Designing Assignments

to Effectively Utilize Library Resources


An effective library assignment has a specific, understood purpose. It relates to some aspect of the course subject matter or learning objectives. It will lead to increased understanding of the subject or the process of locating information. A library assignment that meets these criteria is an excellent teaching tool.

There are several considerations to keep in mind when designing assignments so that students (a) enhance critical thinking skills, (b) learn and use the research process, (c) learn the resources in general or specific subject areas, and (d) have a successful experience in the library.

The following are suggestions for designing effective library assignments.

  1. Assume that students (especially freshmen, transfers, and internationals) may have minimal, basic knowledge of a large academic library.

  2. Chat with a librarian before planning assignments where students need library resources.

  3. Suggest resources based on accurate, up-to-date information. New sources and ways of accessing information replace old ones every day, and resources may change from semester to semester. Thomas Cooper may not hold what the library at your previous institution owned, so it is important to check your assignments regularly so that you are not asking your students to use outdated or withdrawn sources, or those not available. Try out the assignment yourself before you distribute it.

  4. It is best to schedule instruction close to the time when students will actually be doing the research. Arrange a library instruction session to teach an entire class at one time. Please do not schedule a session without students having an assignment to complete. They tend to pay more attention if they have immediate needs-a paper due Friday!!

  5. When scheduling the session with a librarian, provide a copy of the assignment and suggest several demonstration topics.

  6. Keep the assignment simple; provide it in writing to your students to reduce confusion, and make sure students understand all the steps.

  7. Use correct terminology. Differentiate between an online database, a catalog, a professional web site, or an electronic journal (e-journal). (Most full-text subscription databases have a print equivalent, but an electronic journal is only available online.)

  8. Assign individual or small group projects on a variety of topics so that students do not compete for the same materials.

  9. Design assignments that incorporate critical thinking skills. Busy work such as finding factual, encyclopedic information does not fit the bill, nor do scavenger hunts or "trivial pursuit" assignments. Students have no idea where to find answers, so librarians tend to do most of the work! As a result, students do not learn skills that help them in the future. Design your assignment so that students are asked to find information and use it in a meaningful way--applying information not just retrieving facts or searching for trivial answers.

  10. Give students an opportunity to think about the topics before coming for the library session. Ask them to write out a thesis, then note several synonyms or alternate search terms/strategies in case the first search yields few or zero results.

  11. Make sure the objectives are clear. What is the purpose of coming to library? (One professor said his objective was to “help you become familiar with the resources at Thomas Cooper Library” but designed an assignment students could complete from their dorm room without setting one foot in the library.)

  12. Give students a beginning point by providing a list of appropriate resources. (If needed, consult with a librarian to see if you have included the latest information available.)

  13. Clearly state research objectives. Teach research strategy-“an appropriate method for organizing a research project that takes into account the kinds of information sought and the sequence in which sources should be consulted.” Use an appropriate step-by-step method for organizing the research project.

  14. Design assignments that take into account different types and formats of information. In order to prevent students from using only materials downloaded from the Web, suggest that they use books, journals or newspapers, and other material available from the University Libraries and as appropriate, the Web. Or eliminate Web resources altogether for the first couple assignments so that students learn to use the online catalog and databases first.

  15. Place on reserve sources that will be needed by an entire class; otherwise, 30 students may be looking for one or two books. More and more we see resources disappear or being vandalized when an entire class needs the same book or journal article.

  16. Discuss plagiarism with students. Remind them that cutting and pasting from the WWW is also plagiarism!! (While you are at it, discuss how students can critically evaluate information they get from web sites, and let them know the differences between an online subscription database and a personal or professional web site.)

  17. Discuss the citation style required.

  18. Give students enough time to complete the assignment successfully. Remind students that even under the best circumstances, research takes time.

  19. Recognize that your students will take their cues from you. The attitude you take towards libraries, library instruction, and research can be communicated to students.

  20. Urge students to go to the reference desk for assistance.

As a courtesy, please inform reference staff when there is a large group assignment or an unusual assignment. You can do this by sending an email to

Links to additional information:


Columbia Departments Campus Libraries
Columbia Libraries and Collections