Skip to main content
Montana State University - Home Montana State University Library - Home Ask the Library

Creating Effective Library Assignments: A Guide for Faculty

Partner with a librarian!

When it comes to library assignments, library faculty are excellent resources for creating new or modifying existing assignments that involve library research. Librarians are also willing and able to provide library research instruction to individual classes in the library, in your classroom, or online via web conferencing.

While a librarian will not create an assignment for you, one will be glad to work with you in developing the assignment, look at a draft, and provide comments and suggestions. Since students will be coming to librarians for help, it would help us (and therefore the students) to have a copy of the assignment, and recommended sources, in advance. When an assignment is over, librarians may be able to provide feedback. Did any students seem confused or have trouble understanding the assignment? Were there any resource or access problems related to the assignment? Faculty and librarians working together can make library assignments successful learning experiences for students.

Creating Effective Library Assignments

Purpose of library assignments:

An effective library assignment has a specific, understood purpose. It relates to some aspect of the course subject matter and identified learning objectives. Properly implemented library assignments can:

  • Lead to increased understanding of the subject through the process of locating information related to the subject.
  • Build life-long research skills.
  • Reinforce habits of ethical scholarship.
  • Makes students aware of the variety of information sources and formats available (e.g. print, electronic, video, microform, etc.).

A library assignment that meets these criteria is an excellent teaching tool, and can enhance and enrich the student's learning experience. It also increases the understanding of the subject matter and builds research skills.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Assuming most students already know the basics — don't assume that your students have had prior experience in using the library, had an orientation to the library, or that their orientation was relevant to your assignment. Transfer or new graduate students may have no experience with our library. Also, basic introductory skills may be inadequate for an upper level subject-based research assignment.
  • Requiring resources that are not available — don't assume what the library has or doesn't have. Resources may change dramatically from semester to semester. This library may not have exactly the resource you used at another library. It is always a good idea to retest the assignment or check with a librarian before handing it out.
  • An entire class with the same assignment — if an entire class has the same exact assignment, needed resources will be difficult to find at best, disappear or be vandalized at worst. For example, instead of asking an entire class to research the history of IBM, ask them to research the history of a major public American corporation of their choosing. If it is necessary for a whole class to use a particular source or set of sources, have those sources put on reserve. This arrangement allows each student an equal opportunity to use the item. Telling the student to "put it back" just does not work. Even the most honorable of students may re-shelve items in the wrong place. To place items on reserve, call the Service desk at 994-3139 or go to Reserves under FIND on the library home page. Once you log in, you will find the Guidelines for Submitting Reserves on the left hand bar.
  • The Scavenger Hunt — the least effective assignment possible asks students to locate random facts. It lacks a clear purpose, teaches little, and is very frustrating. Frequently librarians, not students, end up locating the information.

Implementation of library assignments:

The most successful and effective library assignments are those developed through the collaboration of library faculty and departmental teaching faculty. Librarians are ready and willing to assist individual faculty (or departments) in developing strong, meaningful library research assignments that meet the learning objectives of individual classes and students and that support the teaching efforts of all MSU faculty.

In order to be effective, instructors should thoroughly prepare students for the assignment:

  • Inform students (preferably face-to-face and in writing) why they are doing it and what purpose it serves.
  • If the assignment requires the use of specific sources, students should be given a list of them and arrangements made with the library to assure availability and access (reserves & e-reserves).
  • Consider providing the library with a copy of the assignment. This will help library staff when working with students to complete assignments.
  • Schedule a library research instruction session with a librarian to provide customized (to your specific assignment and discipline) instruction for your students in the research process and in locating and ethically using academic information resources.

Characteristics of effective assignments:

  • Clarity — if students have trouble understanding what they are supposed to do, they will have trouble doing it. Give library assignments in writing (not orally) to reduce confusion.
  • Use of correct terminology — students tend to interpret library assignments very literally and are easily confused by terms they, and the librarian, cannot interpret definitively. Define any questionable words. For example, some instructors differentiate between magazines and journals, while others use the terms interchangeably. Does "library computer" mean the library catalog, the online periodical indexes, or the Internet, etc.? How does your discipline define 'primary sources'?
  • Currency — library resources are continually changing and these changes will affect library assignments. Check your assignment regularly so your students are not asked to use outdated or non-existent sources or to locations in the library that have been changed. If you have questions about library resources, services, locations, etc., contact the Instructional Services Librarian, Sheila Bonnand, at 994-4130 or email her at
  • Appropriate time frame — do the assignment yourself to see how long it takes before you decide how long students need to do it. Remember to allow for their inexperience in addition to the various locations of different materials.

Instruction and orientations:

We offer a variety of customized instructional sessions to meet your needs. To schedule an instruction session, fill out our online form.

Please Note:

  • Classes should be scheduled a week or two in advance!
  • Schedule early if you want a session during the first three weeks of a semester as this is a very popular time for library instruction!