By Sara Stoudt
Can blogging be an effective course assignment? We hope so!
This post was inspired by Kelsey’s tweet:
Have you ever written a blog entry as a course assignment? (Or assigned your students to do so?) Was it a group blog or individual? How did it go?— Kelsey Houston-Edwards (@KelseyAHE) April 12, 2018
Basically, I'm looking for a blog about student blogs...
Deb Nolan (@DebAtStat) and I developed and taught a new course “Communicating with Data: The Art of Writing for Data Science” with the aim of bridging the gap between the need to effectively communicate our work to our peers and non-technical audiences and the lack of formal training in writing.
For about two-thirds of the semester students did a simple data analysis (we wanted to focus on the writing) and worked towards a formal report. For the last third of the course we broadened the audience by writing for less traditional mediums (including blogs). When we got to the blog part of the course, the students’ first drafts were disappointing. They were all compressed versions of their reports with no change in style. It was challenging for them to break away from the mindset of summarizing findings and the formal writing style that they had been practicing in writing their report. After a few iterations of brainstorming with the students, they started to get the hang of it, and the posts gained some personality.
This semester we are teaching a small class “Blogging for Data Science” to focus on the creative side of writing about statistics. In this class the goal is to brainstorm, write, peer review, and polish four blog posts over the course of the semester. We started with two blog posts that could be about anything related to mathematics, statistics, computer science, or data science. We used Andrew Gelman’s diary activity as a way to brainstorm ideas for these posts. Then we transitioned to more technical blogs: a vignette style blog post and a data analysis focused blog post. Because we started with more personal topics, the students’ initial posts were less formulaic than the first drafts we saw in our previous course. However, with the data analysis post there is still a temptation to be too focused on the data analysis itself rather than the story that comes out of it. All of the blog drafts go through at least three revisions and are posted online when ready.
Shameless self-promotion: We’re writing a book based on our experiences, so stay tuned…
Some Opinions (mine, not necessarily endorsed by Deb)
I think assigning a blog post as an assignment can be successful if the emphasis is on:
1.) Blogging beyond summary.
In our case of blogging about statistics/data science, we wanted the goal of the post to be different from the goal of the analysis and to avoid merely stepping through the analysis and summarizing the findings.
This touches on the experience of @sarahbeeysian who responded to @KelseyAHE:
Done as a student in two different courses in two different fields— sarah 🐝 (@sarahbeeysian) April 12, 2018
It sucked hardcore both times. I've never seen a use of blog posts in coursework that couldn't just be a traditionally handled essay and/or reflection piece. Took time away from deep learning.
If the assignment could just as easily be a report, then what is the point of the blog post? I would argue that a blog post is a different genre of writing, and learning to write one that is not just a compressed formal report that you post online is valuable in its own right. A blogging assignment whose rubric is indistinguishable from a report rubric misses the point. Instead of asking students to write a blog post to merely prove that they read or learned something, give them a prompt that removes the emphasis on summary and encourages a deeper engagement with the material:
- What surprised you most?
- What do you have in common with the author?
- Does the author’s discussion remind you of any topics you learned about in a different class?
- What are you still curious about?
2.) Blogging to build skills beyond mastering the course material.
Your students can show that they understand the material in a variety of different ways, but a blog has the added benefit of teaching about:
- individuality: Students find their voice. What excites them? What engages them in others’ blogs? Who are their blog hero(ine)s, and what writing tips can they learn from them?
- accessibility: I propose we stop saying “explain your work in terms your mother/grandmother could understand” and start saying “explain your work in terms a random person on the internet could understand”.
- whimsy: Just because the blog post is a formal assignment does not mean it has to be formal (but spell and grammar check please).
- technicality: If you or your students need the push (ha) to learn about git, a blog can be set up and maintained using Github.
3.) Blogging beyond the course.
Learning how to write a blog is also part of professional development.
Students can learn about blogging through your course and then go on to establish their own online professional presence. By encouraging them to keep track of their ideas, curate them, and post semi-regularly on their own, they can become independent bloggers. A blog will show future employers that they can think and write, and the blog format allows them to show some personality as well.
Some Concluding Advice: See One, Do One, Teach One
I do not claim to be an expert blogger or an expert teacher of how to write blogs, but this principle of training in the medical field has also applied to me as I learned about blogging in the academic realm.
- Reading many blogs has helped give me a sense of style, ideas about content, and some reassurance that if others can write a blog, so can I.
- Writing blogs has helped me understand what obstacles may arise for students and remember how much work goes into a short post.
- Teaching about blog writing has forced me to explicitly define what makes a piece of writing successful and formalize the intuition about language built up from reading a lot.
I hope these musings are (at least a little) helpful. I am curious to hear/read more about others’ experiences, and would be interested in keeping a discussion about the role of blogs in education going.
Some Other People’s Opinions and Advice
These are from a quick Google Search. Please point me to resources that have been useful to you.
- To blog or not to blog: Student perceptions of blog effectiveness for learning in a college-level course
- Blogging as a social medium in undergraduate courses: Sense of community best predictor of perceived learning
Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Feedback is welcome. (@sastoudt @DebAtStat)
Special thanks to Deb Nolan for giving me feedback while I was drafting this post.