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Guidelines for Designing and Implementing Effective Library Research Assignments

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When designing assignments for your students, it can be helpful to consult with a librarian regarding resources available at the University Library. Librarians will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Prior to handing a Library assignment out to your students, consider providing your subject specialist librarian with an advance copy, along with recommended sources (if any) you would like your students to use. With a copy of the assignment in hand, librarians are better able to assist students in finding the resources they require. When an assignment is over, feel free to ask librarians for feedback. (e.g., did any students seem confused or have trouble understanding the assignment? Were there any resource access problems related to the assignment?)

Go to Librarian Subject Specialties to find your subject specialist librarian.

Suggestions for Library Assignments

  • Check with your subject specialist librarian in advance of the assignment to assure availability of, and access to, required Library resources.
  • Test the assignment beforehand. Try to put yourself in the students' shoes with their experience and perspective, which is probably much more limited than yours ("walk" or "web" it through).
  • Request an instructional session for your class to familiarize students with research techniques and sources.
  • Tell the students what purpose the research assignment serves.
  • Describe the specifics of the assignment (e.g., length, acceptable types of sources, format for references/bibliography - APA, MLA, etc.).
  • Provide students with a printed list of sources if there are specific ones you want them to use – and perhaps caution them against sources that you want them to avoid. Include CSUN Library call numbers and/or URLs.
  • Library orientation lectures may be requested by calling (818) 677-2277 or by filling out the online lecture request form located at Request an Instructional session.
  • A list of Librarian Subject Specialties can be found at: Librarian Subject Specialties.

Characteristics of Effective Assignments

  • Clarity: Give library research assignments in writing (rather than verbally) to reduce confusion.
  • Terminology: Select terminology carefully and define any questionable words. Students tend to take library research assignments at face value and may be confused by terms that they or a librarian cannot interpret definitively. For example, some instructors differentiate between magazines and journals, while others use the terms interchangeably. Does "use the Library's computers" or "use the Internet," mean CSUN OneSearch discovery system, or another computer database? Does an assignment such as "find an article on the Internet" refer to the Internet in general, or one of the Library's paid subscription databases, which often offer full text versions of magazine and journal articles online? Additionally, do students understand what is meant by "primary" or "secondary" sources (if you require their use)?
  • Currency: The University Library regularly updates and adds to its resources. New sources and ways of accessing information occur with increasing frequency. By checking your assignments regularly, you can make certain that you are not asking your students to use outdated or withdrawn sources.
  • Appropriate Time Frame: Remember to allow for students' inexperience and for the availability of materials.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Assuming that most students know the basics. The information environment changes rapidly. As a result, students may need an introduction (or re-introduction) to current Library resources. Many students have no prior experience using the CSUN Library. Even students who have attended a previous Library orientation may not have received information relevant to the needs of your current assignment. Keep in mind that transfer or new graduate students may have no prior experience using the CSUN Library.
  • Thinking that required sources are readily available. Double check current Library holdings as resources are often added or updated from semester to semester. The CSUN University Library may not own the identical items that you have used at other libraries. Consider re-testing an assignment before giving it out in a new semester.
  • Giving the entire class the same assignment and sources. If an entire class has the same assignment, students find themselves competing for materials. As an alternative, for example, instead of requiring the entire class to research the Enron bankruptcy scandal, you might ask them to research corporate accounting and white collar crime. If it is necessary for a whole class to use a particular source or set of sources, it may be helpful to place them on reserve. Please consult How to Put Materials on Reserve for more information. For questions about placing materials on reserve, call (818) 677-2072.
  • Assigning a scavenger hunt? The least effective scavenger hunt only asks students to locate random facts (e.g., "How many volumes comprise the Oxford English Dictionary?"). Librarians rather than the students frequently end up locating the answers. The most effective scavenger hunts balance the search process with identifying appropriate information sources (e.g., "What source in the University Library Reference Room would provide an overview to literary criticism written about Maya Angelou?").


The Library offers a variety of customized orientations and/or advanced instructional sessions. Go to the list of reference subject specialties to find a librarian in your subject area who can give your class an orientation or an in-depth, hands-on demonstration. Your subject specialist can be found at the following URL: Librarian Subject Specialties. Early scheduling can guarantee that a librarian and Library facilities will be available to fit your specific course needs.

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