Chapter 13: Cooperative study blog – The Plugged-In Professor

13

Cooperative study blog

Amanda Evelyn Waldo

Abstract:

In this activity, students are asked to identify and discuss key course concepts in periodic posts to a shared blog. The title of each blog post identifies the concept; in the body of the post, the student explains the importance of the concept and provides relevant definitions and analysis. Once students have completed their individual contributions, the blog archive (a linked listing of the post titles) functions as an electronic flashcard deck covering each of the topics the students have identified as important. As it grows, the blog becomes a useful resource for students to review key concepts, test their understanding, and prepare for exams. For examples of actual student blogs please seehttp://www.americanwomenwriters.blogspot.com/http://english10bkeyterms.blogspot.com/andhttp://english142b.blogspot.com/For a template seehttp://cooperativestudyblogexample.blogspot.com/

Key words

blogs

cooperative learning

retrieval practice

review

self-testing

test preparation

Discipline/Academic areas addressed

This activity is flexible enough to be applicable across all disciplines; it was originally designed for use in an English literature course.

Instructional purpose

Students sometimes feel that posting in online discussion forums or on blogs creates extra work without adding much value. With this activity the value is clear: each student contributes a few posts over the course of the term and receives in exchange an extensive resource in a format that lends itself to review and self-testing. By asking students to identify key course concepts beginning early in the term, this activity also encourages them to think critically about how material covered in the reading assignments and in lecture relates to larger course themes. Although it will work for strictly factual data and will be valuable to students in courses that require memorization, the format easily accommodates more analytical content (e.g., close reading analysis of a short passage). Students who may be uncertain about what is expected or nervous about applying a particular method of analysis on test day can practice with items that classmates have already identified as important. They will also benefit from seeing how other students approach the same material. This activity also creates a useful resource for the instructor, who can consult the blog to see which ideas and information students understand and which they need help with.

Student learning outcomes

Student learning outcomes will vary depending on the course. This section describes SLOs for this activity when used as a part of a discussion section for a large lecture course in English literature. Students in this course are expected to be able to identify important quotations from the assigned texts, place the quotations in context, and know the author, publication date, form, and themes associated with each text. Lecture, discussion sections, essay assignments, and exams all emphasize close reading analysis.

Students will demonstrate ability to

1. Organize course concepts to facilitate self-testing and review.

2. Identify and define key terms and concepts and discuss their application to examples discussed in class and identified independently in the assigned reading.

3. Given an assigned text, identify important quotations, place them in context (title, author, genre, scene, etc.) and perform close reading analysis.

4. Given a quotation from an assigned text, identify its source (including title and author) and perform close reading analysis.

5. Understand and respond to close reading analyses by fellow students and contribute by suggesting additional avenues for analysis or providing constructive criticism.

6. Receive feedback and suggestions from fellow students.

Prerequisite skills and knowledge

Students need Internet access and basic computer skills such as those possessed by the average college student.

Step-by-step directions

For instructors. Using the blogging software of your choice, create a blog for your class and add each of your students as contributing authors. Make sure that the template design you choose displays the blog archive prominently, and that the blog archive displays blog post titles without a preview of the body of the post. Think of the blog as an electronic flashcard – the post titles in the blog archive are the prompt side of the flashcard, so it’s important that the blog archive display post titles in full and without a preview of the body of the post. For detailed instructions see Appendix A in “Supplemental materials”.

For students. Instructions for students should emphasize that formatting blog posts correctly is essential to making it useful as a study tool. Students should think of their posts as online flashcards in which the post title is the prompt (the front of the flashcard) and the body of the post is the answer (the back of the flashcard). Instructors should also clearly indicate what kind of analysis is expected. Ideally, instructors should provide students with an example post that models the desired format, subject matter, and type and quality of analysis. Detailed instructions follow. (Note that these instructions were designed for students in an English literature course. Feel free to modify it to fit your instructional needs.)

