Online Assignments



A good first assignment –for all online courses– is to have students do introductions. They can be general “tell others in the course about yourself” or have a more specific set of questions that elicit students’ interests and prior knowledge of the course subject. The students can post in an Angel or Desire2Learn forum so that the introductions can be read by the class but not made public. Online courses often see attrition due to lack of a sense of being part of a class. Having students do simple things like introductions, explaining their interests in history, or their interests in the specific topic of the class helps them to feel more connected.

The first two weeks of the course are critical for class retention, and often having “canned” encouraging emails sent out regularly in the first few weeks can be of great value. A generalized response to the introductions that can either go to the whole class or personalized with a reference to a few words in the introductions (in smaller classes) can greatly help.

In general, having a number of short forum assignments at the beginning of a course can be quite beneficial. For these assignments, you can have a portion of the class post a brief response to a reading, a review of a web site, a response to an issue, and so on, while others in the class comment on the responses.

The key is to not feel obligated to grade or read all of the responses, but treat them more as class discussion and participation. “Spot” reading of the responses can help instructors to see how well students are understanding materials and help to catch those students (and prod them with an email or two) who are not participating.

However, one does need to balance and not be too burdensome with participation assignments; nor have too small of a window for responses.

Both Angel and Desire2Learn have good discussion (forum) platforms (On the whole, D2L is less clunky in all respects and much faster than Angel). But you can also use online resources for class interaction such as Piazza (

To encourage collaborative writing. Instructor can identify a series of themes. Number of themes could depend on number of students enrolled in course. Ask students as a group to compile a Wikipedia or blog entry on theme of choice.

You could let students know that the assignments could possibly be used to contribute towards an electronic reader, or a resource-based reader on a public history site maintained by the department. Or they can post on a public blog. Entries can be of any length but generally group blog posts tend to work well at 500 – 750 words. They can be more formal and include citations and bibliography at the end.

Blog posts, individually or as a group, form or informal, can be a great way for students to turn in work or participate in the class. While you can have students sign up for and blog on your course site, a simpler and better solution is to have students use any one of a number of free blog services ( Students can use tools like, for example, to create their own blog ( (individual or group) that focuses on an historical theme, event, movement, person, etc.

While many see Wikipedia as a dubious resource, historians can use this to their advantage by having students work on an entry on either a new topic or a more established topic. The class can set about trying to improve the accuracy and historical fullness of particular Wikipedia entries.

Scaffolded assignment using Google Docs ( One trick that I have found that has made commenting on student work and allows me to avoid Angel dropbox, is to use the MSU instantiation of Google Docs. Students share a particular Google Doc with me and post their work in it. When work is due, I can go to the Google Doc and write comments.

This also allows one to scaffold assignments, break them into manageable parts. Students can, for example, start by collecting sources in the doc; they can then do reviews of the sources; They can then do a draft of an assignment; they can then review a fellow student; and then finally do a final draft. Any one stage of a scaffolded assignment can be graded or commented upon or simply checked off for being done.

Students can work in groups. Almost any assignment can be broken into parts. Scaffolding assignments helps to keep students engaged by giving them more manageable tasks. It also helps one to avoid getting paper mill work – plagiarism.

More Assignments. Any of the following could be formulated for forums, blog posts, scaffolded assignments, or more traditional drop box Word docs.

Article review. Instructor identifies a series of themes. Students are asked to find an article that meets specific scholarly criteria, as identified by instructor (e.g published in reputable journal, draws on primary source materials or draws on both primary and secondary sources, is at least 10 pages in length excluding the bibliography, etc. etc.). Write a 1 or 2 page review that includes a short summary, and a critical analysis that draws in other readings from the course.

Archive Review: Identify an online archive for review, as in the following example from

For a class, students can look at topic specific archives or find within larger archives, materials appropriate for a particular class.

As per this example, students can be asked to use selected narratives, interviews, footage, or images to construct a “document-based question” for fellow students to answer

Been Here So Long: Selections from the WPA American Slave Narratives
Dick Parsons.
These three lessons use the American Slave Narratives gathered between 1936 and 1938 by journalists and other writers employed by the Federal Writers Project, part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The site supplies 17 narratives for student use and also provides information on online and printed sources for additional narratives (approximately 2,300 were collected). The lessons ask students to explore the slave narratives to gain an understanding of the experiences of African Americans in nineteenth-century America and to consider the nature of oral history and personal narratives as historical evidence.

One lesson requires students to use selected slave narratives to construct a “Document Based Question” for fellow students to answer. The lessons are accompanied by an essay on “The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context.” This activity comes from the New Deal Network Web site.

