When I first began teaching statistics and research methods to college students, Ronald Reagan was President, a 20MB hard drive was $400, and the National Science Foundation had just funded NSFNet as a cross-country 56 Kbps backbone for the Internet. In the classroom, color overhead transparencies (largely produced by textbook publishers) were all the rage, as multi-media software packages launched from personal computers and telecasted on widescreen projection systems were the stuff sci-fi fantasies were made of – and not part of most teaching paradigms. PowerPoint, in fact, was first being developed by Robert Gaskins for Macs and wasn’t even part of the complement of Microsoft products at that time. So it is with a touch of nostalgia, a non-trivial amount of experience since the mid-1980s, and more than a modicum of student feedback that I chose to write about something near and dear to me: Why and how I designed a blog site for my statistics courses and did it make a difference in their course assessments.
Why (Acting on a Series of Hunches)
My course blog site began at the outset of the fall 2010 semester as an experiment based on the following assumptions:
- Students needed to have greater access to me beyond my scheduled office hours (and many weren’t always willing to call me or visit my campus office anyway)
- Email was (and remains) a useful tool but I was tired of answering the same or similar questions with the same or similar answers (how many of you have a sub-directory of boilerplate email responses to your most often appearing student queries?)
- While my multi-media PowerPoints, net-based video tutorials (such as statistical workshops offered by publishers), course handouts and SPSS statistical databases were carefully planned and methodically presented in class, many students needed access to this material 24/7 to review, reinforce and review again
- Students needed reminders of upcoming assignments, changes made in class to the structure of the course (e.g., a revised project deadline or altered exam date) and even course cancellations and an online “Memo Board” would be useful
- The best way to learn statistics is to create a sense of continuity between classes where asynchronous (independent, outside of class) learning is perceived by students as fun and, at the same time, the instructor is seen by students as being intellectually (and, perhaps, emotionally) committed to student learning beyond the scheduled classes, and
- Students are largely savvy about social media websites and blogging, so integrating a blogsite into my statistics courses that tests these assumptions wouldn’t be much of a stretch either for my students or for me – and, in fact, we might even enjoy it.
Because of this associative string of assumptions, I created Broken Pencils to humanize the teaching experience. On principle that may sound oxymoronic, but my sense is that a well-designed, accessible blog site that encourages visits and provides “payoffs” between classes, in some ways, mirrors their use of other web-based social media sites and softens the often restrictive and stifling atmosphere of the classroom – especially in a statistics course where many students carry serious baggage into the class (such as math fears, previous negative experiences, internalized cultural stereotypes, or even bad reputations of the class).
How (Setting Up a Course Blogsite in One Hour or Less)
There are a few standard operating procedures you’ll need to address before you start. Do you have an email account? Do you have access to the internet on a fairly regular basis? Do you have a website or access to one (e.g., your employer’s or spouse’s website)? Good. Then there’s one last issue at hand: Do you want to start a course blog and feel you have the time to do so? Once it’s up and running, we’re not talking about more than 2-3 hours per week. Of course, you can spend a lot more time if you like. Assuming you’ve said “yes” to each question, choose one of the many sites that offer blogging services. I use BLOGGER because it is fairly flexible and it’s free. I use my private research practice’s website (www.asrcsolutions.org) to anchor my course blog – which may not be necessary for you. It will depend on what blogging service you choose. If you already have a website, they make offer blogging software so check into it.
The advantage I see in BLOGGER, compared to others, is the range of services and features I’m able to provide to my students and the ease with which I can update and change my choices. For example, if you click here, you’ll be taken to a blog where I examine how students can “start off the semester right” by using many of the blog site features. You’ll also see a few non-essential features that may appeal to students (such as a “Zen Window” for relaxation therapy, “Monthly Quote” from a famous or not-so-famous statistician, “Class Poll” that tests student knowledge to current material, etc.). It’s worth noting that BLOGGER has customizable templates that, with a little tweak here and there, can help you create a warm and inviting site for your students to visit.
Outcomes (Does it Really Make a Difference?)
Whether it’s due to choice or necessity, over the years I have become an assessment guru. In matters related to student learning, I find the use of a wide range of measures to be exciting and, more importantly, highly useful in shaping the next iteration of my course. So when it came to assessing my two statistics classes last semester, I was more than interested in what they had to say. Were their responses different from previous semesters before I created Broken Pencils? If so, by how much? Put simply, in my 25 years of teaching at colleges and universities, I’ve never received such consistent high praise across nearly all assessment items completed by my students (that includes non-statistics courses, too!). On a range from “1” (lowest) to “5” (highest), the mode across all relevant items (n=30) was “5” and item averages ranged between 4.0 and 4.8 – in two large statistics classes (n=40 in each) designed for business majors titled “Quantitative Business Analysis.” We’ll see if this positive assessment continues after the current semester ends!
I hope you have an opportunity to peruse my course blog site. Should you decide to integrate such a site into your statistics courses, please send an email my way to let me know how it went for your students and you!
Professor Andrew Scott Ziner