Blogging in the Science Classroom: The Worksheet is Dead

One of the major changes that I made this year was to switch to using individual student blogs as the centerpiece of student assessment (the other major change was to implement standards-based grading). I started using student blogs for a number of reasons including:

  1. I was tired of grading worksheets with the same copied answers on them.
  2. I realized that these worksheets weren’t always helpful in learning content, and in fact, much of the time they got in the way of learning.
  3. Student in my classes have access to a MacBook cart whenever they are in my classroom and we have fantastically dependable wireless internet connectivity for these laptops (yay tech support!).
  4. Blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are free.
  5. I’m increasingly wary of multiple choice anything as real assessment and wanted students to write more.
  6. I wanted students to have a permanent, online record of their achievement throughout the year, not some pile of papers shoved in a binder (or trash can).
  7. I wanted students to have an audience for their work that would include each other, their families, the community, and the world.

With all these highfalutin ideals in mind, we launched our blogs at the beginning of this school year, with some fear and trembling.  Very few students had done any blogging before, although a couple had existing blogs from their English classes. The first challenge was to get everyone signed on to one of the blogging services. Most students chose Blogger, probably because we thought that that would be easier initially since we all had Google accounts. The only problem was that, at that time, at least, Google Apps accounts like my students had did not work with Blogger very well. Students ended up having to create their own Google accounts just so they could use Blogger. This wasn’t a big deal, just not as smooth as if Blogger were integrated into Google Apps.

So how did we use the blogs? They became the go-to location to post assignments for me to read and grade. For a week or two, though, I operated a lot like I did last year, posting assignments on Edmodo and using its great assignment features to have students turn things in online, as well as posting them to their blogs. I realized that this was a duplication of effort and soon instead of sending out “assignments” in Edmodo, I just sent files and links as “notes.” This meant that these resources no longer came with a due date and that I was not using Edmodo to see who turned in which assignments.

Instead, I figured out how to work Google Reader to monitor my students’ blogs. After subscribing to each students RSS or Atom feed, I organized all of their feeds into folders in Google Reader:

Reader allowed me to keep track of when students published new posts and to quickly find a particular student’s blog if we wanted to discuss something that they had posted. We still used Edmodo extensively for communication, just not for assessment. For example, if students made changes to their blogs, the changes would not always be highlighted in Reader so I asked students to message me on Edmodo if they made changes to a blog post that I had commented on already.

Speaking of comments, I did not personally comment directly on each student blog post. I figured that other readers of their blogs could do that. Instead, I gave feedback about each post as part of the student’s gradesheet entry. Some comments were pretty general (nice job! or something similarly lame) but I got better (I think) at commenting and left specific advice for ways to change the posts to better meet the standards.

One criticism that I’ve heard about my grading system is that it doesn’t spell out for students exactly what they need to do to meet a standard. I think that would be a concern, except for the fact that I tried to provide constructive comments on most everything students did and I let them respond to the comments by fixing their posts for a higher grade. Students did have to make the first effort at a blog post to try to show what they have learned about a particular topic or skill. I worked with them from there to improve their understanding by providing comments and discussing their posts with them. I had a number of students say that this was their favorite part of my class this year: the fact that they could try out a post, get some feedback, and go back and fix it as needed.

What did students blog about? Everything, really. Most of it was even related to the class ; )   As students and I discussed topics or performed labs in class, those topics and labs found their way in some form into students’ blogs. Some posts were simple text-based blog posts but at other times, students used a variety of web2.0 tools to put “learning artifacts” on their blogs. These learning artifacts included the use of Prezi, Glogster, Quizlet, Google Docs, Photobucket, DomoNation, Xtranormal, bubbl.us, and other tools.

If you’ve viewed the example posts linked above, you may have noticed that different students used different tools to discuss the same topic. That’s because I did not require that a particular tool be used with each assignment. Students were free to use the tool that they thought would work best for that particular post. If you are interested in exploring the wide range of content and quality that was produced this year, here are the links to all the student blogs.

Here are some of the awesome things about student blogging, in my experience:

Variety

Since students used many different tools to create artifacts for their blogs, I was never bored grading their posts, and in fact, was usually incredibly entertained and impressed by what students can create given the freedom to do so.

Portfolios of learning

The blogs became a record of student achievement that we can look back on for proof of learning. Along with their color-coded gradesheet, a student’s blog is a powerful indicator of the level of understanding for any given topic or skill that we learned throughout the year.

Wide audience of readers

Many people ended up looking at the students’ blogs, not just me. For example, parent conferences will never be the same again, since it was so easy to pull up a student’s blog in order to view and discuss the student’s level of performance. Parents have access to the entire list of student blogs, too, so it was easy at conferences to point parents there if they wanted to compare how their student was doing to how others were. The kid who has three blog posts starts squirming in conferences when their parents see other students blogs that have 10 or more posts.

Student blogs were also publicized via Twitter or my blog, which led some traffic their way. At least one student and future teacher made lots of connections with the edublogging community this year.

Resources for each other

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. This is one of those things about teaching that is easy to say, but hard to do something about. However, the blogs let kids work at their own speed and with tools of their own choosing.  Inevitably, some student posts were finished before others and became learning tools for those students who were behind the rest of the class. Towards the end of the year, when they were a bit more mature in the whole process, some students even started giving credit for their peers’ work that helped them write their own posts. It was very cool to see them learning from each other via the blogs.

There were some challenges along the way, of course, as we tried blogging our way through the year:

Blog writing is time intensive

If you want students to do a good job writing their own blogs, be prepared to give them plenty of class time to write, revise, and experiment with new tools.  Every year it seems I get to discuss less and less content with students, but this year saw a big jump in the time I had to allow students to have workdays on the computer so that they could stay current with their blogs. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it will force me to look very carefully at what I have planned for next year’s classes.

