General Psychology (PSY 101) is a fun but difficult course to teach. As with most introductory courses, there is so much material to cover that you never get to present everything you’d like. I’ve incorporated weekly online discussions into my 101 courses since I began teaching them, with several objectives:
- to get students to engage with content that I don’t have time to lecture about;
- to expand on topics we discuss in class;
- to provide a low-stakes opportunity to practice their writing; and
- to get students who aren’t comfortable talking in class to share their perspectives with their classmates.
I originally used Moodle’s forum feature for a variety of reasons, including convenience, fears about the technical expertise required for other options, privacy concerns, and control over content. In my first semester at AC, an informal midterm evaluation revealed that 25% of the class considered the online discussions to be the worst part of the course, while only one student thought it was the best. I made a few small changes for the two sections of 101 I taught the following semester, but the midterm evaluation feedback was even worse, with 51% listing it as the worst aspect of class. The students largely perceived it as busy work because it didn’t directly correlate to material on exams.
After getting feedback from students about how they would improve the process, I decided to decrease the frequency of the assignments, increase the length of responses, offer choices in writing prompts, and select the topics myself. Around this same time I had several informal conversations with Brett Boessen about how he incorporates blogging into his courses. I figured if I was making changes, why not really try something brand new?
Now, on the first day of class, I explain the blogging assignments to my students and show them how to set up an account on WordPress.com. To reduce anxiety about the proper configuration of account settings, I created screencast videos (available here) to show students how to add me as an administrator to their blog, how to follow their classmates’ blogs, and how to manage their privacy settings (students have the option of making their blog public or open only to their classmates). Only a few students have needed help getting their blogs up and running, which has made the process much less hectic than I originally feared.
Students are required to make an introductory post, which provides some background about themselves and their interests regarding the class, and to post a comment on a classmate’s blog. Over the remainder of the semester, students are responsible for posting seven more times on their own blog and seven more comments on their classmates’ blogs. Every Monday, I post two prompts related to the content we either have just covered or will cover the coming week (for an example see here; for the complete series of prompts, see here), so there are always options for students.
The switch has been a moderate success in my eyes, both in terms of student response and my own impressions. The midterm evaluation comments this past year have been more positive. There were still a number of students who listed the blogs as their least favorite aspect of the class, but the comments were less negative (i.e., words like “annoyed” were used in place of “hate” and “despise”). Requiring longer responses is getting students to be somewhat more reflective and gives me a larger sample of their writing to give feedback on. The reduced number of submissions is also making the grading load more manageable.
One area that hasn’t improved like I’d hoped is the degree of interaction among students. While the posted comments are often a bit more thoughtful, extended conversations have been quite rare. While I continue to work on ways to get students to be more engaged with each other, I’m also working on generating traffic to their blogs from people outside of the class to provide students a wider forum to discuss their ideas. I’m contemplating partnering with 101 classes at other institutions to set up something like “pen pals,” though this idea isn’t fully formed yet and I’ll have to think about how to best make something like that work.