Faculty Focus


A Blog Assignment with Results

Blogging can be a tool that aids learning. “Blogs provide students with an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ to make meaning through interaction with the online environment.” (p. 398) They provide learning experiences described as “discursive,” meaning students learn by discussing, which makes blogs a vehicle for knowledge construction. They exemplify active learning and can promote higher-order thinking. Potential outcomes like these give teachers strong incentives to explore their use.

The article referenced below reports on the use of a closed group blog in an introductory economics course. “The overall learning objective for the course is to introduce students to applications of economic theory and the ‘economic way of thinking’ to a range of real-world and policy situations.” (p. 399) The 60 students in the course were required to start at least two discussions on the blog, which they did by providing a link to a mainstream media source (such as a newspaper) and applying economic theory and concepts to evaluate whatever the article described. Students were also required to contribute to eight of these discussions by commenting on or critiquing the analysis offered by the student who started the discussion. The instructor provided feedback and assessments at the end of weeks six and 11 in the 14-week course. This assignment was worth 15 percent of students’ overall course grades. The instructor did not contribute extensively to the blog but occasionally posted questions to encourage further reflection and to probe for understanding. “The intention was to provide students with an environment where they would feel more comfortable participating without discussions being dominated by contributions of the instructor.” (p. 400) The instructor wanted students to freely explore their ideas and comment on those of others, thereby creating a community of inquiry.

Two empirical questions were of interest: (1) what types of students participated in the blog and (2) did blog participation contribute to better learning outcomes? The instructor notes that although claims have been made about potential learning outcomes, few quantitative analyses of blog use in courses have been completed.

What types of students participated in the blog? No variables proved significant in explaining students’ attainment of the threshold or basic requirements of the assignment. Gender didn’t matter, and neither did GPA or whether they’d studied economics previously, for example. However, “more able students (that is, those with a higher GPA) were significantly more likely to post more than the required number of comments, while students who found the blog an interesting assessment task were four times more likely to post more than the required number of comments.” (p. 402) The instructor had been concerned that students who’d taken economic classes previously might become a dominating force on the blog. That did not happen. “This is an important result as it indicates that all students may be able to benefit from participation in the blog, regardless of their economics background.” (p. 403)

Did blog participation contribute to better learning outcomes? “Unsurprisingly, the results show that the more able students performed better in the final test or examination, with each higher grade point associated with a 0.35 standard deviations better performance in the examination or final tests.” (p. 403) An interesting trade-off between quantity and quality of blog participation did emerge. The number of blog posts [those that started discussions] was not significant, but the quality of the blog contributions was associated with that better student performance. The instructor notes many of the students’ early contributions demonstrated more surface than deep learning, but that improved as the semester progressed. “By the end of the course, most students were able to give a considered opinion on the effects of a policy change.” (p. 405)

At the end of the course, students responded to six statements about the blog assignment. More than 50 percent agreed with each of the statements, with close to 90 percent agreeing that “the blog helped me recognize applications of economics in ‘real world’ situations.” (p. 404)

The instructor concludes by noting that empirical analyses have yet to make clear whether blogs should be voluntary, unstructured, and unassessed or prescribed, structured, and assessed. (p. 405) However, in this case making blog participation a requirement did not dampen students’ enthusiasm for it. Many participated much more in the blog than the assignment required.

Reference: Cameron, M. P. (2012). “Economics with training wheels”: Using blogs in teaching and assessing introductory economics. Journal of Economic Education, 43 (4), 397-407.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 29.3 (2015): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.