This is my third year of teaching a hands-on university course in which students propose, carry out and communicate about their own independent research. In the past two years, the communication aspect has consisted of formal oral presentations and written reports in the form of proposals and final papers. This year, I have added scientific blogging.

When I was preparing for this year, I wanted to find out if other instructors had used blogging in their university courses, how they had evaluated the blogs, and what they would advise to someone trying it for the first time. I was surprised to find that there was not much online writing about this. There is, luckily, the primary literature. I’ll summarize what I’ve found and report how things go over the semester.

But first: how should students blog?

What should they about? In what style? Pictures of kittens? No! “The oatmeal I had for breakfast was terrible?” No! They have facebook and twitter for that. (And we could of course look at those as pedagogical tools, but that’s another story.) Student science blogs in my class are expected to produce science writing that summarizes scientific knowledge, ideas, and research such that a non-expert can understand. Established scientific blogs already do this, and a recent paper in PLOS One discusses what scientific bloggers are already doing and who scientific bloggers are (education level, gender, etc.). Having experts translate scientific literature for the non-experts is of obvious benefit to the general public, but what are the benefits of students (who fall somewhere in the middle on the scale of novice to expert scientists) writing scientific blogs?

Blogging as constructivist, interactive learning.

Blogging allows students to comment on each others’ work and allows students who prefer to contribute in forums that do not involve group discussion to voice their thoughts (e.g., some introverted people prefer may written communication). Some interesting findings on the collaborative nature of learning through blogs and comments on blogs are here. Blogs are now being used in various ways to teach medical students. Here is one example where large lecture style classes were replaced with automatic response systems (clickers) and blogs. The students collaborated to submit responses either through the ARS or on a blog, and this lead to interactive and supportive learning. This study from Korea is a particularly good summary of the social constructivist benefits to learning offered by blogging.

So beyond the traditional motivator for science blogs as a way to make science accessible, blogging can be used as a tool for undergraduate students to better understand their own research, discuss it with their peers and get feedback from a wider audience.

On a more individual level, one study has shown that blogging leads students to report an enhancement of their own learning and reflection on course material outside of class, as well as to an increased sense of community among students. I am intrigued that this study showed that commenting on each other’s blogs, and in particular, reading the comments of peers did not enhance learning. I will be interested to survey my own students about their perceptions of the blog assignment.

In my next post, I’ll share links to my students’ blogs.