First Year Seminar
Academic Year 2006/07
Drew University Library
Designing research assignments
Procedures for coordinating the Library session
Recommendations for searching the public Internet
The Library component of your First Year Seminar serves multiple purposes:
assignments for First Year Seminars:
- Introducing your students to the process of retrieving information from
a variety of sources
- Assisting them in developing criteria for evaluating that information
- Acquainting them withthe basic organization and procedures of an academic
- Providing raw material for developing analytical and critical thinking skills
Questions to ask when designing assignments:
- How does this assignment help to achieve the broader learning goals of the
- Is this assignment integrated into the course, providing enriching material to be
used in other work within the course?
- What core research skill does this project teach, and how? Possible skills
- Determining the most productive place to search for the specific type of information (factual, background, evaluative, etc.).
- Distinguishing among various types of information
sources: magazine articles, books, academic or research journals, personal
web sites, etc.
- Effective use of a major finding tool such as an index, catalog, database or search engine.
- Does this assignment provide meaningful practice in using tools in ways
that might be helpful in other contexts?
- Does this assignment ask students to look at information critically - to
evaluate it, to compare it with other information, to synthesize information
from different sources, to identify the most crucial pieces of information
- Does this assignment provide some means of communicating the thinking process
behind the process of finding or using the information?
- Is this assignment designed so that student success is feasible? Are the
likely obstacles, however salutary, also surmountable?
- Prepare brief annotated bibliographies
This assignment may ask students to retrieve a variety of sources - articles, books, personal accounts, web sites - and describe the
contribution of each
source to an understanding of the topic. This can help students develop a
sense of the scholarly conversation around a topic.
- Retrieve and compare two sources of information on
the same topic
This helps students become aware of the impact that the author's background, intent and audience may have on the information presented, and may highlight the differences among various disciplines. It works particularly well when students are asked to locate deliberately disparate sources, such as an article from a popular magazine and another from an academic journal1, articles from conservative and liberal sources 2, articles from different disciplines, journal articles and web sites,a personal and an organizational web site.
- Look at the treatment of a topic over time.
This can build students’ awareness of the process of scholarship
on a topic -- what do researchers now know that they didn't
know before, how might the social context of research have
had impact on a topic, etc. It can work for timespans as limited
as two years and as wide as a century. It may also heighten
awareness that it is not enough to search the last six months
in a database!
- Starting with a significant publication or event within the field,
prepare a report on the people or issues involved. 3
This helps students contextualize some of the material, and begins to focus them on the research in the discipline.
- Review a major journal in the field over time.
Through tracing shifts in who is published, what topics are considered of interest, what methodology is used, students develop a sense of a discipline as an evolving entity.
- Compare items retrieved by searches using two different search engines or databases. 4
Students learn that indexes, databases and even search engines may have different foci and functions. This helps them learn to make deliberate choices about which finding tool to locate information in various fields, at differing levels, or in differing formats. Searching a general database such as Academic Search Premiere and the standard indexing tool within your discipline might yield some interesting results. (Is the general database useful for an interdisciplinary approach? Are its articles more accessible? Does the specialized index do better for narrow searches?)
- Starting with a short article or announcment in the popular press, locate the original research on which the popular article was based. Evaluate the accuracy of the announcement. 5
This highlights the distinction between popular and scholarly press, and helps students understand the differences in audience and level of authority.
- Locate and evaluate reviews of books used in the course.
The focus here is on analyzing the reception of a piece of research within a field. Students can gain a sense of the conversation within a discipline by reading scholarly critiques of the material they are reading for class. The retrieval skills it teaches are fairly mechanical and straightforward, but it will acquaint students with local resources, including the basics of finding journals, etc.
- Locate and compare two contemporary accounts of an
Heightens awareness of difference in perspective between the immediacy and detail of the contemporary account and the treatment of the event by later scholars. Students are often intrigued with old newspapers and magazines, and finding a topic, then using an index to find another article, helps them understand the use of indexes.
- Locate and evaluate the “best” and the “worst” web site on a topic, describing the criteria used and recommending improvements for the "worst"site.
