Using Blogs for Peer Feedback in a Creative Writing Course – An Exploratory Study

Assessment, Creative Writing, E-Learning

Author

Jess Moriarty and Vy Rajapillai
University of Brighton

Summary

This case study describes and analyses the use of blogs as a method of peer feedback on an undergraduate module in Creative Writing. As well as a description of the use of blogs at the University of Brighton (within the Blackboard virtual learning environment (VLE), the case study includes a brief assessment of the literature on blogging and the results of an informal survey of student opinions on this innovative pedagogical technique.

Background

Creative writing courses have surged in popularity over the last ten years. At the University of Brighton, the Creative Writing module, initially trialled as a module on the undergraduate programme in the School of Language, Literature and Communication in 2004/2005, has now grown from one to four modules. As Creative Writing expands as a university subject, it is important to continue to develop new pedagogical techniques.

Creative writing seeks to build students’ confidence and techniques through the process of writing, enhancing their creative skills and enabling them to give and receive feedback from both the tutor and their peers.  These skills can help personal, vocational and academic development. Activities such as discussing ways to break writer’s block, exploring genres and styles of writing and working collaboratively in a community of writers have meant that most students on our module have seen an improvement in their written work and an increase in their passion and motivation for writing. By engaging them in a community of writers, the feedback process gives students the opportunity to reflect on their pieces. Using peer and tutor comments to aid reflection and development is integral to the evolution of the students as writers, learners and communicators. In order to nurture the feedback process, a safe learning environment is essential. Unfortunately, even the use of a wide range of supportive strategies—the setting of ground rules; the provision of lecture notes on how to give and receive feedback; the tutor’s giving of constructive criticism that only critiques the writing and avoids personal comment—have not been enough to persuade some students that the feedback process is necessary and beneficial.

Constructivists have argued that interaction between peers and between students and teachers involving such things as debate, questioning, negotiation and discussion lead to deeper understanding of the problems at hand (Bruner 1986). Furthermore, it is argued, these discussions trigger interest and urge those involved to extend them further into other issues and problems. In other words, teaching should not simply impart information but, rather, stimulate and invite learners to find out more. According to Bruner (1986) ‘most learning in most settings is a communal activity, a sharing of the culture’ (p.127). One of the ways in which interaction and discussion could be encouraged in an online learning environment is through feedback.

Most studies on online feedback have centred on the role of feedback in student engagement and continuation in distance learning courses (Notar et al 2002; Corgan et al 2004; Ertmer et al 2007). Traditionally the mechanisms used for online feedback have been discussion boards, emails and other facilities built into VLEs such as Blackboard. However, lately this software has increasingly incorporated blogs as another communication dimension. Blogs are a development from personal websites which are ‘frequently updated websites where content (texts, pictures, sound files, etc.) is posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order’ (Schmidt 2007: para 2). One of the characteristics of blogs is that they contain the personal thoughts, ideas and views of the writer. This personal aspect of blogs seems to lend itself well to peer feedback on creative writing courses. It also helps the students to develop a community of writers that can support their development and skills. Recent studies have investigated the phenomenon of blogging (Pedersen and Macafee  2007; Qian and Scott 2007) and the potential and limitations of blogging as a learning tool for writing (Fouberg 2000) political campaigning, (Lawson-Borders and Kirk 2005) and teaching and learning (Dron 2003; Deitering and Huston 2004; Oravec  2003). Dron (2003) argues that the ease of blogging has created an online environment ‘where the students themselves provide much of the teaching’ (p.2). Furthermore it is argued that blogging will not only encourage reflection about the learning process but that when students are encouraged to reflect using relevant literature it can encourage them to create theoretical content for their learning. The students are encouraged to identify, upload and discuss relevant literature and theory with regard to their computing task. Here the blogs are seen as a space that encourages student centred learning and the teacher is seen as facilitator. Deitering and Huston (2004) argue that blogs are ‘middle space’ for learning where students can have a sense of ownership, enabling reflection and creativity. They also point out that the social aspect of blogs provides opportunities ‘to get response and feedback from other students’. The ideas of reflection, creativity and feedback are vital for students engaged in creative writing and blogs seem to provide an environment encapsulating all of these aspects.

Activities and Practice

After a year of teaching the creative writing module I, the tutor on the module, was frustrated by feedback that said a student had enjoyed the course, hated the feedback process but realised in hindsight that they would have gained more from the course if they had engaged in the process more willingly. Students who did take risks and brought their writing to class to be workshopped consistently noticed the most dramatic improvement in their written skill and also in their confidence.  Whatever I tried in class, the feedback process remained the biggest obstacle in helping the students to improve and feel a sense of achievement in their writing ability.

