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Library Research Skills Instruction

Vassar Librarians can teach your students to understand and use information resources. We can help you design effective research assignments, and ensure that the library has the research materials that you and your students need.

Information Literacy

Break semester-long research assignments into multiple steps.

Students appreciate the specificity and it pushes them to notice the details of the research process. Below are some tips:

  • Spend time on topic generation. This is the most difficult aspect of the project for many students because often it involves more background reading than what they are prepared to do or realize they should do. An assignment that focuses on the use of subject encyclopedias is sometimes helpful. 
  • See if students can identify books on their topic by looking at sources cited in a subject encyclopedia, or by conducting some catalog searches.
  • Have students use an index to find book reviews on one of the books they located.
  • Then, ask students to track down one of two of the works cited in the book and discuss how the author used those resources to support their analysis.

Take time in class to discuss how scholars you are reading use sources in their own writing.

It's informative to hear what students observe in footnotes, and almost more importantly, what they don't. Have students look at what source(s) the author uses to support her assertion, how and why. For example, how do scholars develop assertions when there is little documentation to work with?

Ask students to write and publish a Wikipedia article.

Not only does this assignment combine research and writing, but it also teaches students about how information is created and the vetting (or not!) process involved in publication. You can build into the assignment an exploration of quality control in scholarly publishing, and how peer review works, and issues of bias and editorial control in popular publishing, and websites.

Have students compare scholarly and non-scholarly sources.

Ask students to do a writing assignment comparing the writing of a public intellectual in something like Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker, and a scholarly article about the same topic. Critique the differences of the approaches. Explore how the footnotes and citations affect the argument and the writing.

Have students conduct a literature review as background for writing a research proposal.

Their research proposal should address how their work will complement work that has already been done. This project helps students understand the need for situating new work in the existing literature of the field.

Ask students to look closely at an information source, and explore its complexity.

Here are some ideas:

  • Show students how to examine the records of a particular organization to see how those records could answer a particular research question. For example, students could look at the National Negro Business League records for clues about the role of women in that organization. This is a great way to introduce students to holdings in the library's Special Collections Department and/or the archival materials we have in microtext and digital formats.
  • Have students read a few primary research articles in science and then describe any general trends they find in the way those articles are organized. Ask them to provide reasons for the organization they find and explain what each section accomplishes.
  • Ask students to explore historical records from publications such as the Foreign Relations of the United States which can provide a different perspective on issues like human rights, Vietnam, or the Cuba Missile Crisis.

Introduce students to relevant research tools one at a time.

Give them assignments that must start in a certain resource. Ask them to find and note subject headings and keywords that will help them continue with the information gathering. Here are some ideas:

  • Get students acquainted with Readers Guide to Periodical Literature to find news and popular magazines for the entire 20th century
  • Design an assignment that requires students to use a citation index like Web of Science or Scopus to find highly cited articles, or to follow a trail of citations backward or forward in time

Links to Other Great Assignment Ideas

We've found several other libraries that have assignment ideas on their websites, and many of their ideas are VERY good, so the links below are worth checking out.

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