Fair access to blogs

Part of the reason for spending time blogging in class is concern over the issue of fair access to the Internet in order to complete the blogging activities. Many students do not have easy computer access at home, although some do. I wanted to try to rule out any unfair advantage that students might have over others, but was only partly successful.  Of course a kid with his own computer and Internet access is going to have more chances to blog and make amazing products than another kid who has to rely on computer access during the 50 minutes I see them in class. I’m not sure that’s a reason, though, to not blog. Its more of a reason to agitate for more equitable Internet access in my community.

The Mac blogging platform is not as useful

There were some students, fortunately few in number, that for one reason or another, kept forgetting their Blogger account passwords and would get locked out of the system. For these few (maybe 5 students in all my classes) I set them up with blog accounts through our local MacServer. That let them use the same password as they used to log on to their laptop, but the advantages stopped there. We found that with the Mac-hosted blogs, there was no separate publish option, so as soon as a kid saved their blog, finished or not, it posted to my Reader. Also, we never figured out how to allow embedding within the Mac blogs so those students had to post simple hypertext links to the artifacts that they created rather than having them appear right in the blog page.

Plagiarism

There was some plagiarism of blog posts, but it was usually incredibly easy to detect. The most obvious ones occurred when students simply lifted another student’s blog post and pasted it in as their own. I had one student, famous among teachers at our school for this sort of behavior, try this stunt about 5 times in a row trying to meet one particular standard. I simply refused to put any grade in her gradesheet until I was convinced it was her own work. Google searches and Plagium worked great for me in providing evidence that someone had copied material from a source or another student blog. I probably didn’t catch everything, and might jump in with our English teachers and somehow use Turnitin with the blogs to try to avoid problems next year.

Are blogs a rigorous assessment strategy?

One of the concerns that I had during the year was whether or not the new blogging paradigm is rigorous enough compared to the old model of lecture-worksheet-quiz-test-rinse-lather-repeat. This is a concern, of course, since I almost completely abandoned the traditional testing that I used to do (my Moodle site was very lonely this year).  Could I tell whether students were learning? Aren’t they just goofing around with web tools and having fun instead of suffering through the lectures that they need?

It was this article (via @mrsebiology) that convinced me that blogging can be just a rigorous as the tests that I used to give:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous,
provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

Blogging in many ways is an incredibly difficult task for students. Not only do they have to research background information about a topic, they have to synthesize a variety of ideas together in a coherent piece of writing or media. They encounter interesting ideas about the course content and write about how these concepts effect their lives and society in general. In many ways, that’s much more rigorous than any test I could give about stuff that I lectured on.

The worksheet is dead. Long live the blog.

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  1. gasstationwithoutpum’s avatar

    As long as you have some assurance that the work you see is the students’ own, then evaluating written reports (blog posts) is a perfectly valid assessment strategy. You do have to check that they covered all the standards, but that is no harder than writing good tests.

    I stopped using tests years ago in my college classes, and rely almost entirely on written work by the students (not blogs, but reports, computer programs, posters, and wiki entries).

    Reply

  2. Dan VH’s avatar

    Thanks for the posts. I have been inspired by your willingness to experiment and thoughtful reflection. Please keep posting!

    Reply

  3. Alan Hays’s avatar

    Awesome post. I currently taking a class on building collaborative environments online and your experience with it has energized me further to try this.

    Coming from low-income district, I too worry about fair access to the internet. I am not sure how I will overcome it, but there has to be some solution.

    Reply

  4. Tracie’s avatar

    Awesome! I have been wanting to make this jump for a couple years now, I just don’t have my “perfect” plan. Of course, if I wait around for that, I will never get it done. I’m thinking this might be the year. Keep posting about this!

    Reply

  5. Miz Walsh’s avatar

    I’m a (sort of first-year) middle school math teacher in an overcrowded, urban, high SES school who took over a very challenging set of classes after the original teacher quit last October. It’s been a rough year. At the semester, 57% of my eighth grade math students had less than a C, and I was spending all of my energy controlling the classes’ behavior and had nothing left for teaching content. (Not that I could get through two sentences without having to address behavior issues, so I’m not entirely sure I can even say I was teaching content…) I decided to make the switch to standards-based grading at the semester because many of my colleagues in different departments were having success using that approach with our shared students and I needed to do SOMETHING different. It was incredibly difficult to make the switch mid-year, especially because my 3-day weekend between semesters was lost due to snow days. (Curse you, Father Winter!!! It’s not supposed to snow in SEATTLE!!!) So I’ve been playing catch-up for I’m not sure how long now, but the change I’ve seen in my classroom is like… well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. For the first time ever, every single one of my students (with one exception) was engaged in learning for (almost) the entire period, all day long. They get the “it’s about learning” philosophy of SBG because they’ve been hearing the same stuff in science, LA and SS all year. SBG taps into their innate sense of wanting to become better people, which I think is something middle schoolers have that high schoolers sometimes lose as their experiences drive them towards cynicism and apathy. But I digress…

    I’m posting about this because i found your blog last weekend, and it’s been inspiring to read about your “process”. I actually used your 2010-2011 end of year recap post as a link in my “Why Standards-Based Grading” post on my class website (that is currently used almost exclusively by parents, but baby steps, right?). Your ideas about how to use blogging as assessment are FUCKIN AWESOME and once i get caught up and start being able to sleep more than 4 or 5 hours a night (i wish i were kidding!) I’m going to think about how I could incorporate these ideas into my own practice.

    You are totally and 100% my hero. Keep posting.

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