More from the the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio…
Blogs as a Unique Environment for Critical Thinking and Language Development (Deborah Page & Ruth Benander, University of Cincinnati)
Deborah and Ruth shared their use of student blogs in their study abroad and service learning courses. In each of those course contexts, it’s important for students to think critically about their experiences. Research on study abroad students indicates that simply immersing students in a different culture doesn’t help them develop intercultural competency. Students need to actively observe other cultures, reflect on their observations, and apply their reflections to new situations. (There’s less research on this point in the service learning context, but Deborah and Ruth said it’s likely true there, too.) Designing assignments that promote this kind of critical thinking, especially for students studying abroad, can be challenging.
Deborah and Ruth tried having students keep journals, but most entries lacked the kind of critical thinking the instructors wanted. Next they had students keep blogs during their course experiences, but without structuring the blog assignments, they found that most students treated their blog posts like Facebook status updates, completely lacking in critical thought.
On their third try, they gave students very specific writing prompts for their blog entries. Each consisted of three questions, one focused on description of sights and experiences, one focused on comparing those sights and experiences with something (prior experience, other cultures, and so on), and one focused on explaining differences or evaluating some aspect of the sights and experiences.
Grading these blog assignments is straightforward. Deborah and Ruth use a three-point scale, one point for each question. The numeric grade goes to the student via email, and the instructor leaves feedback on the blog post in the comments area. Students can revise their posts and ask for a regrade, too. The simplicity of this grading scheme means that it’s not time-consuming to implement.
The structure of the assignments helped significantly in raising the quality of students’ critical thought. The blog platform played a role in this, too, however. Since the blog posts were public to other students in the course and with friends and family back home, students were motivated to write well. (Once again, here’s the idea that when students have an audience that consists of more than their instructor, they write better!) Blogs also made it easy for students to include images and videos, which was particularly important for the study abroad students. Students were also able to personalize their blog spaces, creating a greater sense of ownership over the academic work, and share their best work on their CVs.
I was reminded in this session how seriously my cryptography students took the work they did commenting on each other’s expository essays this semester. It helped that I gave them questions to respond to as they wrote their comments:
- What did you find most interesting about this project?
- What aspect of the topic was most clearly explained and why?
- What questions do you still have about this topic?
- What connections do you see between this topic and other topics in this course?
Most of the students answered all of these questions in each comment, even though I had provided these questions as suggestions, not requirements.
Image: “Old meets new,” Chris Wilkinson, Flickr (CC)