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Designing meaningful library assignments

The information research assignments is integral to the learning experience and it can be designed in such a way as to encourage students to actively seek information, to retrieve it successfully, to assess it critically and to apply it in thought-provoking and challenging ways.

This Web page provides suggested guidelines for developing meaningful assignments based on information research.

Purpose of the assignment

An effective assignment should:

  • Introduce students to the literature of a discipline
  • Demystify the research process and information resources
  • Enable students to improve search skills necessary for academic research
  • Require students to compare new knowledge with prior knowledge
  • Challenge students to evaluate information critically
  • Promote academic integrity through the ethical use of information
  • Develop students' spirit of enquiry

Considering assumptions about student research

Our experience shows that students do not have a working knowledge of the library and of information research, and they have little or no experience in conducting academic-level research.


  • Are not likely to feel knowledgeable of a topic at first
  • Take, in many cases, the path of least resistance in terms of time and effort
  • Gather information using techniques that are familiar to them, whether or not these are appropriate
  • Do not know how to find information effectively
  • Do not think about information critically

Characteristics of good assignment design

A well-designed assignment should:

  • Originate from course objectives and/or learning outcomes
  • Communicate assignment-specific outcomes
  • Be used as a teaching and learning strategy
  • Encourage the use of various search tools and sources of information
  • Incorporate critical thinking skills
  • Include clear instructions and guidelines
  • Provide opportunities for students to report on progress and to ask questions
  • Require that students compile a bibliography
  • Foster an appreciation for scholarship and academic research

Providing guidance

Learning anxiety is common among undergraduate students and extends to information research. Providing appropriate guidance can go a long way in reducing anxiety and in helping students succeed.

When planning an assignment, state your expectations and provide guidelines. Instructions should:

  • Define any ambiguous subject-specific and/or library-related terminology
  • Specify assignment requirements (length, style, due date, etc.)
  • Allow students to use a variety of sources and not be too restrictive
  • Clarify differences between licensed databases available through library subscriptions and free information available through the Web
  • Provide starting points to increase confidence and comfort level
  • Outline what constitutes plagiarism and how it can be avoided

Discuss the assignment in class and talk about the research process. In addition, a library workshop may be organized by contacting your subject librarian. Provide links to the Libraries' Web site and encourage students to talk with a librarian for any research help they require.

Your subject librarian

Each academic department in the University has a designated subject librarian whose knowledge and expertise in information research within a particular subject area can prove valuable.

Your subject librarian can:

  • Provide feedback and input into assignment design
  • Ensure that sufficient material is available to support assignment requirements
  • Prepare course-specific workshops to meet the needs of your class
  • Assist students in their research

Examples of library/information research assignments

Annotated bibliographies
In addition to asking students to include a bibliography at the end of their assignment, ask them to annotate the entries to include information on how they found sources, what types they are and how they are useful. They can also talk about the limitations of the material they find. This exercise sharpens students' search skills and critical evaluation abilities.

Have students compare the information they find from the Web and databases, from popular and scholarly material, from primary and secondary sources. For instance, have students find a reference to a study in a newspaper or magazine article and ask them to locate the actual study in a scholarly journal. Then, have them contrast both articles by showcasing the value and limits of both types. This assignment allows students to identify characteristics of each type of information source as well as the pros and cons of using one over the other.

Students prepare presentations that are supported by credible information found through research. The value of their presentation depends on their ability to express important points succinctly while relying on gathered data and sources.

Understanding the literature of a discipline
One of the greatest challenges that students face when starting to conduct research is their limited knowledge of the literature in a particular discipline. They are unfamiliar with the journals, the major authors and the structure of scholarly research. Having them investigate the information/publishing cycle of a particular subject area to find out how the literature is produced and communicated can be a useful exercise. This demystifies the term "literature" and familiarizes students with the scholarly publication process and other useful sources for their discipline.

Creating a course pack
Have students compile the readings according to specific limitations (last 10 years, scholarly articles, etc.) or to broader ones (can include newspaper, Web, etc.). In addition, they must write an introduction to the course pack that displays an understanding of the subject matter and an explanation/annotation for each item (why it was chosen). This assignment allows students to use search tools, to evaluate what they find and to summarize the material they choose.

Writing a family history
This is useful for a history course as students are requested to use various sources of information to compile a family history. Actual interview (primary sources), surveys, birth/death/marriage notices, maps, directories and newspapers are examples.

Develop an ad campaign
Ask business students to develop a marketing plan for a potential advertisement campaign. They will need to research product reviews, conduct market research to identify demographic and financial information, review psychological research linked to advertising and consumer behaviour, etc.

Creative writing assignment
Library research and information literacy competencies can be integrated within a creative writing course. Have students write the opening chapter for a historical novel, for instance, whereby they must research daily routine, customs, eating habits, rituals, dress, social status and other pertinent information related to a particular time period.

For more information

The following resources were consulted in preparing this Web page and the accompanying Faculty Development Workshop:

Relevant articles and reports

For more information, please contact the Libraries.

page last updated on: Monday 27 July 2015
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