Using blogs to foster deeper student learning
A few years ago. I came to the conclusion that, for at least some of my courses, the traditional research paper assignment was not accomplishing the things I wished it to do. In my field, history, the research paper is nearly sacrosanct. We want our students to be able to demonstrate research skills, information literacy, and the ability to synthesize their findings in a well-written and thesis-driven essay. These are all laudable goals. But the nature and timing of the assignment is what bothered me.
In classes where I seek to build a collaborative and active discussion environment among the students and myself, this assignment stood glaringly on its own as an intensely solitary endeavor. Moreover, having students submit their opus at the end of the term precluded the chance for meaningful feedback and revision, practices which are at the root of any successful written work that I could not model for my students because the semester was over. I built in “checkpoint” assignments throughout the term (topic proposal, working bibliography, research summary, etc.) in order to scaffold the work, but I was still dissatisfied with the way the assignment unfolded and my inability to engage with students in the actual writing process.
In short I wanted deeper active learning. I wanted the chance to do more formative assessment, rather than have students stake everything on one big summative assessment at the end of the term. Yet, I still wanted students to be researching and writing. I wanted them looking for sources, to be able to properly integrate and cite those sources, and to synthesize evidence into ahistorical argument.
The answer was blogging
The answer, I have found, is to have my students blog. Using an online medium for course research and writing has really opened up a range of possibilities for my students to engage with both historical material and one another. Blogging platforms offer the ease of use and flexibility for students to create truly original spaces for their work. Having students post entries throughout the course lets me emphasize writing as continuous practice, as well as provide regular opportunities for feedback from me and their peers.
Requiring them to bring in outside material (such as embedded media or image files) allows them to develop research proficiency and to experience issues related to fair use, copyright, Creative Commons, and other matters touching upon intellectual property. Writing for an online audience that theoretically includes anyone who might come across the blog from various quarters of the Internet helps students think intentionally about tone, style, and approach. And having students not only create their own posts, but go onto other students’ blogs and leave comments and feedback has created engagement among the class members that was simply impossible with the research paper assignment. And at the end of the semester, students have created a digital portfolio of their research and writing, one that has been improved by both constant opportunities to practice and ample feedback from their instructor and their peers. Using blogs in my courses has opened up an array of possibilities for me to foster deeper learning with my students. With the right amount of support and structured expectations, blogging can become an integral part of your courses, too.
I cover this topic more in depth in the webinar below. But let’s keep the conversation going, please add your comments at the bottom about how you use blogs.
About the Author
Kevin Gannon is professor of history and the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He teaches in U.S. and Latin American history, as well as Student Success and New Student Seminar courses. His current research projects address the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction eras, technology and pedagogy in history, and critical pedagogy in higher education.