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Manageable Research Assignments for Remote Courses

This guide collects resources and ideas to help faculty teach research skills while courses are online (some ideas will work great for in-person teaching too!).

What's in this guide?

Students who live off campus may have different levels of access to library resources, writing support, technology, and quiet study spaces than those who live on campus.  In this guide, you'll find ideas for research-based assignments that make it possible for students in every learning environment to thrive.  Each assignment breaks down the research process into a discrete, manageable (yet powerful) exercise that can be accomplished in a short period of time with minimal independent research.

The suggestions in this guide offer the added benefit of pushing students to focus on one skill at a time. Foundational information literacy concepts like where to begin, how to develop a question, how to join the scholarly conversation, and how to cite sources, can be overlooked when they’re wrapped up in the process of researching and writing a long paper.  Shorter exercises give us a chance to encourage students to hone all of their research-related skills.

Many of these are low-stakes assignments.  They could be used as standalone exercises, or as scaffolding for a later assignment.  Alternatively, these assignments could be used as a discussion prompt; students could respond to the prompt and to one another, with points awarded simply for participation. 

Talk with your librarian and see what might make sense in the context of your class. Your librarian will be able to:

  • Answer questions and brainstorm
  • Help you design an assignment
  • Design an assignment and share the draft with you
  • Introduce students to an assignment and walk them through it

Let us know if you have any suggestions, and check back often because we're adding more ideas all the time!

How to Begin Doing Research

  • Dissect a scholarly journal article (or a book chapter): How did the author organize their article?  What kinds of sources did they use? Might any of their sources be useful to you?
  • Encyclopedias and other reference works can help you find and develop ideas for a research topic.  Go to Oxford Reference and search for an essay related to your topic.  Probably, you will need to think broadly about your topic in order to find something about it. Find an essay and describe how you it could help you work more on this topic. [NOTE to faculty:  Our Reference Guide recommends alternative online reference sources.]
  • Watch Top Tips for Starting Your Research.  Then, think of a time when you did research on your own.  Share one tip that you would recommend adding to the Top Tips video.
  • Create a five-step research plan for incoming Midd Kids. For example, “Step 1: Collect a handful of topics to research…” Follow your own research plan and adjust as necessary.
  • Help students choose a research topic. First, students answer a prompt: What did you imagine you’d be able to learn about in this class? Students then pair up and ask one another questions: What strikes you as most interesting about those topics? Finally, each student selects one topic, writes a strong statement about it, and lists a few arguments that they expect to find in their research. The students can use these arguments as subtopics for an exploratory literature search. [Thanks to Professor Hector Vila for the idea!]
  • Help students warm up to a longer research paper. Students record a two-minute oral presentation. The presentation must answer essential questions about a narrow topic. For example, a student might choose a historical figure and explain who the person was and why they were important. [Thanks to Professor Sarah Stroup for the idea!]

Develop a Research Question

  • Dissect a scholarly journal article or book chapter: What question did the authors ask? What is their answer?
  • Draft a research question for an imaginary research paper (you won’t actually write the paper).
  • Pick a topic for an imaginary research paper.  (You won’t actually write the paper.)  Then, watch Top Tips for Starting Your Research and revise your topic.  Describe how and why you revised your topic.
  • Select specific online primary sources (especially from Middlebury’s collection of over 14,000 rare books, archives, and more) in order to model document analysis and historical thinking through directed, specific prompts, like “Who created this?” and “What questions does it raise?” Ask students to identify questions for further investigation, and offer strategies for how to answer them.

Join the Scholarly Conversation

  • Dissect a scholarly journal article (or book chapter): Identify one outside source that the author of your article refers to several times. Does the author of your article agree, or disagree with it?  Pick a specific passage that illustrates whether the author of your article agrees or disagrees.  
  • Research a topic, then write 2-3 sentences of agreement (or disagreement) with a source.
  • Research a topic, then create an annotated bibliography. In each annotation, describe how you might use the source if you were to write a paper on your topic.
  • Starting with a single online primary source (from our collections or beyond) and ask students to analyze the source, to read it closely, and to summarize it. Then, ask them to find 2-3 primary and secondary sources that support, contradict, or deepen their understanding of the original source. Finally, create an annotated bibliography with their newly discovered online sources.
  • Have all students read an article, then write a commentary about some element in the article about which they feel strongly. The commentary should be concise and well supported, and students should be assured that if they take a critical stance, that doesn't mean rejection, merely critical evaluation. Post to the discussion board, and thoughtfully respond to at least one other opinion (use setting requiring users post before seeing replies). [Thanks to Professor Eric Moody and librarian Wendy Shook for the idea!]

Tip: The book They Say, I Say provides practical advice and examples that can help students learn how to enter the scholarly conversation. 

Cite Your Sources

  • Take the Academic Integrity Tutorial and pick one question to discuss. [NOTE TO FACULTY:  The best way to provide access for your class is described here at How to Set Up Tutorial.] 
  • Watch Citation for People Who Hate Citation and write one question that you would add to Middlebury's Academic Integrity Tutorial.
  • Read an excerpt and suggest at least two ways in which the references in it could be improved.
  • Do some backwards-engineering of the in-text citations (or footnotes/endnotes) in a scholarly journal article. Which sources seem to have formed the foundation for the main idea that the author presents? Identify one source that was used to support a specific argument. Does the author provide at least one source that suggests the existence of a counter-argument?

Special Collections & Archives

Sustain remote teaching and research with our staff. Contact us at to learn about curated primary sources on your course topic, online exhibits, synchronous class meetings, recorded mini lectures, and more.

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