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Mentoring Virtual Research

Recommendations for Mentoring Undergraduate Research in the Age of Physical Distancing   

Adapted from UR SIGMAA & CUR’s MCS - April 2020  and McNair Summer 2020 Documents.

Virtual Disclaimer: For many of us, the physical distancing realities that started in Spring 2020 have changed student research experiences from face-to-face to behind a computer screen. All of us are learning and we begin by acknowledging that there isn’t a right answer. Whatever you do that supports you and your students is the right thing. Not much of what we have done in the past is going to directly apply to this situation but some have led the way and have few recommendations for you as you begin to virtually mentor undergraduate research. 


Note 1: Make sure to prepare students for their research experience. 
Introduce them to your discipline, the literature, and to the process of research. 

CWU’s Anne Egger and colleagues at Visionlearning have created a set of videos that introduce students to the process of research, Each video is short (3-6 minutes) and uses a variety of examples from across the disciplines with specific advice for students about how to do things like work with mentors, read scientific articles, etc.  In addition, these are supported by a set of reading modules: Anne has used several of these as preparatory readings for her students (especially the one on Scientific Ethics), and others might find them useful in thinking about how to prepare students. 

Note 2: Set clear and authentic expectations upfront.

There has to be some reason you still want to meet with students to do research virtually at this time. What is it? Using that shared motivation think about how your research group can stay motivated during this uncertainty:

  • Set Goals for the Quarter/Year: This situation allows us chances to re-envision why we’re doing research.  Work with your students to think about this and be clear about what you can realistically expect to accomplish in the quarter together (both minimum and maximum expectations, students might aim too high so be realistic and flexible).  Communicate what success will look like by end of time together and come back to check in about these goals as the quarter progresses.
  • Think about the physical and computation tools that students need for their virtual work.
  • Think about how students will track their progress. Students should have some form of online research journal with comments, sharing their work. We encourage you to talk with students and have them contribute their own recommendations, since they may be productive when utilizing their own ideas.   Recommendations include: Microsoft Teams (integrated into Outlook),  Google Suite (Google Docs, Sheets, Blogs), Dropbox, Discord (gaming software), Slack, and Coauthor by Eric Demaine

Note 3:  Be intentional with the design of your research meeting:

When you do meet (via the online tool of your choice) there is not one “right way” to set up the schedule, but a majority of faculty who have done this previously recommend meeting with an agenda/focus. This agenda can be set by either the faculty or the research students.

  • How frequently will you meet, are they going to be required? Try to meet with your students at least once a week because ten weeks are going to go by quick! Having frequent discussions with your students keeps their research in the broader context of the field.
  • Discuss with students what they will need to have prepared for each meeting and what smaller concrete tasks that should be done between meetings. 
  • Make sure to set up calendar invites with time zone support for all in your group. 
  • Have your students practice written/social conventions particular to your field. 
  • Set expectations for research communication. Should students email or text when they have questions or discoveries? Do you need to set up virtual hours for smaller check-ins?

Note 4: Be aware of the social-emotional times we are in.

Beyond the logistics of mentoring virtual undergraduate research, we asked our experienced faculty to talk about how we can support and encourage each other while doing this work. One stated it well: “I am confident the research goals can be attained. The social experience is the challenge.” 

  • Discuss personal wellness as part of your plan. How will you support each other with mental and physical wellness? Make a plan for students in your research group to be able to communicate their mental and physical needs while supporting the research goal. 
  • Make sure each meeting allows for wellness check-in. If you ask how they’re doing - mean it! Really listen to your students. “Spend time talking about how the students' lives are going.”
  • Think about team building and collaborative opportunities as new students to join your group. 
  • Intentionally build the other professional support students will need in the quarter into the research meeting discussions (graduate school, scholarships, REU applications or publications).
  • Have frequent discussions with the students to put the research in context, reminding everyone what was previously known and what is not known. When a new conjecture or proof is made, emphasize how no one knows this except us! It's new knowledge! Students need to hear this. It energizes them!

More resources for Virtual Undergraduate Research          

(Please let us know if you find other tools)

Student Opportunity Center ( Our partner, Student Opportunity Center (SOC) has added thousands of new virtual and remote opportunities to their database—the nation's largest database for honors and undergrad research and experiential learning opportunities. This service is free for CWU students. Students (and faculty/staff) can register/sign in here using their CWU email address. Be sure to sign-in to SOC often. New remote opportunities are being added and updated daily.

Council of Undergraduate Research ( CWU is an institutional member of CUR. Register and log-in for free using your CWU email address. 

  • Council of Undergraduate Research, April 2nd forum: Undergraduate Research in the Era of COVID-19, Summer Programming and Student Employment Forum ( During the forum, the following was discussed: 
    • Why should we support, advocate, and/or maintain a summer research program in the Era of COVID-19?
    • What type of structures can and should we be supporting: face-to-face, hybrid, and virtual approaches? What would these look like?
    • What are the potential timelines? How do you plan with a changing environment?
    • How can you create and sustain community in a virtual summer research program? For research students and faculty writ large?
    • How do we prevent burnout among students, faculty, and ourselves?
  • Council of Undergraduate Research, March 30th forum: Mentoring in this new virtual reality ( During the forum, the follow was discussed:
    • How do we communicate with and mentor students in this new virtual environment?
    • How do you collaborate in a virtual environment? How do disciplinary norms foster or inhibit collaboration between research students and faculty mentors in a virtual environment?
    • What constraints exist in mentoring during this age of COVID-19?
    • How do we ensure equity and inclusion while mentoring virtually?
  • CUR and NSF- EPSCoR present Virtual Undergraduate Research in Action- Highlights and How-Tos: (access via your CUR login. CUR is free to join for CWU faculty and students). 

Other Resources for Virtual Work: 

CWU OUR thanks all who contributed to these recommendations. This doesn’t capture everything but it will help get you started. We’ll share if we learn more. You got this!

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