Using Blogging as a Learning Tool

With the increased interest in introducing digital literacy skills in the classroom as a means of preparing students for the 21st century marketplace, our teaching and learning center has had more questions from faculty about using blogs as a teaching tool. The Innovative Instructor doesn’t advocate using technology for technology’s sake, but student blogging can be a way to achieve several learning outcomes for your course.

Diagram of interactions: Student Blogs-Classroom-Comments

CC Jeff Utecht:

For example, blogs can be used to improve student writing, especially for developing skill in analysis and critique. The blog format is particularly useful for shorter, less formal, assignments. Blog platforms allow for inclusion and display of multimedia, which may offer an advantage over paper submissions. Blogs provide a means for student response to or discussion of outside-of-class readings that are not adequately covered during class. They can be useful as a forum for group projects, or act as a collaborative authoring tool for students to develop and present a group assignment or project.  Blogs can be a place where students reflect on readings, much as analog journaling was used as a pedagogical tool in the past.

In order to achieve your curricular goals you could use individual student blogs (each student has his or her own blog), group blogs for team projects, or a class blog to which everyone contributes.

The Innovative Instructor gathered some tips for ensuring that implementing blogs in your class will be a success.

The most comprehensive advice comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Professor Hacker blog columnist Mark Sample (assistant professor of literature and new media at George Mason University) in a somewhat tongue in cheek commentary entitled A Better Blogging Assignment.  Sample claims to be sick of student blogging, but then goes on to provide very useful guidelines for different ways of using blogs as a pedagogical tool. In fact, Sample is looking “for ways to re-invigorate [his] blogging assignments.” He outlines methods for structuring blog assignments using all of the course blog types (individual, group, class), and recommends having a schedule or assignments for posting and commenting. He advises being detailed in your expectations and provides this example of student guidelines:

Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 200-300 word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.

Read the post and the comments and don’t be disheartened by Sample’s momentary discouragement with ways in which he is using blogging assignments.

From the Georgetown University blog Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning – Engaging Students through Blogs in Large Classes comes this idea.

For his introductory course on the U.S. political system, which enrolls nearly 150 students, Mark Rom turned to a course blog to help stimulate class discussion and personal interaction among students. Because class discussion can be intimidating in such a large course, Rom decided to integrate a course blog into his curriculum in order to ensure that all students had the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about American politics.

As a side note, instructors should consider making blog participation a percentage of the grade to encourage student use.

Course blogs are often thought of as a way to provide an authentic learning experience. And yet the product often falls short of the promise. Read Using Blogs in a College Classroom: What’s Authenticity Got To Do With It? by Sarah Lohnes,  a doctoral candidate at the Teachers College of Columbia University. She cites the following “necessary ingredients” for creating effective class blogs:

  1. Blog posts should be original, “well-crafted,” “well- informed”.
  2. [There should be] an authentic purpose for maintaining the blog.
  3. A blog should offer a window into the author’s identity and community affiliations.
  4. A blog should take advantage of the medium to offer a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

Faculty have shared some lessons learned from experience with course blogs. Hillary Miller, Baruch College of CUNY, in her post Lessons from a First-Time Course Blogger talks about the “out of sight, out of mind syndrome” noting that “the blog can feel like that side dish you ordered but weren’t quite hungry for. It’s easy to lose track of the blog, and its implementation should be planned with an eye towards avoiding this. “… I had good intentions – I wanted to comment on posts frequently, but commenting is time-consuming…. From the student side, they were assigned a date for one post; once students posted, they didn’t have a strong incentive to return, which would leave me begging them to “visit the blog!” when I myself was embarrassingly behind on reading their old posts.” In other words, set specific expectations for students’ blog assignments and for how often you will grade or comment on their posts.

Miller writes that students not always comfortable with new-to-them instructional technologies and methodologies. She suggests “[m]aking some class time available to teach students the rhyme and reason behind some aspects of the blog is arguably essential, and yet somehow easy to overlook.” Letting students know why you are having them blog is a key to successful implementation.

Finally, what platform should you use? Here at Johns Hopkins, we have Blackboard, which has a built in blogging tool that can be customized for individual or group work and can be made private (between instructor and individual or group) or public – in the sense of being available for the entire class – not to the outside world. Course blogs, where all students contribute to a shared blog, are also an option. Other Learning Management Systems (LMS) offer similar tools. If you are looking for a more “authentic” experience or don’t have an LMS or blogging application at your institution, there are free, public options available. WordPress and Google’s Blogger are two popular ones. WordPress, in particular, offers the ability to easily create a full-fledged website. For facilitating multimedia assignments, tumblr might be a good choice. If you want more options, Six Revisions ( a website with useful information for web developers and designers) offers a list and descriptions of the Top Ten Free Online Blogging Platforms.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Jeff Utecht,

Should you stop telling your students to study for exams?

Male student in library studyingThe Innovative Instructor recently came across a thought-provoking article by David Jaffee in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. In a nutshell, Jaffee advocates for telling students that they should study for learning and understanding rather than for tests or exams. He reminds us that just because content is covered in class does not mean that students really learn it. Regurgitating information for an exam does not equal long-term retention. He points out that there are real consequences to this traditional approach.

