Using blogging for assessment in a Cultural Studies subject: A case study

In this assignment, students set up a publicly accessible blog and published weekly blog posts over eight weeks of the semester, in which they reflected on the weekly tutorial readings. The assignment was worth 30% of the overall mark in the subject.

Web 2.0 tool used: Blogger http://www.blogger.com

About the subject

The subject, called "Social Media", was an undergraduate second-year elective subject that attracted students from a number of degrees and disciplines, including communications, business, IT, and media.

The Subject Outline described it as follows:

This unit of study aims to examine and understand the growing dominance of social media as part of our everyday life [...] This subject presents students with an opportunity to develop new ways of thinking about social media by exploring the platforms and screens as artefacts under investigation. At the same time, we examine these artefacts through the lens of postmodern theory in order to critically assess the role and increasing dominance of social media in our daily lives and in the wider socio-political landscape.

There were 65 students enrolled in the subject, a mix of mature age students and school leavers; most were domestic students, with a small number of international students.

This subject was team-taught by two lecturers who had worked together teaching this and other subjects for many years. This was the fifth time the blogging assignment had been used in this subject.

Assignment tasks and timing

In week 4 of the semester, students set up a blog on blogger.com. They were told to use a pseudonym to keep their blogs anonymous and not to identify the university, or course they were doing, in their blog. However, they were also asked to provide lecturers and other students with the URL of the blog.

Students were required to post a 500-word blog entry each week over two-thirds of the course (weeks 5 – 12). The topic of each blog was fairly open, although students were expected to respond in some way to the weekly lecture/tutorial topic and to engage with the readings for each topic.

Intended learning outcomes

The blogging assignment aimed to achieve all the learning objectives of the unit, described in the Unit of Study Outline as:

• Identify the areas of social media which are central to our understanding of ourselves as part of the Western World;
• Read cultural constructs for deconstructive understandings;
• Formulate an understanding of the mass media and its relationship to social media, including providing specific examples;
• Construct a critical understanding of the impact social media has on our cultural, social, political and economic landscapes;
• Have developed and maintained a weekly weblog for the purpose of critical social commentary.

Why Web 2.0?

As the subject was about social media in society, it was seen as very fitting for students to explore the theoretical ideas raised in lecturers and tutorial discussions in a weekly blog: learning about social media through using social media.

Because the blogs were published openly, lecturers believed the task was more authentic: "students take the blog assignment more seriously because it is published 'outside' the university ... Having their writing published in a public domain also inspires students to get on with writing. Over the course of the assignment, the students develop a sense of identity as citizen journalists." The lecturers gave an example of a student in a previous cohort who "said he had always wanted to be a writer but didn’t think it was possible: keeping the blog made him feel like a writer".

The lecturers were also keen to use the blogging assignment as a way of getting students engaged with the weekly readings. The blog posts were intended to have the same function as face-to-face tutorial discussions and also enabled lecturers to monitor students’ engagement with the topics: "The blog assignment makes it more transparent who has done the reading on the weekly topic and who has developed some critical thinking around the topic."

The lecturers chose to use blogger because it was easy to use, they wanted the blogs to incorporate open publishing, and they did not believe that students would use a blogging system inside the University's learning management system.

Setting up the assignment

There were no specific tasks staff had to do to prepare this assignment. However, there was assignment preparation embedded in the refreshing and updating of curriculum content for each new semester, i.e. selecting each module topic, choosing reading materials, and planning the timing of the presentation of content.

Before the assignment was introduced, students spent the first four weeks of the course learning about cultural theory. The first assessment task – an essay – was due in the same week as students created their first blog post. This timing was partly due to university policy: lecturers must give feedback to students within the first six weeks of the unit. But the lecturers noted that there were other advantages to this: "doing an essay first also gets students thinking, digesting the theoretical foundations that are introduced at the beginning of the course, which prepares them for writing the blogs."

Introducing the assignment to students

The blog assignment was introduced in week 4, coinciding with the weekly lecture topic of ‘blogging’. Students were given a handout about the blog assignment, which explained that they should post a contribution to their blog each week, that each blog post should be an appropriate length (500 words), and that students could decide the focus of their blogs. However, they were also told that each contribution should include a reflexive section relating practice to theory, and were given several possible questions to stimulate this reflection process. The handout included a recommendation that students read two recently published articles about blogging. Students were also given a copy of the ‘Blogging Evaluation Guidelines’ which included the eleven criteria that were used to mark the blogs.

In addition, lecturers showed students two exemplary blogs from past students. The lecturers chose two quite different blogs so as to demonstrate to students that they could be individual and creative in their writing for this assignment. One lecturer noted that "students need to see these examples in order to be able to make a start on their own blogs; they need to know what the final product might look like". However, the other lecturer suggested that "seeing the exemplary blogs can be intimidating for some students – for those who can’t write at that standard ... It is important to reassure 'pass' students that they’re not going to fail if they don’t achieve that standard."

