Blogs, Essays or Both?

U. of Michigan researcher finds that different formats for assignments result in notably different qualities of writing.

March 24, 2015

Asking students to blog for an audience of their classmates instead of writing an essay for a professor can bring out different qualities in their writing, according to a study published in next month’s volume of Teaching Sociology. But don’t expect instructors to do away with essays just yet.

“One general conclusion one can draw from these findings is that journals and blogs each have their own strengths in terms of their ability to engage students in deep reflection,” author Drew Foster writes. “Specifically, students appear to be overall more likely to take greater intellectual risks in blogs, which they know will be read and commented upon by their peers. Conversely, journals -- the more private option -- compel students to be vulnerable and take more personal risks in their reflection.”

Journaling has long been a common course requirement in the humanities, especially in courses heavy on reading assignments. Requiring students to reflect on assigned texts -- either for the students’ own benefit or to ensure that they actually did their homework -- gives instructors another method of helping students retain the knowledge.

Blogging is a “natural extension of class journals in the digital age,” Foster, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, writes. He launched the study after getting a chance to teach the university’s Introduction to Sociology course during a summer session. Unlike previous sections, he experimented with assigning blogging, not private journaling, and came away impressed by the quality of the student writing.

“Maybe students are writing more high-quality stuff when they’re writing in this kind of open format and they know their peers are going to be reading their stuff?” Foster said in an interview.

The fall 2013 and winter 2014 sections of the course both included a reflection assignment worth 10 percent of the final grade. But while students in the fall section wrote nine journal entries viewable only to teaching assistants, those in the winter section wrote six blog posts and commented at least nine times on other students’ posts.

Apart from the reflection assignment medium, the two large lecture courses, which both enrolled 225 mostly first- and second-year students, were “nearly identical.” Students in each section were split into 9 discussion groups of 25 students each, and students could only view the blog posts of fellow group members.

Tasked with sifting through 1,049 journal entries and 1,021 blog posts, Foster and three undergraduate research assistants tracked eight “traits” of reflective writing, many of them developed from a 2004 report written by the American Sociological Association’s task force on the undergraduate major.

Specifically, the researchers looked for students to compare two or more readings, explain a personally held misconception, take a position on an issue, form a personal theory, link readings to a personal experience, discuss their own class, gender or race, or reference an outside source. Foster also counted the instances where students made three or more grammatical errors, hypothesizing that bloggers -- whose entries could be seen by other students -- would be more careful not to make subject-verb agreement mistakes, switch tenses or write run-on sentences, among other errors. The study confirmed Foster’s hypothesis -- journal entries were 3 percent more likely to contain three or more mistakes -- as well as his suspicion that students required to blog would want to “show off to their friends.”

The results from journal and blog entries diverged on five of the eight traits, not including the one about grammatical mistakes. Students posting on blogs were more likely to take a stand on an issue or come up with a personal theory than those writing in journals, but less likely to admit to a personal misconception, connect a reading to a personal experience or compare two or more readings.

In other words, some journal entries trended toward the “particularly private and intimate,” while blogging “potentially opens the author up to attack and critique.” Meanwhile, the “specter of peer readership” causes bloggers to be more aware of grammatical and mechanical rules, Foster writes.

To Foster’s surprise, however, blogging did not cause more students to reference outside sources, even though copying and pasting a hyperlink is less complicated than penning a manual citation. Students in both sections were about equally as likely to bring up their own class, gender or race in their entries.

Those findings could extend beyond introductory courses, said Foster. He suggested future studies could, for example, look at whether students in large online courses are less comfortable with making the kinds of personal risks that they would in a class where they know their peers.

The findings likely also mean that instructors won’t rush to replace essays with blogs, but that they should consider tailoring assignments to produce the kind of writing they are looking for.

“Where I thought that either traditional essays or blogs were going to get objectively better writing out of students, in actuality, it turns out it’s about these types of risks,” Foster said. “Institutions should be cognizant of the format that students are writing in and try to link up the kind of risks they want students to be taking in their writing.”


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