Posting to the blog

1. Choose a topic that has not already been covered. Before you post, check the blog archive to make sure that another student has not already posted on your topic. To ensure that no one posts on your topic while you are working on it, make a placeholder post with your title and a message in the body to indicate that you are working on the post. Once you have finished writing your post, just edit the initial post and replace the message with your finished post.

2. Title your post. The title of your post should usually be either a term discussed in class, or a quotation from the assigned reading. Important: You and your fellow students will use your post title as a prompt for self-testing. Think of each post a part of an online flashcard deck: your post title is the front of the flashcard, and the body of your post is the back. If the title of your post is too vague or if it contains both the prompt and the answer, it won’t be useful for self-testing. Choose titles like:

 Metaphor

 Dramatic irony vs. situational irony

 “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

 “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom”

 “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being”

 Haiku

 Ecocriticism

Avoid titles like:

 Amanda’s second post

 A little clarification about two terms that are often confused

 Wow, this story is so short it could have been written on a ouija board!

 “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (from Beloved by Toni Morrison)

 This is how I think we should interpret Jamaica Kincaid’s writing about tourism in A Small Place

 A haiku is a poem with 17 syllables split into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each

 The theoretical approach we talked about in class today.

The titles in the first group are useful for self-testing because they clearly indicate the term, concept, or quotation that the post will address without giving away the answer. The titles in the second group are not useful because they either don’t clearly identify a term, concept, or quotation or they give away the answer. Your post titles don’t have to look exactly like the ones in the first group, but you should always make sure that you are using a title that your fellow students will be able to use for self-testing.

3. Write your post.

If you are posting about a term: A term could be any literary device, genre, movement, concept, or theoretical approach that was discussed in class or in the reading and that is relevant to our discussion of the course texts. If you are posting about a term, the title of your post should be the term you are posting about. In the body of your post

i. Define the term in your own words.

ii. Give examples. Explain any examples that were provided in class, and then provide at least one example of your own.

iii. Explain how the term contributes to our discussion of a particular course text. Your post should contribute to our discussion of the course texts as well, so if you post on a term make sure that you can articulate why that term is relevant to our discussion of a specific text. If the term you post about is “metaphor” your post should comment on the role of metaphor in a particular text – what does the author’s use of metaphor accomplish? If the term you post about is “industrialization” you should define industrialization but also comment on why it would be useful to think of one of the course texts in relation to this phenomenon. What is this text’s attitude toward industrialization? Is it critical or celebratory? How does the text imagine industrialization? If the term you post about is “ecofeminism” you should define ecofeminism and then also explain how an ecofeminist approach would add to our understanding of a particular text.

iv. Cite your source. Always include a full citation of your source, including page numbers and publication information.

v. Sign your name! Always sign your name to your posts and comments – if you don’t, your instructor has no way of knowing that you completed the assignment.

If you are posting about a quotation, the title of your post should be the quotation you are posting about. You’ll build your analysis on your observations about this quotation, so use one with language that interests you! Unless instructed otherwise, limit the length of your quotation to two sentences at most. (Shorter quotations work better with the blog format, and will also limit any temptation to plot summary and let you focus on analyzing the language of the quotation.)

i. In the body of your post, identify the source of the quotation. Include the author, the title of the text, and the original date of publication. If the quotation is from a play, identify the act and scene. Very briefly (in no more than two sentences) give the context: who is speaking to whom, where are they, what are they talking about? Remember, your audience is familiar with the text so you don’t need to go into great detail.

ii. Also, in the body of the post, write a close reading of your quotation. Do a close reading of your quotation just like you would in a paper or on an exam. Your analysis should come out of your close observation of the text, so spend some time observing before you get started. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to get the ball rolling: What made me choose this particular quotation? Is there something interesting about the language of this quotation, or the logic it uses? Who is speaking? Who is the audience? What is the tone, and how is that communicated? Are there any ambiguities or contradictions? What is the sentence structure? Is there anything unusual about the punctuation? Are there any metaphors? Read the quotation aloud – what does it sound like? Paraphrase the quotation – if the author had used your paraphrase instead, would the quotation have a different effect?

