Through the assignments they make, faculty have the power to influence students' development as seekers and users of information. Many students are not "information literate" when they arrive at El Camino or begin work in a new subject area. They may not understand how to locate relevant information or how to evaluate the information sources they encounter. Their coursework is often the only opportunity for them to learn the difference between "surfing the Net" and substantive research.
A well-designed assignment can teach students valuable research skills and improve the quality of their papers. Unfortunately, assignments also have the potential to confuse and frustrate students, leading to a poorly-written product and lasting, negative attitudes about the research process. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when developing assignments that require library or Internet research.
Set objectives and make them clear to students:
A statement of objectives helps students focus on the research-related skills they should learn as a result of the assignment. The following example might be appropriate for a term paper in the social sciences or humanities.
As a result of this assignment, students should learn to:
- Develop a suitable topic for research, using the library reference collection and other sources of background information.
- Use the library's OPAC to locate materials.
- Select and use the most appropriate online databases and/or printed indexes, and Internet search tools to locate relevant and timely materials.
- Distinguish between popular and scholarly sources and detect signs of bias, whether the material is in printed form or on the Internet.
- Quote and cite sources in a way that gives proper credit and avoids plagiarism.
The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education and the Information Competency Standards for California Community Colleges provide extensive guidelines.
Teach research strategies:
Research strategies may seem obvious to experienced researchers but are often unknown to students. Breaking down the assignment into research strategy steps will help them accomplish your stated objectives. The following research strategy might be appropriate for the term paper described above.
- Understand the assignment and identify all its requirements.
- Explore your topic using an encyclopedia article or textbook chapter for background information.
- Ask questions about your topic to guide your research.
- Develop a list of relevant keywords and phrases to use in searching.
- Based on the Flow of Information, identify relevant sources of information.
- Use the library OPAC to find books on your topic.
- Use the library's online databases and printed indexes to find more recent information in magazines and journals.
- Use Internet directories and search engines selectively to locate authoritative, high-quality web sites.
Research, whether in a library or on the Internet, is a complex process that requires--and teaches--flexibility and adaptability. Students benefit from opportunities to reflect on their research strategies and think critically about what they are doing.
Provide resource lists:
Resource lists give students a starting point, directing them to the most useful information sources for a particular assignment.
Our librarians have created subject-specific Research Guides. Feel free to print and distribute these, copy from them, or link to them if you have a course-related web page.
Consider alternative designs for the assignment:
Here are some possible examples:
- Students keep a "research log" documenting where they looked for information, analyzing what search techniques worked and what didn't, and discussing how the material found affected their thinking on the topic.
- Starting with a significant event or publication in your discipline, students find out more about the people and issues involved.
- Students, working in groups, prepare a guide that introduces others to information sources in a subject field.
- Students analyze the content, tone, style, and audience of three journals and/or web sites basic to your discipline.
- Students compare how a given topic is treated in several different reference sources, both print and electronic.
- Students compare results from a general Internet search engine, a selective web directory, and a database of scholarly journal articles.
For other alternatives, see:
Assignments Created for Faculty (University of Texas at Austin)
Term Paper Alternatives (Saint Louis University)
Ideas for Library/Information Assignments (Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries)
Avoid these common problems:
- Students forbidden to use anything from the Internet, when in fact many scholarly resources are only available online.(See "What about the Internet?" below).
- An entire class looking for one piece of information or researching the same specific topic; especially difficult when printed materials are involved.
- Students required to use printed materials the library does not own (or does own, but not in sufficient quantity), or online sources they are not licensed to access.
- Students working from incomplete/incorrect information.
- Students assigned excessively vague or general topics, e.g., "women in America," without guidance on narrowing a topic.
- Students given obscure trivia questions and told to find the answers.
Resentment toward rather than appreciation of library research is the likely result of these assignments. Library assignments are more meaningful if students use the information they find for an authentic task related to the topics covered in the course.
What about the Internet?
Many faculty members are justifiably concerned about the deteriorating quality of student papers caused by overreliance on Internet search engines and unquestioning acceptance of "the first web site they see." However, forbidding all use of the Internet may not be the best solution. Some scholarly journals are only available online, and there are reliable, teachable ways to find and identify high-quality web sites.
- Encourage students to find scholarly material through the Library Resources available on the library web site. These will lead them to both online and printed copies. Accept the online versions if they are properly cited.
- If appropriate for your class, advise students to use selective directories of high-quality web sites. Examples are the Librarians' Index to the Internet and UC Riverside's InfoMine.
- Remind students that there are techniques for evaluating web sites. Consider having them evaluate sites as part of the assignment.
Consult librarians and use their services:
Librarians are regularly available to meet with faculty who are designing or revising library-related assignments. This collaboration helps to generate assignments that refer to the best possible sources, and also lets us make arrangements within the library to accommodate the needs of the assignment. For example, in some cases we may be able to obtain needed items or set materials aside in a special area. To take advantage of this service, see our list of contacts for each academic department and program.
The library offers a wide range of free classes and tours from basic orientation through highly specialized research guidance. Contact Claudia Striepe to schedule a presentation tailored to the specific research needs of your students.
Instructors may ask the library to put course materials that are expected to be in high demand or that require special security in the library's Reserve Book Room. Students may checkout materials for a two-hour loan.
ERes is electronic course software that enables instructors to create course-related web pages that can contain journal articles, book chapters, homework solution sets, exams, class notes, syllabi, lecture notes, and Web links. It is available to students 24-hours a day, seven days a week. To create electronic course reserve pages you must have an account. To request an account, contact the ERes Manager.
Adapted with permission from John Kupersmith
Copyright 2004 The Regents of the University of California.