Using primary source documents, examine the impact of particular historical events / episodes on people’s lives. Rich online archives provide excellent resources for setting students up to do “historical work” of digging into archives. Alternatively, sets of primary documents can be assembled online and ask students to support or refute particular stances with evidence from the documents. A particularly rich example of this can be found with the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History (
Significant Event
Identify a significant event or publication in your discipline. Have students ascertain the important people, impact, etc., involved by consulting a variety of library resources. Probably a good idea to keep the event/publication broad: The lunar landing, discovery of penicillin, Silent Spring, the rock opera Hair, the advent of the assembly line, etc. Suggested library resources will depend on the event, but lends itself neatly to reference tools. (Adapted from Term Paper Alternatives.
Liberal and Conservative

Contrast two journal articles or editorials from recent publications reflecting conservative and liberal tendencies. (Consult Cannell Library’s handout, “A Selective List of Liberal and Conservative Periodicals.”) It might be interesting to carry out this exercise again using publications from the late 1960s.
(Adapted from Term Paper Alternatives.
Popular and Scholarly

Provide students with a popular and a scholarly article on the same topic. (Or, alternatively, have students locate two articles on their own.) Students will use a prepared checklist to analyze the two types of publications and learn the distinguishing characteristics.

Popular and Primary
Students will find a short article in the popular press and locate the original research article [primary source] on which the popular article was based. Students will analyze the relationship between the popular article and original research, and critique the popular article with regard to its accuracy.

Update the Literature
Ask students to update a literature review done about five years ago on a topic in the discipline. They will have to utilize printed and electronic resources to identify pertinent information.

Update a Web Directory
Students will select a topic directory from the Cannell Library web site. Students will look at each of the recommended sites, then locate five more sites on the same topic that they determine should be added. For each site they recommend, students will complete a web page evaluation worksheet and write a short evaluation. Alternatively, students can locate their own directory to update, rather than using one from the library’s page.

Analyze Case Studies
Bring in case studies for students to read (for example, I will put a case example of sexual harassment on an overhead). Have students discuss and analyze the case, applying concepts, data, and theory from the class. They can work as individuals or in groups or do this as a think-pair-share. Consider combining this with a brief in-class writing assignment.

Mini-research Proposals or Projects
Have the students work on designing a research study on a topic from the class. In some situations, you may be able to have them collect data during class time (observe some situation or give out some short surveys) or you may have them doing this as part of an outside-of-class project. Either way, have students present their research in a class research symposium similar to what we do at professional meetings. Invite other faculty and students.

Analyze Information Sources
Have students locate three sources—one an article published in a popular magazine, one an article in a refereed scholarly journal, one a web site—and have them analyze the sources in terms of language used, evidence presented for claims, qualifications of the author, and purpose.

Culture Shifts
This one uses the New York Times Historical database. Have students select a topic or an issue and examine it across time by locating articles in the New York Times for this year, 25, 50, 75, and/or 100 years ago. In addition to gaining an understanding of the shifts in language (and the need to brainstorm keywords) students can study the different approaches to the issue and the ways in the issue reflect the values and assumptions of the time. This exercise can be expanded by having students expand their knowledge of the different time periods with chronologies and other reference books.
Create an AnthologyUsing the book catalog and databases, have students compile an anthology or reader of works on a theme or topic. Students will write critical introductions to the selections they have chosen. This exercise is good for teaching providing students practice with selecting particular sources out of many and relating pieces to a whole.
(Adapted from

Compile an anthology of readings by one person. Have students include an introduction with biographical information about the author, and the rationale for including the works [justify with reviews or critical materials].
Secondary Source Comparison
Provide the class with primary sources that recount an event that is open to more than one interpretation. Then have students locate and critique secondary source explanations of that event. Have students examine differences in secondary sources and relate these to their own interpretation of the available evidence. (Students are often surprised to find secondary sources tell the same story differently.)

Document an Editorial Have students examine an editorial and discuss what evidence would need to be provided to turn it into an academic argument for a scholarly audience. Have the class locate and analyze evidence and write a response to the editorial based on their new knowledge.

Glossary Exercise Have students maintain a list of words related to the topic of the class (from lectures, the textbook, readings). Using words on the list students create an annotated glossary, for which they provide documented definitions for each of the words. The instructor can set a minimum number of words and sources (i.e. forty words from at least 10 different sources). Sources can include general and subject-specific dictionaries, people, web sites, a whole book on the topic, an article on the topic, etc.)
One of Kitty’s favorites from an Intro to Research Class

Annotated Bibliography
Prepare an annotated bibliography of books, journal articles, and other sources on a topic. Include evaluative annotations
· produce the annotated bibliography in the form of a web page
· Have students work in groups to compile a large annotated bibliography and present/defend their selections to the class.

Topic Across Sources
Select a topic and compare how that topic is treated in two to five different sources.

Journal Analysis
Analyze the content, style, and audience of three journals in a given discipline.

Birthday Exercise
Locate primary sources on/or near the date of your birth. You may use one type of material only once, i.e., one newspaper headline of a major event, one quotation, one biography, one census figure, one top musical number, one campus event, etc. Use a minimum of six different sources. Write a short annotation of each source and include the complete bibliographic citation.

