Ask Professor Pedagogy: Using Course Blogs
Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.
I think it’s time – I’m ready to try out some new teaching strategies. I’ve been wondering about using a blog. Got any tips for me?
Graduate Student in A&S
Dear Longing for Blogging,
Tips? Of course I have tips! But what you need are some concrete strategies.
Let me start by asking you this: Why do you want to incorporate blog into the course you’re teaching? Is it because you want to get your students more engaged with writing about the course topics? Is it because you want them to interact with one another? Do you want them to create a document that will ‘live on’ after the course is finished? Your answer to these questions is important. If you want to add a blog to a course because it seems ‘cool’ – don’t. Your students will see right through that! The blog should be relevant to your course, talked about in-class, and should add value to the learning going on both in and out of class.
Strategy #1: Decide how the blog will relate to your course
Since you didn’t say what your discipline is, I’ll give you an example of how you might use a blog in both the sciences and the humanities. If you’re teaching, say, a biology course you might check out Bears in the Sea which is a Baylor University blog that documents the experiences of students and faculty as they participate in introductory biology courses. This blog is an example of a blog that ‘lives on’ after the student completes the course. On the other hand, Mark Sample at George Mason University uses a blog in his American Postmodernism course to encourage reflections on course readings – something quite common in the humanities.
So consider if you want to create blog that primarily documents the work that you and your students are doing so future students can learn from it (like the Bears in the Sea example) or a blog that asks your students to write reflections on readings related to your course (like Sample’s example). Of course, folks use blogs in their courses in other ways too, but how you choose to will depend on your answers to the questions that I asked earlier.
Strategy #2: Decide how you will grade blog participation
Much to my chagrin, it’s true: grades are important. And grades are motivators for students. Ask them to write a blog post each week ‘just because’ and you’re likely to get very little participation. Ask them to follow a clear set of guidelines to meet a certain course requirement and you’re likely to get much more participation. But how do you grade activity on a blog? It’s up to you, but here are two common approaches:
- Create a rubric and share it with your students. Show them what a “5 out of 5” post or comment looks like and what a “1 out of 5” post or comment looks like. This rubric by Mark Sample of George Mason University is so simple that after some use you’ll be able to quickly grade any given blog post. Further, you can enlist your own students to help with grading by assigning the tasks to a group of students each week who are “in charge” of reading and grading according to the rubric.
Give word count guidelines. For instance, Gardner Campbell at Virginia Tech has used this statement in a syllabus before: Comments and posts of 500 words or less on the class blog that are helpful to the class will be worth 10% of your grade. You can adapt his statement to work for you. (Gardner actually has many great examples of how he grades in his blog post Blogs and Baobabs. Check it out.)Professor P is guilty of not reading closely enough. Gardner Campbell’s blog post is very useful, but it doesn’t advocate for word counts on student blog posts!
Strategy #3: Mention the Blog During Class
So you go to the trouble of setting up a blog, you have a wonderful vision for how it will work… but how do you get your students to actually blog? Well, I think first of all, you need to talk about it. In-class. How do you do that?
- You can start with opening the blog and starting discussions from it. Bonus points if you mention specific comments made by specific students.
- You can blog (and comment) yourself with interesting information or links to interesting information. And mention that during class.
- You can pull up the blog and comment aloud on student blogs and comments. It does help to have read them beforehand though!
Remember, if you don’t blog or comment on your students’ blog entries then they’re likely to be less motivated to visit the blog themselves. And if you don’t mention the blog during class, they’re likely to forget about it as well!
Bonus Strategy: Read the Blogs of Others Instead
Does all this grading and monitoring and posting and commenting seem overwhelming to you? Well, that’s understandable depending on how familiar with blogging you are. So here’s a simple suggestion: instead of creating your own course blog, incorporate the reading of blogs written by others into your course.These “others” might be experts in your field, the blog of a museum or institute, or the blog of a relevant publication.
Believing that a blog is only an opportunity for students to practice writing skills is short-sighted! Reading and commenting on blogs that already exist can be a way for students to find a potential authentic audience for their own work and ideas. What a great method to engage your students with other people active in the field.
Need more help? Here are some helpful links:
- We’ve developed a teaching guide on blogs – it covers a lot of what I’ve discussed here in more depth (and includes many more examples) so be sure to take a look at that.
- Vanderbilt has a well-supported blogging service that uses WordPress as its platform. It’s easy to set up your site. Visit the Vanderbilt University Web Communications website and click on the Start a New Project button, then follow the directions.
- Join us on Tuesday, October 16 4:10-5:30pm for a conversation on teaching. During this conversation, two faculty members – Allison Schachter and Humberto Garcia – will show their course blogs and talk about how they use them to support course learning goals, the challenges course blogging presents, and the ways they deal with the challenges. This will also a unique opportunity for you to meet other instructors in the Vanderbilt blogging community and exchange ideas about best practices.