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Blogs Aren’t Better Than Journal Assignments. They’re Just Different.

Although some instructors are phasing out journal-keeping assignments in favor of a class blog, a study has found that blogs are not inherently better instructional tools.

Drew Foster, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, recently said so in a paper, “Private Journals Versus Public Blogs: The Impact of Peer Readership on Low-Stakes Reflective Writing,” published in Teaching Sociology.

With all the hype about blogging, Mr. Foster decided to give it a try in an introduction-to-sociology course he was teaching. He was surprised to find that the quality of the students’ writing was better than what he’d seen in private journals he’d graded as a teaching assistant in another intro course.

That got him thinking about the differences between the two media, so he decided to do some research. He compared more than 2,000 blog posts and journal entries from intro-sociology classes at Michigan.

He expected the blogs to yield reflections that were more thoughtful, but that wasn’t what he found. It’s not that one format is better than the other, he discovered, it’s that they’re different. Public blogs encourage students to take intellectual risks, and private journals encourage them to take personal ones.

“The initial big surprise of the study is that blogs, in fact, are not objectively better assignments,” he said. “There are a lot of blog enthusiasts out there in the sort of faculty world who are really, really breathlessly lauding the positive benefits of assigning your students blogging.”

In private journals, students take personal risks by writing about their own experiences. For example, Mr. Foster said, in a discussion of whether the American dream still exists, a student writing in a private journal might reflect on her family’s socioeconomic class or financial struggles. But she might hesitate to share something so personal in a public setting.

On public blogs, where their classmates will see and perhaps even comment on a post, students engage in more intellectual risks, crafting complex arguments on what are often — especially in sociology courses — controversial issues, Mr. Foster said.

Instructors must consider what will work best for their courses, he said. In a class he recently taught on the sociology of the body, he elected to use more private journals than public blogs, though he did require some blogging assignments.

“It’s to our benefit as teachers and instructors to try and maximize the type of reflection and the quality of reflection that students are engaging in,” Mr. Foster said. A lot of that is related to which kinds of risks students take in their writing.

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