Undergraduate researchers are an integral part of faculty research, but many PIs are concerned about the logistics of involving them in research remotely. When working with students remotely, you may need to take a more proactive approach to mentoring.
The following practices can support students’ learning and professionalization in the absence of the in-person interactions that normally take place in the lab
- Be human. Current circumstances are difficult for PI and student alike. Have honest and realistic expectations of the student, and of yourself!
- Ensure equity of access. With the possibility of fewer undergraduate research opportunities, equity in access to these opportunities is increasingly important. The Eureka database of faculty research interests and projects can support such access. We strongly encourage faculty to update their profiles to better communicate ongoing remote research opportunities to all students.
- Communication. Regular interactions with student researchers (e.g., via Zoom) one to two times a week are strongly encouraged. Whether one-on-one or as an all-lab meeting, scheduled interactions are more important than ever for keeping students updated, accountable, and engaged with the work. Clearly setting deadlines and expectations is additionally helpful during remote learning.
- Feedback. Develop a plan with students for offering feedback on completed work. While such in-person feedback might be incidental in the lab, mentors may need to be more intentional about providing feedback remotely.
- Shadowing. If research assistants aren’t already paired up with a graduate student mentor, now is a good time to formalize plans for them to regularly meet with one. Small clusters of two to three students are also good for checking in on each other’s progress and well-being. Since students often learn by looking over a grad student mentor’s shoulder, student mentors may want to consider streaming video of their lab work (if feasible).
- Help students understand the importance of the research. Undergraduate research experiences often provide students with their first exposure to what it means to conduct research, and for many students, this experience can transform their educational and career goals. In order to help students working remotely experience the excitement that can come with this first exposure to research, make an effort to highlight for students the importance of the work, and the ways in which the remote research experience mirrors the experience students might have in a laboratory setting. Find ways to involve remote researchers in lab meetings and other conversations, to help them feel part of the project as a whole.
- Professional development. Virtual brown bag talks and reading groups can help acculturate undergraduates to your lab and your broader field. Encouraging students to attend virtual conferences can also assist with their professional development. The OUR offers online workshops on more discipline-general professional development.
- Resources. Help connect students to digital resources, such as online archives, video web series, blogs and websites by people within the field, or free software they can access on their home computers.
- Be aware of changing policies. Follow the guidance of the Office of the Vice President for Research on resuming research operations.
Consider involving undergraduate researchers in tasks that can be done remotely:
- Familiarizing themselves with your field. Students can remotely access and read foundational texts in your field’s literature. Learning theory now will be of use when they take a more hands-on role later. Many institutes now also share a host of videos on YouTube covering topics such as introductory training, introductions to research methods, as well as conversations with experts within their fields.
- Training in research skills. Some investigative or analytical techniques might have online training available to students, e.g., through UTLearn or LinkedIn Learning. Students can get a head start learning programming languages (e.g., R; Python) or specific statistical tests you use in your work. Again, YouTube is another great resource for learning how to use software they may work with during their research (e.g. QGIS and Blender).
- Involve them in the data pipeline. With limited lab access, faculty, postdocs, and graduate students may be back in labs before undergraduates. Having the former collect data that the latter can process or analyze can keep your undergraduates involved in the pipeline.
- Revisiting old data. Conducting additional analyses on old data, or even just re-analyzing it as an exercise, can give students direct experience with this part of your research.
- Designing experiments. While the experiment itself might need to be delayed, you can work with students to design future projects remotely. Some design work, e.g., creating Qualtrics surveys, developing exercises for future group activities, or coding behavioral experiments, may be possible remotely.
- Collecting data remotely. If students can use a remote desktop application to access specialized software or archives, or if they can interact with human subjects via Zoom or phone, they may be able to collect data remotely. When applicable, students might also explore online collection methods like MTurk.
- Creating materials. In many cases, students can code data, digitize existing materials, or build databases remotely.
- Coding for meta-analysis. Training research assistants to code data for meta-analysis can open up new avenues of investigation.
- Contributing to writing. Even if your undergraduates aren’t ready to contribute text to an article for publication, they may be able to write literature reviews or annotated bibliographies.