Supporting students through the assignment

The lecturers said they spent a lot of time encouraging students to develop their critical thinking skills through their blog posts, and emphasising what critical analysis entails:

"During the early lectures and tutorials students are repeatedly told not to conflate being critical with being negative. Many students struggle with the idea of critical analysis; they have difficulty being critical of other people’s ideas ... [We] spend a lot of time during the course developing this type of thinking which is important for [students’] blogs. More emphasis is given to preparing students by developing their critical thinking skills rather than the technical details of setting up a blog, posting links, etc. [We have] noticed from recent questions in classes that students are starting to develop a critical mind." (comment made during meeting in week 6 of the semester)

Lecturers also supported students in this assignment by choosing an "easy" topic for the first blog post - the topic of “eExtremists” (e.g., the use of social media by white supremacists and other hate groups). The lecturers noted that students tended to find it easy to be critical of the use of social media by extremist groups. Lecturers also had to address the issue that this topic and others covered could be personally challenging for students, for example, "international students are quite shocked when learning about [a particular extremist politcal party]".

Students were given the opportunity to begin each blog post during tutorial classes, which took place in a computer lab. The first twenty minutes of each 1 ½ hour tutorial class were spent in classroom discussion of the weekly topic. During the remaining class time students could begin working on their blogs and discuss with lecturers one-on-one their ideas for blog posts.

Because this was an eight-week assignment, lecturers repeatedly checked on students’ progress and provided formative feedback. Lecturers read all of the weekly blog posts, discussed the blogs during class, and provided face-to-face feedback to individual students during class.

Marking the assignment

Students were marked at the end of semester on the body of work published in the blogs, rather than being assessed for each individual blog post. The two lecturers marked the blogs together, against the 11 assessment criteria, giving students a mark out of five for each item (1= Not Satisfactory 2 = Basic Contribution 3 = Good 4 = Very Good 5 = Excellent). The criteria were grouped into three categories: the structure and content of the blog (e.g., the key points are clearly introduced in the opening paragraph), writing competency (e.g., the student wrote clearly and fluently), and general considerations (e.g., the blog was an appropriate length; the student has contributed to their blog on a weekly basis).

The lecturers noted that they needed to be careful when marking this assignment because it was somewhat different from an academic essay:

"The blogs are a forum for students to express informed opinion. They are intended to replicate a tutorial discussion; therefore [you’ve] got to be careful not to start imposing a scholarly written assessment framework on this activity; [we are] trying not to impose a writing model of assessment onto a discussion (or participation) model."

Nevertheless, writing skill was clearly important in this assignment and was included in the assessment criteria. The lecturers noted: "you can’t get an assessment piece that suits everybody. Some students don’t have the 'snappy tone' in their writing, have difficulty writing critically, some can’t think critically".

The lecturers explained how they had marked specific student blogs, e.g:
• Every student who had submitted eight blog entries was given a passing grade.
• One student’s blog was given a borderline pass because the student had not showed any evidence of engaging with the reading materials.
• One blog was marked highly because the student had included a great deal of information in each post, the writing was of a high standard, and there was evidence that the student had undertaken independent research. The student had gone beyond what was expected in the posts she had completed; however, at the time of marking she had only completed five posts.
• Of the 65 students, two failed the blog assignment. One failed because she only produced one blog entry, despite coming to class every week and engaging in the discussion. The other failed because the student did not come to tutorials and only posted three blog entries.

The lecturers tended to rely heavily on intuition during the marking process. They believed they could make judgements easily because they had run this assignment for four years. Lecturers had read the blog posts over the semester and were familiar with how the students were progressing, so felt they were able to make fair and accurate assessments of the final body of work.

The lecturers felt the quality of the blog assignments this year was high, particularly compared with the quality of the essays. Of the 65 blogs, two failed because students did not contribute enough content. In comparison, 17 students failed the essay assignment.

Communicating the results

Students were given a hard copy of a feedback form showing their mark and written comments that detailed how they performed on each of the assessment criteria.

Evaluating and improving the assignment

Until last year the lecturers running this assignment were the only staff members in the department, so reviewing the assignment with colleagues was difficult. Usually lecturers review the assignment by reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, rather than through any formal strategies.

Reflecting on how well the assignment worked, the lecturers believed that some students may have been particularly motivated to do well in this assignment because it mimicked the type of work they needed to be able to do in their intended profession: "This is an elective subject. Many students are going into IT/media jobs and have to demonstrate on their CV that they have strong writing and multimedia skills; they have to have blogs. Therefore, students may put more effort into the blog assignment [than the essay assignment]".

The blogs also appeared to increase participation and improve students’ engagement with the reading material: "Previously you would be lucky to have a full tutorial; lucky to have one student in the class who had done the readings. Now most students have done the reading – you can tell by reading the blogs."

Selected documents from this case study

An extract from the Subject Outline describing the blog assignment: SocialMediaBloggingAssignmentDescription.pdf

Assessment criteria and feedback sheet used to mark the blogs: Social Media Blogging Criteria.pdf

Page source:
Gray, K., Waycott, J., Thompson, C., Clerehan, R., Sheard, J., Hamilton, M., & Richardson, J. (2011) Using Social Web (Web 2.0) Activities for Student Assessment: Resources for University Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from https://web2assessmentresources.wikispaces.com