to do the work for the students, but we do want to make sure that they know how to use the library. That's what librarians are trained to do, and it's why we're here.
  • Be careful when you limit library resources. In the library, we often hear students say, "I'm not allowed to use that" when we try to steer them to the best resource to answer their question. If your goal is to teach research, consider what students are learning (or not) if they can't use all the resources available to them. Our library collection consists of many varied print and online resources and it is often a combination of these that can best help your students. If you feel strongly about limiting resources, please talk to us so that we understand your expectations and can convey this to your students when we help them.
  • Scavenger hunts are frequently ineffective. Most librarians feel that a "scavenger hunt" for random bits of information does not really teach students how to do research. These assignments often lack a clear focus, are irrelevant to the students, frustrate them, and the librarian ends up doing most of the work-- showing most of the students individually how to look up the information.
  • Work with us. Our library staff is here to help in a number of ways, including working with you to create/update a library assignment. Feel free to call the Reference Desk at 234-5440 or email libref@lakeland.cc.il.us.

For Further Reading

More practical advice on working with the library can be found (in PDF format) at Positive Relationships for Productive Library Assignments. (NISOD Innovation Abstracts, Vol. 26, No.7, March 5, 2004.)

For a more thorough discussion of many of these issues, please see the article "Library Assignments" by Necia Parker-Gibson, appearing in College Teaching, Vol 49, Issue 2, Spring, 2001.

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