Using a Course Blog as a Class Ice-Breaker

In the fall of 2014 I taught a course, Stuff of Dreams: How Advances in Materials Science Shape the World, in the newly created Whiting School of Engineering’s Hopkins Engineering Applications & Research Tutorials (HEART) program. The program introduces undergraduates to engineering research in specific disciplines in a small class taught by advanced graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. The classes meet once a week for two hours for six weeks. The challenge of teaching these one credit, pass/fail courses with no requirement of the students beyond class attendance, is getting the students engaged.

Image showing the word Blogs dropping onto a sheet of cracked ice.The students in my class were freshman, sophomores, and one junior. Not all were engineers, there was one from the School of Public Health. The students had a mix of backgrounds, interests, ambitions. With a two hour class session, I did not want to lecture; I wanted the classes to be discussion based. With no requirements to do assignments, I had to rely on intrinsic motivation to get students to do reading outside of class and participate in discussion.  My first priority was getting them engaged by relating materials science to their interests. I thought I could use a blog to determine what they wanted to learn.

In general, blogging can be an effective way for students to respond to course readings or to work collaboratively in groups. Blogs can also be used to improve students’ writing along with developing their critical and analytical thinking skills. In this case, I used blogs as a way to get to know my students and their interests, specifically as those intersect with materials science.

Materials science is a very broad field. My research uses computational methods based on quantum chemistry not likely to be accessible to beginning students. Before the course started I polled the students using a Google survey to determine which social media platform they would be willing to use. Facebook and Twitter were among the choices that students rejected. I decided to use a blog based on their responses. There are a number of options for blogging platforms, including Blackboard, which offers both course and individual blogs. I used Blackboard for other course materials, but the blog tool didn’t have some features I wanted, including making the blog available to the public, so that it would stand as a record and could be referred to after the course ended. WordPress is a free, easy-to-use option.

I introduced the blog in the first class session, asking the students to spend up to an hour outside of class to pick an area of interest, then research and post two links to resources on their topic on the blog. The students were then asked to do enough background reading on their topic to give a five minute presentation in class at what I called a Wikipedia level. When the students presented in the second class, I used the links they had provided to teach them how to think critically about information on the web. There was a wide range of content collected, everything from Buzzfeed lists to high-level research articles in scholarly journals. I asked the class how they could evaluate the materials. What claims were being made? Were sources cited? Were those sources credible? It was a good way to educate the students on evaluating content for research purposes, something they need to know as they move forward in their education. In this course, I didn’t ask the students to go through the exercise a second time to find better or more appropriate materials, but in a more traditional course, this could be a two-part exercise.

For the second blog assignment, the students were asked to go through the posts made by their peers, read some of the articles, and comment on them. This helped the students get to know each other and to see where their interests in materials science aligned. They engaged by commenting on each other’s posts. Because the students were determining the topics for discussion in these first couple of weeks, it meant that I was teaching on my feet to some extent. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would have the students do just-in-time research, using their laptops or other mobile devices right there in class to figure it out.

The blog worked very well as an icebreaker, getting students interested in the course content and engaged in discussions. Student interaction outside of class was another challenge for me, with the course running only six weeks. The blog provided a way for students to continue their work outside of class in a collaborative way. As researchers and instructors our work doesn’t stop at 5:00 PM, neither should class discussion be confined to the time students spend in the classroom. When students are reading they can immediately post what they are thinking, and their peers can respond with comments. This was the case even with the limited use of blogging in my HEART class, but could be even more effective if used throughout a traditional course. I certainly will use a course blog in the future, and have students write more extensively, perhaps in response to assigned readings. I like the idea of having them do peer review of classmates’ posts. Students seem take pride in their writing, especially when it is open to the public and judged by their peers.

Being able to give formative feedback to students for the first assignment was a valuable teaching strategy. I think the students benefited from gaining an understanding of how to evaluate content on the web.

From my perspective there were no disadvantages to using a blog. WordPress was easy to set up and the students found it intuitive to use. That said, there is a need to think about how you set up the WordPress or other blog instance. It is important to organize the pages so that students are clear on where to post each assignment. You will also want to consider what aspects of the blog to make public if that is applicable. As the site administrator you can make these choices. On my blog only the assignments, posts, and my comments are visible to the public; to view and post comments, users have to be registered. This prevents spam comments, which can be a problem. The blog can be seen at https://h2stuffofdreams.wordpress.com/.

