Share Your Teaching Tool Kit:
Best Practices in Library Instruction

Topic: Teaching to a Bad Assignment

About 20 people participated in a discussion about working with various constituents to provide students with positive learning experiences when working with research assignments.

I. Strategies/suggestions that were offered for working with faculty include:

  • Be diplomatic and avoid using negative language (i.e. discuss how an assignment could be improved upon instead of focusing on why it's a "bad" assignment).
  • Solicit copies of assignments from faculty before or at the very beginning of each semester to prevent surprises at the Reference desk, and follow up if response is low.
  • Meet with the department at one of their regularly scheduled meetings and use it as a teaching moment -- pitch the value of instruction, tips for designing effective assignments, etc.  Or, offer to take the department head to lunch to pitch instruction, how librarians can help students successfully complete assignments via tailored instruction, etc.
  • Open a dialogue with faculty once concerns about an existing assignment arise -- discuss what the objectives and goals are for the assignment and discuss how to accomplish this.  One can also provide constructive suggestions at this point for remedying the current situation which could be built into revisions for the next time the assignment is used.
  • Encourage effectively designed assignments in terms of results faculty will see, i.e. better quality bibliographies and papers, etc. The experience will be better for faculty, too, if the assignments are well designed.
  • Offer to visit them on their own turf -- in their classroom instead of in the Library, especially if this will encourage them to incorporate instruction instead of passing it up.  Instruction addressing particular assignments (with resource lists if not provided by the instructor) can greatly improve the overall experience for students and prevent some frustration.

II. When working with students who are facing poorly designed assignments, it was agreed that the goal for librarians is to help the students complete the assignments and salvage whatever is possible to create a positive experience.  Some strategies include:

  • Offer students your email information or pass out your business card so students know that help is available when they need it.
  • Suggest that students request library instruction from their instructors.
  • Create web sites that address specific class assignments -- provide resource lists, tips, etc. This could complement any instruction given in person.
  • If one resource is required, prevent its disappearance by putting it on Reserve or holding it at a Reference desk and ask for IDs when the item is requested.  (be sure to call faculty, too, so they know the situation and are aware that Reserve is available for such instances).

III. The group also discussed what librarians can do to work collaboratively with colleagues to ensure students have a positive experience in the library.   Open and frequent communication with each other about assignments and about discussions with faculty were consistent themes.  Suggestions included:

  • Be diligent about having copies of the assignments at the Reference desks.
  • Provide cheat sheets for the assignments and have a copy for librarians at the Reference desks.  This will help librarians refer students to the most appropriate resources and/or the resources faculty want them to use to complete the assignment.
  • Email colleagues to provide advanced notice about assignments or warnings of problematic assignments currently being completed by students.
  • Let colleagues know if one resource will be used for an assignment; provide location information to save colleagues from repeatedly looking up the item in the online catalog, i.e. item is on reserve, is held at the reference desk and requires an ID, etc.
  • Create a file within the Electronic Reserve system for copies of all assignments collected by librarians and provide a resource list/cheat sheet for colleagues.  A web site could also be used.

Submitted by Nicole Auer


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