Edwin H. Mookini Library


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Searching and Evaluating Web Sites | Goals and Outcomes | Library Instruction

Through assignments, faculty have the power to influence students' development as seekers and users of information.  Students do not understand how to locate relevant information, or how to think critically about the information sources they encounter. Coursework is often the only opportunity for them to learn the difference between recreational Web browsing and serious research. Instruction librarians here at UHH would like to work with you to make the following suggestions happen for you and your students.

A well-designed library assignment can teach students valuable research skills and improve the quality of their papers. Unfortunately, library assignments also have the potential to confuse and frustrate students, leading to a poorly-written product. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when developing assignments that require library research.

Set objectives and make them clear to students

A statement of objectives helps students focus on the research-related skills they should learn as a result of the assignment. The following example might be appropriate for a term paper in the social sciences or humanities.

       As a result of this assignment, students should learn to:

  • Develop a suitable topic for research, using the library reference collection and other sources of background information.
  • Select and use the most appropriate catalogs, indexes, full-text databases, and Internet search tools to locate relevant and timely materials.
  • Distinguish between popular and scholarly sources and detect signs of bias, whether the material is in printed form or on the Internet.
  • Quote and cite sources in a way that gives proper credit and avoids plagiarism.
The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education provide an extensive and thought-provoking set of possible objectives.

Teach research strategies

Research strategies may seem obvious to experienced researchers but are often unknown to students. Breaking down the assignment into research strategy steps will help them accomplish your stated objectives. The following research strategy might be appropriate for the term paper described above.

  1. Define your topic using an encyclopedia article or textbook chapter for background information.
  2. Develop a list of relevant keywords and phrases to search in the library catalogs.
  3. Use the library catalogs to find books on your topic.
  4. Use periodical indexes and full text databases to find more recent information in magazines and journals.
  5. Use Internet directories and "search engines" selectively to locate authoritative, high-quality web sites.
Research, whether in a library or on the Internet, is a complex process that requires--and teaches--flexibility and adaptability. Students benefit from opportunities to reflect on their research strategies and think critically about what they are doing.

Provide resource lists

Resource lists give students a starting point, directing them to the most useful information sources for a particular assignment.

Because so many reference sources are moving from printed to electronic formats, you may want to check the library's listings of Journal Databases and Research Tools to be sure you are including the latest versions.

The library provides a series of Research Guides available in the library lobby that list important reference sources in various subject areas. Please recommend these to students. We can also make research guides for your discipline in paper format or on the Web on request.

Consider alternative designs for the assignment

Here are some possible examples:

  • Students prepare an annotated bibliography of information sources on their topics.
  • Starting with a significant event or publication in your discipline, students find out more about the people and issues involved.
  • Students, working in groups, prepare a guide that introduces others to information sources in a subject field.
  • Students analyze the content, tone, style, and audience of three journals and/or web sites basic to your discipline.
  • Students compare how a given topic is treated in several different reference sources, both print and electronic.
  • Students keep a log of their research process, what they found, and how it affected their thinking on the topic.
Follow this link for other alternative assignments that incorporate library research on a smaller scale than the traditional term paper.

Avoid these common problems

  • An entire class looking for one piece of information or researching the same specific topic; especially difficult when printed materials are involved.
  • Students required to use printed materials the library does not own (or does own, but not in sufficient quantity), or online sources they are not licensed to access.
  • Students working from incomplete/incorrect information.
  • Students assigned excessively vague or general topics, e.g., "women in America," without guidance on narrowing a topic.
  • Students given obscure trivia questions and told to find the answers.

Resentment toward rather than appreciation of library research is the likely result of these assignments. Library assignments are more meaningful if students use the information they find for an authentic task related to the topics covered in the course.

Consult with librarians and use their services

Librarians are regularly available to meet with faculty who are designing or revising library-related assignments. This collaboration helps to generate assignments that refer to the best possible sources, and also lets us make arrangements within the library to accommodate the needs of the assignment. For example, in some cases we may be able to obtain needed items or set materials aside in a special area. Contact Thora Abarca, x47343 or tconner@hawaii.edu

Adapted with permission from the University of Texas at Austin General Libraries, Ball State University Libraries, and California State University, Hayward Library.

Copyright 2000 by the Library, University of California, Berkeley.  All rights reserved. Document maintained on server:  http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/  by:  John Kupersmith

This document was adapted with John Kupersmith's permission for use on the UH Hilo Library Web site.