    Feel free to consult any handouts provided by your instructor, or take a look at your classmates’ posts to see what kinds of observations they found useful in their close reading (it’s not cheating – this is what the blog is for!). You can also find resources about close reading online:

    http://www.brocku.ca/english/jlye/criticalreading.php

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/a/sam50/closeread.htm

    http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/reading_lit.html

iii. Cite your source. Always include a full citation of your source, including page numbers and publication information.

iv. Sign your name! Always sign your name to your posts and comments – if you don’t, your instructor has no way of knowing that you completed the assignment.

See Appendix B in “Supplemental materials” for tips for students on posting to the blog. See Appendix C for studying with the blog.

Evaluation

Your post will be evaluated based on:

 accuracy and completeness

 usefulness to fellow students (make your contributions on time, make your posts relevant to the course, format your posts correctly, choose terms and quotations that other students have not already covered);

 contribution to our discussion of course texts (builds on discussions and further develops discussion topics)

Approximate time required

This is an at-home activity, but instructors should be prepared to spend at least 20–30 minutes in class explaining (and preferably demonstrating) how to post to the blog, what format to use, and how to use the blog for studying and self-testing. Instructors who are asking students to include analysis (e.g., close reading) rather than just factual information in the posts should be prepared to spend longer. It may also be helpful to make students aware of recent research suggesting the importance of retrieval practice in learning.

Required resources

Tech requirement:

 Internet access

 Web browser

 blogging software such as WordPress or Blogger.

Variations on the basic theme

This activity can be varied depending on the kinds of skills instructors want to emphasize. In a literature class that emphasizes close reading and in which students are also expected to be able to identify key passages from the texts they have read, ask students to post a line from a key passage as the title of their post. In the body of the post, have them list the source of the quotation (author, text, date) and include a short close reading.

In a language course, the title of the post might be a word that students are expected to know, with a translation and example sentence in the body of the post. In a math class, the title might be a problem the students are expected to be able to solve, and then the body of the post would contain the solution and an explanation of how it was reached. In a history course, a post title might be “causes of the American Civil War” with the body of the post exploring the causes. In a biology class, a post title might be “characteristics of vascular plants” with a listing of the characteristics and a discussion of their evolutionary role in the body of the post.

Observations and advice

 Introduce this activity on the first day of class (or in the first discussion section) and have students turn in their first round of posts well before their first midterm or exam. This will get them thinking about which ideas are important to post about early on and will keep the posts from focusing too much on material from later in the term.

 Start the blog with at least one example post. This will help to clarify your expectations in terms of level and amount of analysis in the body of the post, and will also give students a format to mimic.

 To get the ball rolling, consider suggesting a few possible post titles for students to use.

 It is very important to show students how the post titles appear in the blog archive and explain how the blog archive functions as an electronic flashcard deck. Students who don’t understand how this works will deviate from the title = prompt, body = answer format, and their posts may not be useful for self-testing.

 Although you should know your students’ “handle” so that you can confirm participation and address any misunderstandings, students who prefer to post anonymously can do so by creating a pseudonym. If privacy is a concern, you can also make the blog private to only students in the course.

 Make sure that students understand what they are getting out of this activity. Do the math: in a class of 100 students in which each student is expected to contribute 3 posts, students will have 300 posts to study from.

Recommended reading

Arvan, L., Teaching with blogs. Inside Higher Ed. 2010 Available from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/07/27/arvan

Belluck, P. To really learn, stop studying and take a test. 2011 New York Times. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html

Clark, C. Taking steps to respect student privacy in public work. Available from http://ltlatnd.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/taking-steps-to-respect-student-privacy-in-public-work/, 2011.

Foo, P.W., Mora, J.J., Tkacz, S. Student study techniques and the generation effect. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1994; 86(4):567–576.

