Course assignments that integrate library research and information literacy are an effective way to develop students' critical thinking skills with the additional benefit of discouraging plagiarism. A well-designed research assignment provides students with an opportunity to explore and integrate information resources and encourages them to think critically about information sources.
The Well-Designed Assignment
- is provided and explained in writing (not verbally)
- has a specific purpose
- identifies its learning objectives clearly in easily understood unambiguous language
- states specifically the criteria by which the assignment's product will be evaluated
- relates to some aspect of the subject matter or the learning objectives of the course
- has progressively organized deadlines for students to have an opportunity for feedback
- leads to increased understanding of the subject
- makes students aware of a variety of sources and formats available
- teaches students to identify, locate, access, evaluate, and integrate information sources into the context they create and present
- reinforces habits of ethical scholarship through proper citation
- if a library instruction session is employed, the sources recommended and practiced in the session should be used in the product
From LOEX of the West 2004, "Partnering to Integrate Information Competence into the Learning Outcomes of Academic Departments," presented by Dr. Ilene Rockman and Suellen Cox.
- Select a scholar/researcher in a field of study and explore that person's career and ideas. In addition to locating biographical information, prepare a bibliography of writings and analyze the reaction of the scholarly community to the researcher's work.
- Nominate someone or a group for the Nobel Peace Prize. Learn about the prize, the jury, etc. Justify the nominations.
- Identify significant people in a discipline. Consult a variety of biographical resources and subject encyclopedias to gain a broader appreciation for the context in which important accomplishments were achieved.
- Identify a significant event or publication in a discipline. Ascertain the important people, etc., involved by consulting a variety of library resources.
- A verbatim transcript of an analytical description of a news conference can serve as a format for simulated interviews with well known people of any period. What questions would contemporaries have asked? What questions would we now, with hindsight, want to ask? How would contemporary answers have differed from those that might be given today? Take a rigorous, analytical approach, both in terms of the questions to be asked and the information contained in the answers.
Compare / Contrast
- Analyze the content, style, and audience of two journals in a given discipline.
- Compare and contrast two journal articles that present opposite points of view on the same topic or from different time periods. For example:
- Contrast journal articles or editorials from recent publications reflecting conservative and liberal tendencies. (It might be interesting to carry out this exercise again using publications from the late 1960s.)
- Assign readings on a topic from both primary and secondary sources. Compare and contrast the sources and content.
- Find a short article in the popular press and the original research finding on which the popular article was based. Review related findings, discuss the relationship between the popular article and original research, and critique the popular article with regard to its accuracy.
- Read an editorial and find facts to support it.
- Verify assumptions or opinions on a specific topic. For example, for a course about inequalities of race, gender, and economics, students could be asked to find the average income for black women and white women in the U.S. What source did they use? How did they find it? Is it reliable? What other sorts of information could the source provide?
- Identify key issues or scholars in a discipline.
- Each student is assigned to 1) find out what the major reference sources on the subject are; 2) find out "who's doing what where" in the field; 3) list three major unresolved questions about the subject; 4) prepare a 15 minute oral presentation to introduce this aspect of the subject to the class.
- Compare the way two different disciplines handle the same topic.
- Browse the library stacks where the books in the discipline are shelved. Consult a volume of a relevant specialized encyclopedia and an index. Examine the contents of several journals in the discipline. Students write an essay in response to these question: What is (discipline)? i.e., how might it be defined? How might the resources consulted be utilized in other courses, especially in other disciplines? From this exercise, what have students learned about the scope of the discipline?
- Evaluate a web site based on specific criteria.
- Prepare an annotated bibliography of sources on a specific topic.
- Update an existing bibliography or review of the literature.
- Keep a research log of progress on a specific project. This could include a list of resources searched; search strategies; search results; selection criteria; bibliographies; and notes from discussions with faculty, librarians, and peers.
- Compile an anthology of readings by one person or on one topic. Include an introduction with biographical information about the authors, and the rationale for including the works, justifying with reviews or critical materials.
- Write a bibliographic essay. (A bibliographic essay is a narrative discussion that reviews the literature of a topic. Like an annotated bibliography, the bibliographic essay describes sources, but does more. It also compares, contrasts, and evaluates the relationships between the sources. A bibliographic essay examines the literature of a topic, and establishes an interpretive point of view.)
Working with Primary Sources
- Use bibliographies, literature guides, and the Internet to find primary sources on an issue or historical period. Contrast the treatment in the primary sources with the treatment in the secondary sources.
- Locate primary sources about any event. Any type of material can only be used once, i.e., one newspaper headline of a major event, one quotation, one biography, one census figure, one top musical number, one campus event, etc. Compile a minimum of six different sources. Write a short annotation of each source and include the complete bibliographic citation.
Alternatives to the Term Paper
- Create a web page on a narrow topic relevant to the course. Include meta sites, e-journals, discussion lists, and organizations.
- Conduct the research for a paper except for writing the final draft. At various predetermined deadlines, turn in 1) a choice of topic; 2) an annotated bibliography; 3) an outline; 4) a thesis statement; 5) an introduction and conclusion.
- Write a newspaper story describing an event--political, social, cultural, whatever suits the objectives-based on their research. (Limited to one or two articles, or be more extensive.) Research the same event in different sources and compare the newspaper stories that result.
- Write an exam on one area; answer some or all of the questions (depending on professor's preference). Turn in an annotated bibliography of source material, and rationale for questions.
- Write a grant proposal addressed to a specific funding agency; include supporting literature review, budget, etc. (Best proposal could be submitted for funding of summer research).
Discipline Specific Assignments
Biology or Health
After being assigned or choosing a "diagnosis," act as a responsible patient by investigating both the diagnosis and the prescribed treatment. Results should cover: a description of the condition and its symptoms; its etiology; its prognosis; the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, its side effects and contradictions, along with the evidence; and, finally, a comparison of the relative effectiveness of alternate treatments. Results can also be presented: oral or visual presentations, slideshows, poster sessions, etc.
To develop the ability to evaluate sources, prepare a written criticism of the literature on a particular issue by finding book reviews, and by searching citation indexes to see who is quoting the context of the scholarship in a particular field.
Describe a career and research the career choice. What are the leading companies in that area? Why? (If they choose something generic like secretarial or sales, what is the best company in their county of residence to work for? Why?) Choose a company and find out what its employment policies are-flex time, family leave, stock options. If the company is traded publicly, what is its net worth? What is the outlook for this occupation? Expected starting salary? How do the outlook and salaries vary by geography?
Write a review of a musical performance. Include reference not only to the performance attended, but to reviews of the composition's premiere, if possible. Place the composition in a historical context using timetables, general histories and memoirs when available, using this information to gain insight into its current presentation.
Judge variant editions and formats of a particular piece (for example, a piano concerto). Critically think about performance practices exhibited in the various editions and formats. Conclude what each source employs, and state the implications for one's own performance.
Political Science or History
Follow a piece of legislation through Congress. What groups are lobbying for or against a piece of legislation? How does campaign financing affect the final decision?
Follow a particular foreign policy situation as it develops. Who are the organizations involved? What is the history of the issue? What are the ideological conflicts?
Determine the adequacy of a psychological test based on the literature about the test. Then develop a test battery designed for a particular clinical (or other) situation, by using published tests and the literature about them.