Designing Effective Library Assignments

A well-designed library research assignment is an effective way of introducing students to library research and resources. The following are some tips for designing an effective library assignment that will provide your students with the necessary research skills and promote the Library as a valuable component of the learning process.

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


What do students know about research?

We find that students do not have a working knowledge of the library and academic research, and they have little experience with academic sources.


  • Take, in many cases, shortcuts, in terms of time and effort
  • Gather information using techniques that they used in high school 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
  • Encourage the use (if appropriate) 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


Helping students

Learning anxiety is common among undergraduate students and extends to doing research. Here are some tips to lessen that anxiety:

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

  • Define any ambiguous subject-specific and/or library-related terminology
  • Be specific with assignment requirements (length, style, due date, etc.)
  • Clearly define licensed databases available through library subscriptions and free information available through the Web
  • 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 liaison librarian. Provide links to the Libraries' research guides and encourage students to contact the library for any research help.

Your liaison librarian

Each academic department in the University has a designated liaison librarian whose knowledge and expertise in research tools in that specific subject can be extremely helpful.

Your liaison 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 through one-on-one research consultations


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 most difficult roadblocks 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 how scholarly research works. Having them examine the information/publishing cycle of a particular subject area to find out how the literature is produced and publicized 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 readings according to specific limitations (last 10 years, scholarly articles, etc.) or broader ones (can include newspaper, Web sources, etc.). As well, they must write an introduction to the course pack that demonstrates 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.