Goldman, R.H., Cohen, A.P., Sheahan, F. Using seminar blogs to enhance student participation and learning in public health school classes. American Journal of Public Health. 2008; 98(9):1658–1663.

Glogoff, S. Instructional blogging: Promoting interactivity, student-centered learning, and peer input. Innovate. 1(5), 2005.

Hanson, J. J. (n.d.) Latest Study Validates Testing, Forced Retrieval and SQRRR. Openeducation.net. Available from http://www.openeducation.net/2011/01/25/latest-study-validates-testing-forced-retrieval-and-sqrrr/

Hiltz, S.R. Collaborative learning in asynchronous learning networks: Building learning communities. 1998 Paper presented at Web98, Orlando, FL

Karpicke, J.D., Roediger, H.L., III. The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science. 2008; 319(5865):966–968.

Lohnes, S. Using blogs in a college classroom: What’s authenticity got to do with it? Available from http://blogsforlearning.msu.edu/articles/view.php?id=7, 2006.

Supplemental materials

Appendix A Instructions for instructors

Setting up a cooperative blog using blogger.com

1. Create your blog: Go to www.blogger.com and sign in using your Gmail account (or create a new one). Click “New Blog” and fill out the title and address fields. Choose a template that shows your blog archive in a sidebar menu (this is very important because it is what enables your students to use the blog as an online flashcard deck).

2. Publish an example post: Click “Start Posting.” In the title field for the first post, enter a term, concept, or quotation you want your students to learn or post a problem that you want them to solve. In the body of the post, offer a discussion of that term, concept, or quotation or give the answer to the problem and explain how you got it. The format and the type of analysis you provide in this post should be a model for what you want your students to do in their posts. Click “Publish”.

3. Check the blog format: Click “View Blog” and confirm that your post appears in a sidebar archive (if it doesn’t, you can change the settings by clicking “Design” and then “Layout”) and use the Template Designer.

4. Add your students as authors: Click “Design” and then “Settings” to open your blog settings. Under “Permissions”, add your students as authors by entering their email addresses separated by commas.

You can do this activity with any blogging software as long as it allows multiple authors and offers a sidebar archive as a navigation option. This activity could also be easily adapted for use with the Moodle forum tool.

Managing accuracy and comprehensiveness of the cooperative study blog

You have two options for managing the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the cooperative study blog: make the students responsible, or do it yourself.

Option 1 Make the students responsible (recommended)

In my experience, this activity works best when students take ownership over the study blog and understand that they are responsible for both the accuracy of the posts and the blog’s comprehensiveness as a study tool for their exams. Students who see it as an assignment to complete acceptably and hand in write less helpful posts and engage with the blog less than students who see it as a communal resource over which they have control and for which they share responsibility. Although I grade student posts and watch the blog to get a general sense of what students are posting about and how well they understand the material, I do not review individual posts for accuracy before allowing students to post to the blog. I also do not check to be sure that everything that will be on an exam has been covered in the blog.

If you take this approach, it’s important to be clear with your students that they need to be responsible to one another to post accurate information and alert one another immediately (by commenting on the post) when they see a mistake. Students should be aware that, like other collectively authored online resources, the blog can be a valuable resource but it is only as accurate and as complete as they make it. It should not be considered an authoritative source and it definitely should not represent students’ first or only encounter with concepts covered in the course.

There are several ways to encourage accuracy in the blog posts without reviewing them individually prior to publication:

 Require students to cite sources.

 Encourage students to comment on a post if there is something they don’t understand or if they find a mistake – consider making this kind of participation mandatory.

 Consider requiring students to fact-check a certain number of posts – students can comment on posts to identify errors or indicate that they have fact-checked a post and believe it is accurate.

 Consider offering extra credit to students who identify factual errors in published posts.

There are also ways to encourage posts that give a comprehensive view of the course materials:

 Require students to post to the blog regularly (if posts are due just once or twice during the course, materials covered just before deadlines will be overrepresented) – if you’re only asking for a few posts from each student, consider dividing them into groups and staggering the deadlines so that posts are due from at least one group in each week of the course.

