Good library assignments, part 1

I’m putting together a workshop tomorrow for teaching librarians about good research assignments — so I went looking to see what else has been written on the topic. I found lots of good stuff (I’ll talk about that later) but mostly what I found were rules — do’s and don’ts — embedded into pages about “when to ask for library instruction.”

(I bet you can predict what the rules are).

But here’s the thing – I break the rules all the time. In the last five years I have:

  • Taught classes without the faculty member present!
  • Said. “okay, sure!” when I was asked for a scavenger hunt activity.
  • Scheduled workshops for classes that don’t have research assignments, and which aren’t going to have research assignments.
  • And in one memorable case – integrated a scavenger hunt into a workshop for a class that was in the library without their instructor, that was a third again too big for every student to have an hands-on computer AND that didn’t have any kind of research assignment.

I mean, I don’t break rules for the thrill of breaking rules. And it’s not like we have anything so structured as “rules” here anyway. But I know them, just like we all know them, which means that even though I had good reasons for doing all of those things, I felt I had to figure those reasons out and justify those choices.

But I realized this morning that … I’m tired of rules. Or, maybe it’s more that rules make me tired. The effort to control and regulate a bunch of external conditions to make the one-shot — which has a bunch of moving parts that are uncontrollable — work is really tiring.

(And the rules have a nasty little unstated flip side — the one that says if all of the rules are followed, then the only reason why the one-shot isn’t awesome is librarian failure. That exhausts me even more.)

So in thinking about “good library assignments” the last thing I feel like doing is coming up with more rules. That’s right, not even “no scavenger hunts.”

I’m trying to pull together 3 pieces of interconnected thinking here. I don’t think I’ll talk about them all today – but I am hoping they’ll cohere if I talk about them. Here they are:

War stories: Thinking over “bad library assignments” I have seen – what are the broader categories?

  1. Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing that my library does not have.
  2. Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.
  3. Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.
  4. Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
  5. Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

Truisms: What are some things that are usually true (from my experience) about research assignments and teaching research?

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Expertise: What do we know about how students interact with research assignments that many others on campus do not?

  1. Library anxiety is real, has cognitive consequences, and can’t be fixed by requiring students to enter the building or touch the books.
  2. There are a lot of terrible sources available in library databases and on library shelves.
  3. Students will stick with what they know.
  4. Topic selection is difficult and stressful, and can be a barrier to student success on research assignments.
  5. Sometimes, it’s trying to do the right thing that leads students to do the wrong thing.
  6. Teachers and librarians have had experiences with (and built up a body of knowledge about) research and information that their students have not.

I’m going to dig into this more tomorrow, I think but for now – what do these things have to do with the rules above?

The faculty member present thing – probably nothing.  I agree that an active, involved faculty member makes my sessions better.  But I also have a lot of faculty at this point I’ve been working with for a long time — if someone I’ve assignment-designed with, taught with and published with needs to go to a conference the same week that her students need the library, I’m going to say yes.

But the rest – the rest do relate.  Because basically, I don’t think that a thrown-together research assignment, a mediocre research assignment, or a research assignment that’s separate from the class and will never be talked about again is going to make my session better.

And when we’re thinking beyond my individual session — then, a bad research assignment is going to make things worse.  So at that point, I have a couple of options – do the session without one (which I’ve done) or say, “no thanks, not this term” (which I’ve also done).

Why do I think they make things worse?  Because there are implicit messages buried in each of those “bad assignment” characteristics — let’s revisit?

Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing to be successful — and my library does not have that thing (or enough of that thing).

Subtext:  Libraries don’t have what you need.  And perhaps even worse – librarians don’t know what you need and cannot help you.

Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.

Subtext: People who use libraries do so because they don’t know the best way to do things.

Or, as a colleague and I used to say “let’s teach them – whatever you do, DON’T use library resources!”  This actually came from an assignment that never happened.  We wanted students to get an overview of the topic before going to scholarly sources (as you do) and we thought we might be able to embed a discussion about the differences between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia in the unit (yeah, yeah, it was 2005.  It was how we thought then).

We opened up our online Encyclopedia Brittanica, took a stack of student research logs, and started plugging in the words and phrases that they’d used in their initial searches.  And OMG were the results ever terrible.  We compared twenty-five student searches (because rigor) but we knew after five that we were never going to send people to the Brittanica because we’d be sending the implicit message – “whatever you do, DON’T use library resources.”

Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.

Subtext: 

Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

These are two different things, but the subtext I’m worried about is the same:  You have to use these sources, processes, and tools here in school, but once you graduate you’ll never use them again.

So what did I miss?  Plus, more to come.

4 thoughts on “Good library assignments, part 1

  1. This is fascinating stuff, and parallels a lot of the thoughts I’ve had in recent years about library instruction and assignment design. I’m hoping to be able to do some professional development for our college’s faculty on designing effective research assignments, and this stuff will be super-useful when I do that. I particularly like Truisms #3, 4, and 5 because once you state them out loud, they seem obvious enough, but they aren’t the sort of things that faculty automatically know in a conscious way.

    I’m increasingly thinking that there’s only so much we as librarians can do to teach research skills and/or build students’ information literacy skills/capacities when we’re working around ineffective assignment design. So while it’s important for me, as an instruction coordinator, to help the librarians at MPOW be more effective teachers, it’s also at least as important for me to help the teaching faculty at MPOW design effective research assignments.

    • Agree 100% Catherine – I hope you can share what you come up with for your professional development events. I find myself more easily articulating the problems than coming up with solutions!

  2. You really make it appear really easy with your
    presentation however I in finding this matter to be really something
    that I feel I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely huge for me.
    I’m looking forward in your subsequent put up, I will attempt
    to get the hold of it!

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