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Research Assignment Design for Student Success: What to Avoid When Designing Library Research Assignments

What to Avoid

What To Avoid in Designing Library Research Assignments

Since many scholarly sources are available online (via the library’s website and other sites), students may feel confused when you tell them not to use “websites,” “the Internet,” or “online sources.”

Banning Use of the Internet. It’s not the Internet that’s bad. It’s the inability to distinguish between quality sources suitable for the assignment and sources that are not appropriate for college-level research. Much quality information purchased by libraries (such as subscription databases) is delivered via the Internet. Students, however, often mistakenly think they cannot use articles from subscription databases when an instructor bans use of the Internet. Also, many suitable sources (even scholarly journal articles) are now available on the free web, so it is probably better to tell students the types of sources you want rather than tell them where they may or may not look for them. (In other words, if you require scholarly journal articles, just say that. They might be found in print, in library databases, or on the free web.) 

 Banning use of encyclopedias when what you mean to ban are general, not subject encyclopedias. Subject encyclopedias can be a good authoritative place to start learning about a new topic or may provide scholarly discussion of topics in the field.

Requiring primary sources without defining what you mean. Primary sources do vary by discipline.

Requiring only print sources or only books or limiting the number of electronic sources students may use. Such limitations are WAY too restrictive, not to mention out-of-date. Many traditionally print sources are now delivered digitally. Remember, consulting with a librarian can help create an assignment that avoids the pitfalls and that works for you and your students!

Scavenger hunts typically send students hunting for random information. While they can be a fun introduction to the library space or sources, they don’t require students to engage in research skills or sources at a meaningful level.

Professors give vague instructions: “discuss”, “analyze” or “critique” may not be clear enough (depending on area and level). 

Don’t set limitations that are unclear or inappropriate to the assignment.

Requiring all students to use the same physical resource creates confusion, as the item is soon misplaced as it moves from student group to student group. If you see value in having students all use a particular resource, please place it ON RESERVE.

‚ÄčAvoid research topics that are too general or too specific.  Overly broad topics can result in an overwhelming number of results, and too specific topics can fail to turn up any.

Avoid very current or local topics if you wish your students to use scholarly journals as a source.  There may be nothing yet published in journals on such topics, but we have full-text databases that can be used to research current and local topics.

Unclear Resource Types: If you require scholarly or peer reviewed articles, don't use the term "periodicals" as that includes both scholarly sources as well as newspapers and general interest magazines.  If you require the use of "primary" sources, be sure to clearly define that in terms of your discipline.

Please don’t assume what the Library has or doesn't have. Resources change dramatically from semester to semester. Always retest the assignment before giving it out from one semester to the next. 


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