 Encourage students to post on particular topics by suggesting them in class or providing a list of suggested topics along with the study blog handout or incorporated into the course syllabus.

Option 2 Do it yourself

If you want to review each post for accuracy before it is published to the blog, you’ll need to choose a blogging software like WordPress that allows you to restrict students’ ability to publish their own posts. If you are using WordPress and add your students with contributor (rather than author) roles, they will be able to log on and write and manage their posts but not publish them. As an administrator of the blog, you will then be able to review each completed post and either publish it or let the student know about errors that need to be fixed.

If you decide to manage the blog this way it may also be a good idea to assign topics for posts rather than have students choose their own, as the delay in publishing will make it difficult for students to identify what topics have already been covered and to let one another know which topics they are working on.

Tips: If you are working with more than one teaching assistant and want your TAs to grade or monitor students’ posts, have students tag their posts to indicate which section they are in. TAs can sort the blog and review only the posts tagged for their sections, which will make grading much easier.

Appendix B Tips for posting to the blog

 It takes time to write a thoughtful post. Consider composing your post in a program like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. This way you won’t risk losing your work if your Internet connection is interrupted or if you get logged out of the blog.

 To keep other students from posting on the same topic while you are composing your post, publish a post with just a title to let your fellow students know you’re working on it. When you’re done writing, you can edit the original post.

 Always sign your name to your posts and comments – if you don’t sign your name, your instructor has no way of knowing that you completed the assignment. If you are uncomfortable signing your real name for privacy reasons, talk to your instructor about restricting blog access to enrolled students or assigning you a handle to use when you post.

Appendix C Studying with the blog

1. Open the blog in your browser.

2. Locate the “archive” of posts (usually on the right-hand side).

3. Read one of the post titles (but don’t click on it!) and answer these questions mentally, in writing, or aloud with your study partner. For longer titles, the archive may not show the whole title. If the post title in the archive listing ends with an ellipsis, go ahead and click through to see the whole title but be careful not to read the body of the post before you have tested yourself.

    If it is a key term

a. Define the term.

b. Use the term in a sentence.

c. Give one example of how this term was used in a lecture or discussion session.

d. Give an example of how this term could be used that does not come from a lecture or discussion session. If possible, use the term to say something about one of the assigned texts. If nothing comes to mind try applying the term to something from outside of class.

If it is a quotation

a. Identify the source – be as specific as you can. What text is the quotation from? When was it written? What is the genre? Who is the author? Is a character speaking – if so, which? If a narrator is speaking, what kind of narrator is he or she?

b. Identify the form. Is it prose or verse? Is there a rhyme scheme? (If you had trouble identifying the source of the quotation, thinking about the form may help to narrow it down.)

c. Decide why the quotation is important. Does it exemplify a form that was discussed in class? Does it play a key role in the text? Is it related to an important theme? Why do you think the poster thought this was an important quotation to remember?

d. Plan out a close reading/explication of the quotation. Make a few observations about the language of the quotation (word choice, sentence structure, etc.) – how is the language working to create meaning? If you have trouble, try paraphrasing the quotation. If the author had used your paraphrase instead, would the quotation still have the same effect? Why or why not?

4. Click on the post title and read the entry. Did you miss anything mentioned in the post? Does the post raise any points that you didn’t think of? Did you think of anything that the poster didn’t? (If you did, add your thoughts as a comment on the post.)

Tips: Everyone makes mistakes – if you see an error in a post you are studying with, write a comment to let the author know. This gives the post’s author a chance to correct any errors and makes the study blog a better and more accurate resource for everyone.

The blog can be a valuable tool for reviewing material you are already familiar with; it should never be your first or only exposure to the course material. The blog is only as accurate or as comprehensive as you and your fellow students make it – by doing the assigned reading and attending lectures before using the study blog you protect yourself from being misled by potential errors in the published posts and also put yourself in a position to improve the blog for everyone by identifying and helping to correct any errors.