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Instruction Services
Creating Effective Library Research Assignments

Here are some suggestions for instructors that will help make your library research assignment a successful learning experience for your students.

Most students have limited research experience.
A surprising number of students have never used the library for anything except studying or reading Reserve materials. Most will need your guidance and/or a librarian’s guidance to complete library research assignments. For information about scheduling an instruction session for your students with a Library faculty member, please see the Instruction Services page on this website.

Check to see whether the library has the resources your students will need.
It is frustrating for students to discover that they have to arrange to go to another library to get the source that you want them to use—and even more frustrating to learn that they went to another library to use a source that is readily available at URI! To check if the Library has a specific resource, please consult the HELIN Library catalog or call the Reference Desk.

Explain the assignment clearly—preferably in writing.
Specify what students are to do, define terms, and give complete citations with call numbers for specific works. This will also help the librarians understand what you want if the students come with questions about the assignment.

Teach research techniques.
Provide a written outline of steps involved in the research assignment and a list of suggested sources. If you prefer not to, you may wish to invite a Library faculty member to meet with your students during your regular class time to teach research techniques and to discuss appropriate sources for the assignment. For information about library instruction, please see the Instruction Services page on this website.

Encourage students to ask for help.
Libraries are complex institutions, each one a bit different from the next. It is expected that students will need assistance, and library staff are trained to provide that assistance.

Avoid the “mob scene”.
Dozens of students trying to use one book or article or trying to locate the same piece of information usually leads to misplacement, loss, or mutilation of library materials. Use the Reserve service where appropriate or warn Library faculty ahead of time about an assignment in a specific source.

Avoid scavenger hunts.
Searching for obscure facts without any guidance is frustrating for students and teaches them nothing about doing research. Instead, scavenger hunts become an exercise for reference librarians to perform.

Avoid arbitrary restrictions on sources students can use.
For example, telling students to consult newspapers—but not to use the Internet—might discourage a student from using the full-text online newspapers to which the library subscribes; or, telling students to find periodical articles—but not to use computers—would prohibit the use of some of the most important periodical indexes, many of which are only available online. If you are concerned about your students’ ability to evaluate the quality of information found on the Internet (a legitimate concern!), please consider scheduling an instruction session with a librarian.

Consult with a librarian before making the assignment.
A librarian can advise you of the availability of library resources, suggest appropriate library resources, point out potential problems with the assignment, and in some cases order appropriate materials. If you anticipate a number of your students coming to the Library and asking questions, as a courtesy, please leave a copy of your assignment at the Reference Desk in advance or with a subject specialist so that we will be familiar with it by the time your students come in.

Complete the assignment yourself before you assign it to your students.
There’s nothing like a run-through to discover what problems your students might encounter while working on your assignment. Does the library still have the resource that you had students use last year? Sometimes subscriptions are canceled, titles change, old sources are replaced by new ones. Can you find the needed materials on the shelf or on the library’s Web site? While libraries rely on logical systems to arrange their resources, every library is unique. Sometimes a specific item is more difficult to find in one library than in another. Do your students need any additional “clues” about where and how to access the sources they will need? By completing your own assignment, step-by-step, you will discover anything that needs to be clarified or changed.

Contact information
If you have any questions about this page, or would like further information, please contact Head of Reference Peter Larsen or Information Literacy Librarian Mary MacDonald. Peter can be reached by e-mail at plarsen@uri.edu or by telephone at (401) 874-4637. Mary can be reached by e-mail at marymac@uri.edu or by telephone at (401) 874-4635.

You may also contact the subject specialist in your area. A list of subject specialists is available on this site. They can answer questions about...

  • Your assignment.
  • Print, non-print, and electronic resources that are available to the University of Rhode Island community.
  • Using University Library Reserves services.
  • Accommodating an entire class using specific sources.
  • Arranging for library instruction (a librarian meeting with your class in a library classroom or your classroom during your regularly scheduled class time).

Updated: 9/19/13


This page was adapted from a similar page created by librarians at E.H. Butler Library at Buffalo State: State University of New York.

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