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Queen's University Library

Designing Research Assignments

Information resources at Queen's are extensive and the critical thinking skills needed for their intelligent use are challenging. Few students select and use information tools effectively. Assume that students need ongoing development of these skills to meet the requirements of research assignments.

It is important to consider students' relative lack of experience with gathering and assessing information in any format and their varying expertise with computers. To create a positive learning experience in the library, no assumptions should be made about prior knowledge or abilities associated with information literacy.

Assume minimal library knowledge

All students need an introduction to research skills including clarification of:

  • Terminology such as primary and secondary sources.
  • Types of resources appropriate for the task such as books, government documents, scholarly articles, statistics, etc.
  • Library tools appropriate for the discipline. For example, the MLA index for English Literature should be discussed in terms of content and coverage especially in comparison to other types of tools such as the Web.
  • Research journals vs. popular or trade journals. Many students cannot identify scholarly articles until they have seen and discussed examples of them in comparison to those from popular magazines.
  • Citation style. Familiarize students with the APA or MLA styles, especially the format for citing electronic resources such as Web sites.

Tips for developing Library assignments:

  • Identify learning objectives for the student including information literacy skills. Students need to learn about information tools that faculty do not use by virtue of their immersion and reliance on contextual citations within their discipline.
  • Discuss information literacy objectives related to assignments with the liaison librarian for your discipline to plan for a student needs assessment and library instruction.
  • Discuss the information search process in class so students are aware that you consider it important to their learning.
  • Include a method for evaluating the thinking process behind information finding and use. (e.g. student research journal; flowchart of methods used with new learning strategies highlighted)
  • Invite a librarian to provide an in-class demonstration of advanced search techniques an encourage students to attend the hands-on classes in the electronic training room. Learning to use information tools effectively takes time and repeated practise.
  • Link the learning of subject content to real investigation. Learning about a topic doesn't begin once resources have been collected. Each step of information gathering helps to inform the learner about the subject when he or she is forced to make decisions about content value and continually reflect on and refine the questions that are driving the information need. This process contributes to deep learning.

Web assignments:

Faculty have long encouraged students to explore the world of printed information sources. Some instructors are now embracing the Web as a tool for learning but appear to be encouraging students to find their way independently. Developing effective Web search skills takes time and practise especially because there is no quality control on sites as there is for the selected journals and books purchased by academic libraries. Web assignments requires careful consideration of the nature of information on the Web and of students' experience with electronic resources.

The World Wide Web is gigantic and imprecise in both its contents and search techniques. However, despite its differences from traditional academic literature, it is a rich information source. Scholarly information, research reports, current news, and many government documents are available on the Web along with sites geared towards recreational activities. The Web is also a dynamic learning medium owing to its hypertext and multimedia capabilities. Effective course assignments can help students learn to put the Web into perspective as one resource to support their research activities.

Tips for developing Web assignments:

  • Identify what you want students to learn about searching the Web and how it compares to traditional library resources.
  • Ask students to explore the types of resources related to their discipline on the Web and the best way of accessing these. The results can be demonstrated in class and compared with sites you recommend.
  • Ask a librarian to demonstrate advanced search techniques in class or to create a hands-on session in the electronic training room.
  • Ask students to include their search strategy and analyse how they refined it and what made it more successful. The results can be demonstrated in class.
  • Ask students to develop their own assessment criteria for Web sites and discuss the importance of them in class. Demonstration of critical thinking in site selection and evaluation should be factored into the marking process.
  • Before assigning a Web-related exercise, ask several students to tell you how they would complete it to alert you to potential problems.
  • Encourage students to work in pairs or groups so they can help one another.

Check library resources

  • Place required readings on reserve to ensure access and to reduce mutilation of unique library resources.
  • Please give staff at least two weeks to process your materials. Reserve service is heavily used and required items may already be signed out necessitating a waiting period until they are returned.
  • Provide a variety of research topics to reduce competition for resources.
  • Check availability and accuracy of all prescribed resources.
  • New reserve lists are required each term a course is offered.
  • Books are automatically placed on reserve once more than two holds are placed on them. However, these materials are not associated with a particular course unless they are on an assigned reserve list.
  • Review the method for retrieving materials at the Reserve Desk: How to Find Out What's on Reserve. Call numbers, not course numbers, are required.
  • Give the liaison librarian a copy of the assignment.

Last Updated: 21 July 2009