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SFU liaison librarians’ fresh approach to creating clear research assignment instructions

By Barry Shell

SFU librarians are available for much more than locating obscure journal articles. “Often faculty don’t realize they can call librarians to help identify places where their students are falling down. We can help discuss plagiarism, find an appropriate study guide, or work with them to build a research guide for a specific assignment,” says Mark Bodnar, Business Librarian at SFU. He points out that a librarian has the same goal as an instructor: “We want students that are engaged and that are learning what they need to learn in class.”

Imagine being 17 or 18 years old and reading this: “Cite five relevant peer reviewed papers from scholarly journals. “Thousands of students must parse phrases like this in their first few months at university, yet few know what the verb “cite”, the adjective “relevant” or the word “scholarly” means in this context. “Even if they know how to cite a reference, they might not know why,” says Bodnar.

Library Liaisons Rebecca Dowson and Mark Bodnar illustrate some common sources of students' confusion using a comic showing a student and a teacher. The student is holding a paper with a grade of "F" and says: what do you mean my facts are wrong? I copied everything straight off the internet."

SFU liaison librarians Rebecca Dowson and Mark Bodnar illustrate some common sources of confusion at the workshop "Mapping the great unknown: helping your students overcome hidden research roadblocks"

Every day frustrated students get help from librarians to puzzle out what their professors and lecturers want, but many instructors at SFU may not realize that they, too, can get help from SFU librarians with their research assignments.

Instructors do a great job in class getting their students involved and giving them stimulating assignments, but liaison librarians are constantly confronted by students who are lost and confused.

“I get students every day who don’t know what “scholarly” means,” says Bodnar. “They come to the reference desk and they’ll know what the requirements are. They need scholarly articles or peer reviewed articles. They know the term but not what it is or how to differentiate it.” Librarians can help instructors look at assignments and understand what research knowledge, what jargon, what skills are going to be required so students can hand in great assignments,” says Bodnar.

New workshops encourage instructors to remove research roadblocks

Bodnar and his colleague, Rebecca Dowson, Liaison Librarian for English and History, felt so strongly about this that they created a successful workshop presentation called “Mapping the great unknown: helping your students overcome hidden research roadblocks”. Their topic goes beyond how to research. “This is about how instructors can remove research roadblocks, keeping the focus on the content,” says Bodnar.

At their workshop, Bodnar and Dowson start by handing out an assignment to the participating instructors. They use real assignments that students have brought to the Library reference desk. “Participants work in groups trying to figure out what the students need to know to actually get through the assignment,” says Dowson. The workshop then switches to an instructor’s perspective and asks: when we are doing everything right, where are we still losing students? “We always make the disclaimer that as librarians we don’t know what happened in class, what the student heard from the instructor. Maybe plagiarism was explained, but sometimes students still don’t know what it is,” says Bodnar.

Bodnar also teaches an hour-long session on the concept of ‘relevance’ as part of the evaluation process. He notes that it can have many different meanings. “Relevance in English compared to how it’s used in Marketing is a totally different world,” says Bodnar. Dowson adds that such problems are compounded by SFU’s interdisciplinary focus. “Our students are asked to take courses in many different faculties. They may come with some idea of what a word means in their home faculty but it changes when they go to another class.” Instructors can prepare their students for these potential stumbling blocks when they design assignments.

Wikipedia is not a scholarly source! and other instructor-student communication challenges

Instuctors receive assistance on preparing class assignments

Library liaisons and instructors have the same goal: engaging students and helping them learn what they need to know

Bodnar and Dowson provide solutions for instructors to support their research assignments. Sometimes it’s as simple as defining terms like ‘scholarly’ or ‘plagiarism’. Instructors are reminded that they can invite a librarian into class to talk about how to research a particular topic, or how to evaluate information.

Librarians can also get involved at the class preparation stage. “We can confirm if our resources support the research requirements of the assignment, and also we might be able to give some feedback on the types of problems we’ve seen in similar assignments,” says Dowson.

SFU liaison librarians are happy to read through assignment instructions and identify potential problems. Then they will work with the instructor to produce a web-guide for the assignment, or give them pointers on what they are going to need to discuss with the class, and the pitfalls the students are likely to encounter. Dowson emphasizes that librarians would never ask an instructor to change their assignment. “It’s just highlighting things to be aware of to help their students complete the assignment in the way the instructor hopes they will,” she says.

“There’s one of us for every subject area,” says Dowson, pointing out that SFU has many liaison librarians. Find out who yours is on the SFU library’s website.

For more information about library liaisons or “Mapping the great unknown: helping your students overcome hidden research roadblocks”, contact Mark Bodnar, Business Librarian at SFU.

Have you worked with the SFU library liaison team? Tell us more in our comments section below.

SFU librarians bridge the gap to encourage clear instructor-student communication


One Response to “SFU liaison librarians’ fresh approach to creating clear research assignment instructions”

  1. Leah Sarson Says:

    It’s not only instructors that the librarians and library liaisons are willing to help. As a staff member, I found Rebecca to be a great resource when I first arrived at SFU. Navigating the library resources can be tricky – thanks for being such a big help, Rebecca!