Pitfalls of Library Assignments

by George Merrill, librarian, Montgomery High School, Santa Rosa, California

1. Teacher overemphasizes form, especially when making the assignment. Matters of length, number of sources, width of margins, or placement of footnotes take precedence over developing a thoughtful approach to meaningful research.

2. Evaluation is based solely on the final product rather than on the process, a demonstration of the skills and concepts of information literacy.

3. Students lack basic information-gathering and information-processing skills. Students who cannot use a catalog entry to locate a book or who cannot interpret a periodical citation, let alone understand concepts like key words, controlled vocabulary, and Boolean searching, cannot even make a start. A term paper assignment is not the time to cram in three or four years’ worth of instruction and practice.

4. Students are not engaged by the subject matter of the assignment. A good research paper creates a question in the student’s mind that he or she wants to answer. That is not an easy task, although a teacher can remind students of the assignment at the beginning of the course, encourage them to look for suitable areas of interest, and point out appropriate questions that arise during the course.

5. The assignment is seen as something peripheral to the central concerns of the course. Ideally a research project should be integral, one of the ways students explore the essential question(s) of the course.

6. A topic is so emotional that students begin not with investigation and reflection but with simplistic conclusions that they attempt to “prove,” making no attempt to evaluate whatever they uncover.

7. Students lack the skills needed to manage a lengthy, complex assignment. They procrastinate, then slap together a mush of undigested material from a few obvious sources. A series of graded checkpoints in the research process can discourage this, but better is to provide frequent practice in the earlier grades while making students conscious of how they work and how to manage their time.

8. Without sufficient planning time, the teacher falls into the accustomed role of assigner and the librarian becomes the resource finder. Worse still, the assignment is made without consulting the librarian at all. Even if appropriate sources are available, students are unprepared to use them and must be led individually to what they require.

9. Students receive too little time and guidance. A class is brought to the library with minimal or no preparation, usually at the exploratory phase of the research process, and then left to its own devices. Students never discuss their findings with the teacher or the librarian, or the conversations are limited to “Why didn’t you turn this in?” or “Where can I find something about . . . ?” Students need to be coached out of false starts and directed toward appropriate resources.

11. Students are instructed in “using the library” before beginning the research process. Extended lessons taught in a vacuum make little or no impression. “Mini-lessons” taught as the need arises are more effective.

12. Teacher and librarian never discuss the completed project to see how students fared and to identify areas where they need to take a different approach or give greater emphasis.

13. No audience beyond the teacher is created for the product. Students need feedback from peers, other faculty, community representatives, officials, and so forth who can evaluate it from a different perspective. Some of these points are adapted, George Merrill notes, from Teaching the Library Research Process, by Carol C. Kuhlthau (out of print).