Moving Science Research onto Student Blogs

I've started moving my student's science investigations onto their blogs. Traditionally, I have had the students do their summative labs on paper with an attached rubric. The problem is that the only person the students are sharing their research with is me. I think that science should be a collaborative experience, transcending boundaries of classroom walls and borders.

Science is fundamentally a social enterprise, and scientific knowledge advances
through collaboration and in the context of a social system with well-developed norms.
Individual scientists may do much of their work independently or they may collaborate closely
with colleagues. Thus, new ideas can be the product of one mind or many working together.
However, the theories, models, instruments, and methods for collecting and displaying data, as
well as the norms for building arguments from evidence, are developed collectively in a vast
network of scientists working together over extended periods."

-A Framework for K-12 Science Education:
Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas

Inspired by COETAILS
My graduate school course "COETAILS" has largely inspired this shift. Too often, student work is done by the behest of the teacher. But I think a change is happening. Around us, students are sharing their work with a larger audience. This pushes the boundaries of what we know, and develops a base of information from which we can learn. Students are constructing their own meaning and what not better way to do this by opening their work up to others. See some examples here, here and here.

Networking with a larger audience
My reason for doing this is that "critical review" is a clear standard that I think is often given lip service from teachers and other students. By having work on the blog, students can get the feedback that helps them drive their work forward. The question is: how do we get students reading and commenting on other's blogs?

The easy solution is to partner students up yourself. However, I put a letter out to my teacher groups in the Edmodo community and found a half dozen teachers who instantly were interested in partnering our classrooms up. I did it on Twitter as well.

Edmodo is a great tool for developing connections between interested teachers with similar learning goals.

The Response
As a warm up the following period, I partnered up and gave them some prompts to consider when making a response that related to the nature of science and math. What was cool though, is to see my students get readers from other students on the far side of the world. Some of these students left their own blog URL their blogs which my students added to their readers.

How Does Peer Feedback Help your Science and Math Skills?
The most important question is: Does this help them learn? Without carefully crafted questions, I find that peer review is very shallow and superficial. For instance, when my students started making tutorials on specific math problems, most of the feedback was related to their presentation, not their math skills. Students told me: "They said I should talk louder." and other comments like: "There was a lot of noise in the background" which don't really correlate to enhanced mathematical understanding.

Comments can be very insightful if students have good prompts. Despite going over commenting guidelines, some students (like the first one pictured above), revert to a social, texting-type voice. .

Any unsupervised activity tends to lose its focus if the teacher is away. My students are so accustomed to leaving comments all over the internet through social websites like "facebook" and "myspace" that they are more concerned with saying something rather than having something to say. In short, their comments are often meaningless. I think commenting is something for which they've had no (or very little) guidance for, so when asked to give a critical review, they revert to superficial evaluation.

To solve this problem, I asked them to show me their comment before publishing so it met my expectations and would translate to a learning experience for both the viewer and creator. We had a very powerful debrief about it later and I asked some of the students to share how comments from their readers actually improved their skills.

Considerations for the future
This has been a very powerful learning experience for both the students and myself. Interestingly, I found that some of my students didn't want to share this work. I have a number of students (some high fliers who are extremely shy and some struggling students that don't want their work to be scrutinized) that would prefer not to open up themselves to a larger audience. Furthermore, as an assessment, there is also a tendency to cheat (perish the thought) on projects that span two or three class periods. For a final assessment of scientific skills, to ensure accountability, consider using a hard copy for writing and then posting a polished version on their blogs if they're interested. When I asked my students about this option for our next summative assessment, 75% of them said they'd be interested in sharing their research on their blogs.

To manage this appraisal in the future, I will give them a choice. All work will be done in class, but as extension activity, students can blog about their research findings and publish to the web later. That way, they're not being forced to do it and will do it on their own terms. Perhaps they'll see the benefits from other networked students and wade in, getting further away from their comfort level as they lose site of the shore.

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