Blog posts as critical reflection tools (Yes, really.)

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by Amber Hinsley, Assistant Professor, Communication

As a professor in the Department of Communication, you could say I’m in the business of communication. My classes tend to focus on journalism writing and developing digital skills, but regardless of the course topic all of my undergraduate students create blogs that they use to publish various assignments.

Yours should too, and here’s why:

  • Blogging helps students reflect upon or synthesize class readings, polishing their skills as critical thinkers who can succinctly explain their reasoning/opinion
  • Blogging also presents students the opportunity to begin building their professional identities in an online space

For students of any major, blogging for a series of class assignments can help them become better communicators—a skill in high demand among today’s employers. A recent TIME magazine report outlined several shortcomings of recent graduates: Managers said many job applicants “can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.” (Dr. Mike Lewis, an associate professor in the Chemistry Department, also addressed the need for students to be good communicators in a previous blog post.)

So how can you use blog assignments to help students be better communicators, critical thinkers, and writers?

1. Have a purpose: Think about why you want students blog and what you want them to get from the experience. How can you structure assignments to fit those goals?

2. Understand online writing: It’s different from writing more formal papers. Blog posts shouldn’t look like other types of writing your students may do in class. You can find a multitude of tips online but much of it boils down to being short and succinct, which helps students write a concise reflection of their thoughts.

3. Help students succeed: Be explicit about your expectations for each blog assignment and show your students examples. Give them specific writing prompts, such as the one below from my CMM206: Media & Society class, as well as feedback on their posts.

Hinsley-CTTL post example                                             

4. Bring the blog posts into the classroom: This is key: incorporate your students’ blog posts into class discussions. In small groups, have each student recap his/her post and discuss them with each other. As class, go over their conclusions. As part of the assignment or for extra credit, have them comment on a classmate’s blog post.

In doing all of this, students are pushed to think beyond the textbook/reading material to how it applies in their life and the lives of others—to think more broadly and with greater insight.

But why have them write blog posts instead of short papers that they turn in during class?

Because making it public makes it more real for the students—someone other than their professor might read it. It’s a first step we can take in helping them build an online identity that showcases their ability to think and write clearly about topics relevant to their chosen profession.

It is no secret that employers use online searches to find out more about applicants, and we can use our students’ blogs as a springboard for classroom discussions about the importance of crafting professional identities as undergraduates. The blogs are an effective way for students to establish themselves as insightful thinkers who have interesting things to say. The blogs also can be used as starting point for a portfolio that features the student’s projects and other materials.

Still wondering how you can use blogs in your classes?

You can check out my website (disclaimer: it’s in permanent beta) to find links to all of the blogs I’ve used in my classes. Each class blog has links to individual student blogs. You also can reach me at ahinsley@slu.edu.

 

Amber Hinsley photoDr. Amber Hinsley is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, where she teaches a range of journalism & media classes. Her research focuses on issues of media management, news production, and online journalism.

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Blog posts as critical reflection tools (Yes, really.)”

  1. Thanks, Amber, for this thoughtful post. One thing I love about public blogs: it creates an authentic audience for them, which is a big leap forward from the cases where students can only imagine one audience member — the professor grading their work.

    One question that often comes up with faculty, though, is how to handle situations where students don’t feel comfortable posting their views in public. Do you create an alternative mechanism for students who may have legitimate reasons to resist writing for a public audience? (Some faculty allow students to create blog entries inside of Blackboard, for instance, so that the class is its only “public.”) Or do you find that Communication students all generally want to do the public work?

    We sometimes get questions about students’ right to privacy for coursework, so I’m curious if you have had questions or concerns from students about that?

  2. Hi Debie: Thanks for your comment and question.

    I have a couple of mechanisms for dealing with student concerns, the first of which is trying to create assignments that will not put students on the spot (so to speak) with feeling like they have to write something deeply personal in their blog posts. It’s also a good opportunity to talk with the students about how to manage their online identities, including the amount of personal information they put online.

    I try to foster openness with students so they feel they can express their concerns to me and we can work together find a way for them to complete the work within the parameters of the assignment.

    Another strategy I have used is to create a private Facebook group so that only the other students and I can see the posts (we do not have to be Facebook friends in order to be part of a FB group). The Facebook group is especially useful if you have several assignments in which the students have to find materials/examples online and share them. I use Facebook groups in my CMM210 News Writing classes.

    I have used Blackboard discussion boards with graduate students, but the feedback from undergrads generally has been that they do not like using Blackboard because it’s not a platform they use for anything other than their classes. In contrast, almost all of them are on Facebook and most see the usefulness of learning the (easy) content management system for blog sites such as WordPress.

  3. This is very helpful! I know lots of people handle these issues differently, and I think other faculty will benefit from reading how you approach these topics.