On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning’s sake; on the other, we tell students they’d better know this or that, or they’d better take notes, or they’d better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don’t do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure. This communicates to students that the process of intellectual inquiry, academic exploration, and acquiring knowledge is a purely instrumental activity—designed to ensure success on the next assessment.

His claims are backed with evidence. Numerous studies have shown that students who use rote memorization to cram for tests and exams do not retain the information studied over the long term. Real learning, which involves retention and transfer of knowledge to new situations, is a complicated process reflected by the vast amount of research on the subject.

As a side note, for those interested in learning more about cognitive development and student learning, there is a nice summary of key studies and models in the book by James M. Lang On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching [Harvard University Press, 2008]. See Week 7 Students as Learners for an overview and bibliography.

Instead of a cumulative final exam, Jaffee recommends using formative and authentic assessments, which “[u]sed jointly…can move us toward a healthier learning environment that avoids high-stakes examinations and intermittent cramming.” Formative assessments, performed in class, provide opportunities for students to understand where their knowledge gaps are. [See The Innovative Instructor 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment and Teaching Tips: Classroom Assessment.] Authentic assessments allow students “to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context.” Examples include group and individual projects, in-class presentations, multi-media assignments, and poster sessions.

The article has obviously provoked some controversy as evidenced by the number of comments made – 225 as of this posting. One of the commenters supporting Jaffee with several rebuttals to critics is Robert Talbert, Professor of Mathematics at Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and author of The Chronicle of Higher Education blog Casting Out Nines. Talbert has blogged extensively on his experiences with flipping his classroom.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Rebooting Your Syllabus

Recently a faculty member was overhead making the comment that syllabi are just chapter headings arranged by week. The Innovative Instructor hopes that the syllabus for your course meets a higher standard. This post provides guidance and resources towards that end.

Old style and new style syllabi presented side by side

Syllabus “The Fiftes” with permission from Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts

Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Johns Hopkins Department of Biology who also directs the Center for Educational Resources TA Training Institute, offers graduate students in his workshops a number of suggestions for preparing a syllabus. He suggests first looking at examples to get an idea of what to include. Other faculty in your department might share their syllabi, but there other resources awaiting your perusal.

There have been several attempts to build a database of university and college level syllabi, including one by Dan Cohen, the director of the Digital Public Library of America, which unfortunately is no longer functioning. Just recently the Open Syllabus Project was announced. This initiative includes partners from Columbia, UNC, Harvard, Parsons, The New School, and has Dan Cohen on its advisory board. Its goal is “…to promote institutional cooperation in the task of gathering and analyzing a significant corpus of syllabi.”

A new online, peer-reviewed journal, called Syllabus is devoted entirely to the display of examples from a wide range of disciplines. At the other end there is always Google. Try searching on “syllabus your discipline” (e.g., syllabus art history) to get started.

A syllabus should be more than a list of class topics and readings. In her book Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 1993, p. 14), Barbara Goss Davis tells us, “A detailed course syllabus… gives students an immediate sense of what the course will cover, what work is expected of them, and how their performance will be evaluated.  …Further by distributing a written explanation of course procedures, you can minimize misunderstandings about the due dates of assignments, grading criteria, and policies on missed tests.”

Dr. Shingles recommends trying to anticipate and answer student questions with information provided in the syllabus, and keeping the schedule flexible when possible by giving topics for the week versus the day. As for what should be included in your syllabus, think in terms of more rather than less. Here is his list:

  • Provide basic information
  • Describe course prerequisites
  • Give an overview of the course’s purpose
  • State general learning goals or objectives
  • Describe the course format
  • Specify textbook and readings
  • List supplementary materials for course
  • List assignments/papers/exams
  • Describe grading and evaluation
  • Stipulate course policies
  • Provide a list of university support offices
  • Provide a course calendar
  • List important dates (add/drop, grade appeals)
  • Indicate supplementary study aids

For the instructor use of the syllabus doesn’t end with distributing it to your students on the first day of class. Keep a copy handy and annotate it as the semester progresses. Perhaps you find you need to spend more time on a particular topic, or that the first assignment might work better if it came a week later. It’s also good to have a copy on hand to remind students that yes, you did state that you have a no make-up policy for quizzes.  You should post the syllabus online as well.  Posting online could be to your Blackboard (or other LMS) course site. But Dr. Tona Hangen, a professor of history at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, has raised the bar to a higher level by sharing her syllabi via an application called flipsnack.

Flipsnack allows you to publish material online in an application that simulates page-turning. You can create a basic account for free. Another similar online application is ISSUU.  ISSUU also is free for a basic account. As a side note, ISSUU has been used by at JHU for the Scholar’s Bookshelf project: – collaboration between the Sheridan Libraries Rare Books Collection and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Hangen inspires with her beautifully designed syllabi. She has an archive of examples from the past several years. While the ones on flipsnack may seem daunting to the design challenged, some of her PDF versions are more easily emulated. These could be created in Word or a basic design program such as Microsoft’s Publisher, which is often included in the Microsoft Office suite.

Barbara Goss Davis reminds us: “…a well prepared course syllabus shows students that you take your teaching seriously. (Tools for Teaching, p. 14).

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: IntentEffect Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts