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Information Literacy Modules: Understanding What You Have to Do and What You Need to Do It

Understanding the Scope of Assignment and Information Need

So far in these modules we have looked at how to begin researching for a topic, what tools you would use to find information, how to search in those tools, and the various features provided that help with the research process. Now it is time to think about actually gathering the information you find.

When working through your research process, it can be very helpful to stop and reread the assignment to make sure that you are on track to meet those parameters and needs. Remember the discussion in the first module, Developing a Research Strategy, where you were introduced to the concept of What, How, and When? It was explained like this:


What is the assignment and how involved will it be?

  • Is it a paper, a presentation, another kind of project, or a combination of any of these?
  • If it is a paper, how many pages will it need to be, and is there a minimum amount of sources required?
  • If it is a presentation (i.e. PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, etc.), how long should it last?
  • Are you given your research topic, or will you be picking your own?

How will you be conducting your research?

  • Maybe you will be required to only use book information.
  • Maybe you will be required to only use journal articles.
  • Maybe you will be required to include an interview you conduct.
  • Maybe you will be allowed to draw from whatever types of sources you deem necessary to finish the project.


When will the assignment be due? This aspect will give you a timeframe to work with in your research process. A short essay due in two weeks will require less sources than a ten-page paper you are given a semester to complete. Also, the types of sources and access to those sources will be influenced by the amount of time given for an assignment. How time constraints will effect a project’s research process will be considered throughout these modules, so don’t worry if this seems like too brief of an explanation.


This module should help expand on these ideas, especially the When portion.  Allow your assignment to guide the types of information formats to search for (e.g. books, articles, etc.), the time frames you have to work within (e.g. project is due in two weeks, five weeks, ten weeks, etc), and the type of information you need to find (e.g. primary sources, interviews, historical, current events, etc.)?

So now let’s introduce two more words to consider when gathering information: What and Where. All information needs can be described as having two parts - a subject: "What information do I need? and a source: "Where can I find that information?"

Answering the question "What?" will help determine the second part of our equation "Where?" Some questions to consider when deciding exactly what information is needed include:

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How much information do you need?

We know the amount of information needed to answer a question can vary greatly. If you need to know a current stock price the amount of information required is very small and can be found quickly using a single investment resource.

But what if you want to know the history of the company issuing that stock? Your question is now much broader and therefore, may require more resources.

How current should the information be?

In our previous example of the stock price, information that is more than a few minutes old may be wildly inaccurate; current, timely information is needed. Timeliness of the information is also a consideration in the fields of science, medicine and technology. Sources used to answer questions in these disciplines should be very current.

However, subjects such as humanities or history may not require up-to-the-minute information. In fact, older documents created at the time of the actual events may be the most valuable resources.

How important is the format?

Full-text articles that are available online may not contain photographs or other graphics available in the original print version of the article. An audio book may contain only an abridged version of the original manuscript. Reproduced art works may be cropped to emphasize only a portion of the entire work.

Many other changes can occur as information is produced in differing formats. It is important to understand what changes, if any, occur when material is converted from one format to another.

To close this section let’s think about your assignment again. In considering the various finding tools available, if your assignment is requiring one or two sources to support a four paragraph essay, what would be appropriate? In a short essay, the topic is going to be fairly general in nature, so books or articles that provide an overview would be very helpful. Extremely technical peer-reviewed journal articles that can run from 40 to 70 pages long are not going to be very helpful. The source should fit the assignment.  

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