For Better Research Assignments, Ask a Librarian

A recent survey1 of faculty handouts for research assignments found that most of the handouts provided details for length, citation guide style and how to get assistance from the faculty member. What wasn’t included was a critical need for most undergraduate students: context for the research topic.

Across the board, the handouts lacked specifics of the research context, including where to start, where to focus the information seeking, and how to locate a variety of information types. These key research behaviors are not common skills in today’s, or perhaps any, undergraduate students. Ironically when follow-up conversations were completed with the faculty members who took part in the survey; they did not believe students knew where to look but hadn’t included the directions necessary to direct students in this phase of research either.

Including where to begin and how many places to look would provide an adequate framework for student research assignments and it seems a necessary component for faculty to consider when designing a research paper or other assignment.

I believe that a partnership with a subject librarian or instruction librarian can provide a solid solution to this area of potential frustration for faculty. A co-developed assignment can help better align the student’s research experience with the course learning outcomes, while saving faculty time and effort for other parts of teaching the course. Librarians can serve as the research expert outlining discipline specific resources, including library databases, catalogs of books and media, government resources, subject portals, and online encyclopedias that will steer students to high-quality resources including those on the Internet. Yes, students can and will utilize the Internet and librarians can assist them in understanding the context of those sources within the range of sources available.

Assignments with librarian input will likely identify places to start and provide descriptors or subject based resources to locate resources useful for their assignment. This will allow students to spend less time mulling over thousands of “hits” in a Google search and more time synthesizing the research information into a coherent paper or presentation. Librarians acknowledge that understanding the broad scope of a discipline’s literature is a skill worth developing and they are happy to guide the students through that part of a research-based assignment.

Include a librarian in your next assignment design meeting and you will be pleased with the results both in your valuable time saved and the enhancement to the student learning in your course.

Beth Schuck, associate university librarian, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University.

1. “Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students,” Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg, Project Information Literacy Progress Report, University of Washington’s Information School, July 13, 2010.