Students use search engines or directories to locate web sites, and must develop criteria for judging the pertinence and reliability of the information found.
- Debates requiring outside research.
This works well with controversial topics, encouraging students to support their opinions with analyses and data from the field. Requiring a bibliography of the sources they used gives practice in the mechanics of citation, and helps the instructor assess the range of materials they consulted.
- Present brief factual background to the class, introducing a new topic.
Helps students identify when consulting a reference work (print or electronic) is more efficient than looking for articles or books, and helps students invest in the process of the course itself. It also can mesh well with the oral components of the seminar.
- Write or present a brief intellectual biography of a scholar identified
or read in the course.
Although care must be taken to select scholars who are prolific enough to leave a traceable trail, students can locate dissertations, articles and books by the individual, and trace shifts or developments in his/her interests or understanding of the field. This might be combined with checking book reviews of a scholar's work over the course of his/her career.
- Write a newspaper article on an event.
The entire class can research an event, with each individual writing a news story on it. In addition to encouraging students to identify important elements and to summarize, the differences among the stories may alert students to the impact a writer's perspective has on writing.
- Prepare for a news conference with a scholar read in class, or
with a figure involved in some significant event in history. 6
Students must research the scholar's or historical figure's
general context to decide what questions they would want to
ask, and perhaps prepare questions someone from another culture
or time period might pose.
- Write a proposal for an extended research project.
This asks students to do almost everything involved with
writing a paper, except the actual writing: they must locate
and retrieve information in the field, and analyze how it
fits together and perhaps where it does not.
- Create an anthology of readings on a topic.
Select a variety of resources on a topic, and write an introduction
that explains how they fit together. Another twist on this
(from Wesleyan University Library) is to have students assume
they're unable to obtain copyright permission, and so must
have a secondary list of resources, with justification for
not including them in their optimal collection.
- Compare the treatment of the same topic in two
This helps students both practice physically locating material
and learn to identify the perspectives and approaches of different
disciplines. For the First Year Seminar level, this
could be done using specialized encyclopedias.
- Locate and summarize information to support an editorial on a
topic within the course. 7
This helps student identify information needs that might
arise outside class, and highlights the importance of approaching
- Locate two scholarly articles on a topic, and compare and evaluate
their bibliographies. 8
Students observe both common and unique sources across the articles, and
think about the impact the quality of sources can have on the authority of
- Create a profile of a species, or of a chemical compound
found in a household product.9
Familiarizes students with the common scientific reference tools, and can
introduce them to scientific literature.
1 "Effective library assignments" <www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/infoserv/lue/effectiveassignments.html> 5/6/04.
2 K. Huber and P. Lewis, "Tired of Term Papers?"
Research Strategies 2 (1984), 192-199.
3 Joseph, Miriam E. "Term Paper Alternatives." <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/PaperAlternatives.html> 5/6/04
4 "Creating assignments." <www.lib.unb.ca/instruction/assignments.html> 5/6/04
5 VT Sapziano and JL Gibbons, "Brain chemistry and behavior:
A new interdisciplinary course" Journal of Chemical Education
63 (1986), 398-399.
6 "Ideas for library assignments," <library.ups.edu/instruct/assign.htm>,
7 "Creating assignments." <www.lib.unb.ca/instruction/assignments.html> 5/6/04
8 "Alternative assignments," <www.library.ohiou.edu/libinfo/depts/refdept/bi/alternatives.htm>,
9 "Library assignments for lower-division science courses" <Obescifirstname.lastname@example.org>
for scheduling a session:
Research skills instruction sessions
are generally scheduled during the regular class period, and take place in the
Library. We need at least two week's notice to schedule a librarian and
to develop a session and guides tailored to your class's needs. But
the earlier you can get your session on our calendar, the better - with limited
facilities and personnel, it's first come, first served! Please
plan on being present during the session. Your interest is crucial in
signalling the importance of the session to your students.
To schedule a session,
please contact Jody Caldwell (ex. 3481),
or the librarian assigned to your seminar, and identify three possible choices
for dates.We look forward to working with you!
Return to top
Return to Jody Caldwell's homepage
Back to First Year Seminar page