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Anindya Roy,
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, JHU

Anindya Roy received his Ph.D. in 2011 from Rutgers University. As a computational physicist, Roy’s primary research focus is on understanding materials important for energy harvesting, storage and management, using calculations based on quantum chemistry. Besides materials research, he is interested in teaching at the undergraduate level, and understanding the pedagogical aspects of physics and engineering education.

Note: This post has appeared previously in our Innovative Instructor print series: and in interview form in the Center for Educational Resources February 2016 edition of Research & Teaching Tools.

Image source: CC Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

Icebreakers

A few months back a saavy instructor, thinking ahead to fall classes, asked us about using icebreakers on the first day of class. What is an icebreaker? Essentially it is an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another.

As we talked to faculty and did some reading on icebreaker activities, it became clear thatFour ice cubes stacked against blue background there are two camps: those who like these exercises and think they provide value, and those who think they are off topic and a waste of time.

Why would you want to use an icebreaker? The Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College lists these benefits on their page of icebreaker activities:

  • Reduces both student and instructor anxiety prior to introducing the course.
  • Fosters in a powerful way both student-student and faculty-student interactions.
  • Creates an environment where the learner is expected to participate and the instructor is willing to listen.
  • Actively engage students from the onset.
  • Conveys the message that the instructor cares about getting to know the students.
  • It makes it easier for students to form relationships early in the semester so they can work together both in and out of class.

Given the number of ways these activities can benefit the class; it seems worth looking at whether there are ways to overcome concerns about applicability and usefulness to the course.

In the book Essentials of College and University Teaching: A Practical Guide by Eleanor Boyle and Harley Rothstein (ProActive Press, Vancouver, Canada, pp. 71-74), the authors suggest using icebreakers that incorporate course material. “This may seem difficult on the first day of class, when students haven’t even read chapter one. But students enter every discipline, no matter how exotic, with ideas, preconceptions, information and misinformation. One exciting and motivating approach asks students to debate general interest questions relating the discipline.” The exercise involves creating three to six general-knowledge questions about the discipline at hand. These can be presented as true or false, shown with multiple choice answers, or made open ended for discussion. Students are asked to group themselves into pairs or threes. The instructor then projects the first question and asks the students to discuss and decide on an answer in their groups. After a few minutes, students are asked to vote on the correct answer – if clickers are being used this can be done electronically, but a show of hands will suffice. If the question is open-ended, the instructor can ask for responses from several groups. Time should be allowed for discussion or debriefing, but generally speaking, the activity should be fast paced; the advice is to move to the next question to keep the students focused. “The best questions for this exercise are relevant to your discipline but require no expert knowledge; they do not have obvious answers and potentially generate a variety of responses. Such questions pique student’ interest, expose them to different opinions, and allow them to anticipate issue that will emerge throughout the course.”

From the Teaching Professor blog at the website Faculty Focus come two posts on icebreakers that can be used to create “a climate of learning” in the classroom. The first is called A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts. At the minute the class is supposed to begin, the instructor arrives with a box packed with about 15 random, preferably unrelated objects. The box is placed on a table at the front of the room, then the instructor unpacks each item and places it on the table. Once all the items are unpacked, they are returned to the box in the same order. Then the students are asked to take out a piece of paper and write down as many of the objects as they can remember. The author, Virginia Freed, writes: “Interesting things begin to happen here, and I can make some immediate points about classroom expectations. Students sitting in the back of the room have not been able to see the items on the table. The point? Sit as close to the front of the room as possible. Some students have been engaged in conversations and did not see me or the box. The point? Pay attention right from the beginning of the class; professors often offer the most interesting and important information at the beginning and ending of class. Some students come in late. The point? Arrive on time. Some students don’t have anything to write with or on. The point? Come prepared. We discuss all this with humor, but the inferences are clear.” The process can be repeated in several ways that will help students understand concepts relating to content mastery.

Another post from the same website, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning, by Maryellen Weimer, shares four first day activities that “…emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.” One of these, called Syllabus Speed Dating, helps ensure that your students are not only “…acquainted with each other, [but is] a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.”

For more icebreaker suggestions see the list of 32 activities posted by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College and a long list  provided by the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of New Mexico.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art