Students as educators: the value of assessed blogs to showcase learning
Matt Davies explains how assessed blogs help translate the thrill of interactive learning into tangible outcomes that enrich and showcase students’ knowledge
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A vibrant student-centred learning experience with a range of classroom and online interactive experiences is an achievable objective. Transforming the joy of exchanging ideas with lecturers and peers into equally enthusiastic assessment outcomes is a bigger challenge. It’s a shame if the results of these dynamic activities and all that accumulated know-how stay hidden in the lecturer’s marking inbox, reduced to a grade on a spreadsheet.
As blogs are routinely used as information and advice channels, it makes sense to allow students to exploit their familiarity with the format by using them for assessment, giving space for experimentation to those who feel alienated by the stuffy restrictions of formalised essay writing. They can then flaunt their knowledge and skills by showcasing them to each other and the wider world, including potential employers.
Enabling students to embed relevant anecdotes and aspects of their own personality into a well-researched and accurately referenced text is refreshing and liberating for both writer and lecturer. Assessment criteria can therefore include their skills in engaging and educating others.
My third-year Language Debates module has evolved from experimenting with a cautious 25 per cent weighted 500-word blog combined with traditional essay and exam, to a 50 per cent weighted 1,000-word blog that is uploaded to a public website.
However, this does not come without its dilemmas and challenges. Here’s what I’ve learned from introducing these more creative blog assessments:
Provide a range of examples
Don’t assume that all students are not traditionalists. Formal essays provide a stylistic comfort blanket for students happy with familiarity. The levels of informality involving, for instance, the use of first person and direct address to the reader don’t lend themselves so easily to guidance checklists. The creative freedom with which some students will thrive can leave others floundering. So, to counter the inevitable pre-submission conversations involving, “Help! I’ve never written a blog before” or “what does a blog look like?”, provide examples that illustrate the range of effective formats and styles available. Personalised recipe websites are a good starting point as they blend the essential step-by-step precision needed to cook a good meal with the personal characteristics of the writer. Celebrity recipes range from the wacky guy-next-door vernacular of Jamie Oliver to the measured, graceful serenity of Nigel Slater. Students shouldn’t feel trapped into thinking freedom from formality equals unfettered zaniness.
Formative practice blogs will help students find their own voice. Advice workshops should emphasise the importance of crafting introductory paragraphs that instantly engage readers and, ideally, a conclusion that relates back to the opening for maximum cohesion.
Referencing to maintain authority
Insist that all sources and page numbers are made explicit in the same way as any essay to maintain an aura of academic authority. In-text referencing can be deformalised with formulations such as “the renowned linguist X” or “Guardian journalist Y”. Hyperlinks can be inserted on citation points so that readers can use the blog as a starting point for further investigations.
The route from submission to publication
Transforming submitted work into an active website is time-consuming. Decide well in advance who sets up the website, uploads the blogs and moderates the comments. Bearing the corporate stamp of the institution may mean wresting control from the module convener. Deciding on levels of accessibility to the outside world is a related dilemma. For instance, Language Debates operates on a free WordPress website and is open to anybody, anywhere. Others may decide to keep blogs in-house only.
Don’t forget that the blogs must be assessed. In my case, students submit their blog and receive a grade and feedback in the standard fashion. Checking for factual accuracy, refining punctuation and expression glitches before uploading to the website may be your job. Headlines, the writer’s name, categories, tags and pinned blogs all need to be considered. I create hyperlinks for all sources referred to – a laborious but rewarding process as interactivity is key. Students whose blogs fall too drastically below par, which is thankfully rare, are given the opportunity to rewrite them if they want their name up in lights. The original assessed mark stays the same.
Maintaining the website
Ideally, to maintain a website’s vitality, upload one or two blogs at a time spread out over the life of the module rather than all in one go. Consider staggering deadlines across the student cohort if possible.
Avoid gauging the level of engagement with blogs purely by the quantity and quality of the feedback posted in the “comment” boxes. This common functionality can encourage students to see “summative” assessments as a developmental, interactive process where they can ask each other genuine questions and offer additional or alternative perspectives. However, it takes time and inclination to craft a written response. Readers will happily enjoy and absorb educational material without feeling the need to start a debate. However, it is easy enough to boost blogger egos by making comment-posting a compulsory assessment element. To ensure that no one is left out, allocate a specific student to provide feedback to every blog, which also is a good way of getting the ball rolling for further discussion.
Overall, publicly accessible assessed blogs encourage students to take greater pride in their work and up their game. Showcasing their efforts in the public domain helps to generate a genuine sense of achievement as well as to foster a collaborative learning community.
Matt Davies is senior lecturer in English language at the University of Chester. He facilitates the Language Debates website and oversees the Chester English language and literature student online magazine C.E.L.L.MATES.