Web Site Evaluation
Students select a web site and evaluate it using a checklist, such as the W5 for W3 web site evaluation and checklist. As a variation, have students locate three websites on the same topic, and after completing the worksheet, have them write a short paper describing each site and ranking them in order of quality.

Teach the Class
Each student in the class is given responsibility for dealing with a part of the subject of the course. He or she is then asked to 1) find out what the major reference sources on the subject are; 2) find out “who’s doing what where” in the field; 3) list three major unresolved questions about the subject; 4) prepare a 15 minute oral presentation to introduce this aspect of the subject to the class.

Follow the Policy
Have students follow a particular foreign policy situation as it develops. Who are the organizations involved? What is the history of the issue? What are the ideological conflicts?

Internet & Search Engines Choose a topic of interest and search it on the Internet. Cross reference several search engines. Select and evaluate x number of web sites; select a specified number to include on an annotated bibliography. As with a research paper, students will have to narrow and broaden accordingly. Students summarize the experience by describing the experiences in different search engines, overall coverage of the topic, best keywords, etc.
(Adapted from

Write Your Own Exam
Write an exam on one area; answer some or all of the questions (depending on professor’s preference). Turn in an annotated bibliography of source material, and rationale for questions.

All But the Research Paper
Conduct the research for a term paper. Do everything except write it. Students submit a clearly defined topic, an annotated bibliography of useful sources, an outline of a paper, a thesis statement, and an opening paragraph and summary.
Examine Coverage of a Controversial Issue

Examine the treatment of a controversial issue in several different sources such as newspapers, books, magazines, scholarly journals, and web sites. Write a paper that presents a balanced point of view on the issue or ask the students to take a position based on the information.
Purpose: Gives them experience in locating different kinds of sources and selecting from a large volume of references. Emphasizes that there are multiple perspectives on any issue and stresses the importance of making informed decisions.

Finding Supporting Information
Give the students an article to critique. Have them locate two sources (other articles, web sites) which support (or not) the points made in the original article. Purpose: Gives the students an opportunity to understand the importance of using more than one source when gathering information.

Have students choose any issue that has been the subject of protest or propaganda at any time in the past 500 years in any part of the world. Then write a paper detailing the issues of the protest/propaganda, putting the issues in the context of some sort of text or object. The text/object can be a film; a literary or musical work; a poster; a pamphlet; a sculpture or painting; a building; a symbolic act; or a historical moment. The overarching questions to address in the paper are: What historical forces — technological, political, cultural — brought this protested issue or point of propaganda to a critical point at the moment you are looking at?
What are the specific arguments being raised in the protest or propaganda? How does your object/text embody these historical forces and detailed arguments?
(World Civilizations Prehistory to 1500 assignment, from

Create a Pathfinder
Students select a topic and create a guide to researching the topic. The pathfinder is not an exhaustive list of source, but the steps on could follow to locate information in a variety of sources, plus a sample of sources each resource would yield. This assignment will help students understand the organization of traditional reference information as well as Internet reference information and its organization. . The pathfinder would include the following: Topic & summary; Subject Headings; tools (book catalog, indexes, newsgroups, etc.) with two sources from each.

Poster Session
Students research a topic and present it as a poster which other students will use to learn about the topic. Provides the opportunity to conduct a search and forces the students to express the important points succinctly.
(Adapted from

Journals in a Discipline
Assignment: How many journals are published in a given field? Identify [with professor’s help] journals “basic” to the discipline. Compare and contrast them. Analyse their content, tone, audience and impact. Purpose: Emphasizes the importance of journal literature. Makes the point that journals differ in approach and perspective.

Finding Suitable Information
Assignment: Give the students a set of Web pages to look at. Have them note any reasons why these pages are, or are not appropriate for university level student research or for in-class use.
Purpose: A source that is useful in one instance, may not be useful in all instances. Either scholarly or popular sites might be appropriate depending on the requirements of the class assignment.
Museum exhibit design (with artifact list, visitor walk-through plan, keyed to mission statement of an existing museum
Local history or heritage walk analysis.

Grant proposal or funding request for a history-related project
Design public lecture series on an issue related to the course (select speakers, topics)
Document-based exercise requiring an inventory of a document set, generating 3 questions from the set, then developing an essay to answer one of those questions using the docs
Design a traveling trunk, including artifact list, lesson plan
Plan an oral history collection project for a local nursing home, assisted care facility, veterans hospital/home
Sketch an article proposal for a major national publication (one student wrote the precis for an article on native american graves and repatriation issues to be submitted to THE ATLANTIC).
Choose an issue and imagine 10 primary sources that would constitute “smoking gun” evidence for researchon that issue, then compare/contrast those imagined sources to 10 existing sources.
map an issue. One student in a western civ class I taught drew a map of the Roman empire based on two variables: the sources of animals for the games and the sources of hard coin, and actually found some (perhaps coincidental) correlations with the Roman road system.