In July 2005 I sought the advice of an IT specialist in the Information Services department at the university. Was there any way I could utilize the University’s VLE in order to develop the feedback process?  I had heard about blogs and wikis but had dismissed them as having no relevance to my course; I thought paper and a pen were all the resources I needed.

The University of Brighton has been running its VLE on Blackboard. The students who are registered into various graduate programmes are registered to use the VLE. This environment has information spaces to upload lecture notes and any audiovisual material that forms part of the course. However, the control over any information resides with the teacher. So if the students have created an audio or video file as part of the lecture the lecturer has to upload it. The communication space, which has tools such as email and discussion forums as well as a blogging facility, can be used by students as well as the tutors.

The decision to use blogs in the feedback and writing process was influenced by the IT department at the university who believed that the explosion of on-line social networking such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook meant that the students would feel comfortable about using a blogging system to post their thoughts and creative pieces.  The university’s VLE had a blogging facility that in 2005 had not yet been used by teaching staff to enhance learning. The creative writing module was identified as a suitable forum to trial the notion of allowing students to work as part of an on-line community to share ideas and feedback and to facilitate individual reflection on their writing.  Because the students were already accustomed to the university’s VLE, it seemed like a suitable environment in which to introduce them to a new learning concept.

In week three of the semester I led a workshop showing the students how the blog worked, how to make posts and add comments and giving examples of the kind of comments that would be appropriate and constructive.  Because I would also be posting comments in my role as tutor, I could monitor the blog and observe the students’ work, feedback and reflections.

Participants in this study, 24 second year students and 34 first years, were enrolled on the course and introduced to the blog in the third week of a twelve week course.  Students met twice a week in the classroom and were asked to post their writing, 500 words of prose or two to three poems, on a weekly basis or when they felt they were in need of peer or tutor feedback.  I suggested that they post their writing and give feedback to their peers every week and ran a short session on how to give constructive comments without being personally critical.  I also asked that if any student was offended by any comments that were posted that they speak to me privately and immediately but as of yet, I have not been approached.  I decided not to give any other ground rules about when to give feedback and about how much feedback to give as I wanted the students to feel that it was their space and that they owned it rather than that they were forced into the task by me. Because the posts were not assessed, the students were under no obligation to post and so my main concern was whether or not the blog would be used at all. The uptake, however, has been surprising: this year 97% of the first year students used the blog to post their work and give and receive comments and 91% of the second years. Anecdotally, grades were also higher this year than previously (although I have no way of linking this to the blog at present).

blogs_feedback_1

At the start of the module, each student was asked to sign a consent form that gave me permission to use their comments in any research I carried out in relation to the blogs. We used short email questionnaires (Witmer et al. 1999) and content analysis of the blog postings as tools to gather data about student responses.

Out of the 58 students who participated, 27 returned an end-of-course feedback form delivered via email. The respondents were a mixture of first- and second-year students. Since both groups were enrolled in the creative writing course for the first time and this was the first time that both groups had used blogs for creative writing and feedback, the fact that the second-year students were already familiar with the VLE was not seen as relevant.

When asked to respond to the statement that ‘The blog helped my ability to give and receive feedback’, the responses were as follows:

blog_survey1

Out of the 27 respondents, 21 agreed that the blogging environment helped to develop their ability to give and receive feedback.

The students were also asked to respond to the statement that ‘The blog facility helped me to develop my writing’. Results were as follows:

blog_survey2

Again, it is clear that the majority of the respondents (24 out of 27) felt that blogs had helped with the development of their writing.

As discussed by a number of studies (Fouberg 2000; Dron 2003) blogging seems to give students an opportunity to reflect on the activity at hand, while providing a social environment for discussion leading to a deeper understanding of the problem at hand (Bruner 1986). Deeper understanding in this context entails not just presenting a well-written creative piece but also being able to assess and evaluate peers’ writing to suggest modifications. Following are examples of some of the feedback given to by students on the writings that were posted on the blog:

‘This is really good… your description is really realistic and vivid, and as i hate the dentist – it actually made me feel sick! Must be good to give me that reaction! I know what you mean about the third paragraph, but i think it would work whether you scrapped it or not.’ (Student 1)

I love this, the short sentences really work. The only bit I thought maybe you could change was the bit about the hands in the pockets? maybe instead of ‘You stuck your hands in your pockets. You wore loose jeans; I was always surprised your hands reached your pockets’ it could be “You wore loose jeans. You stuck your hands in your pockets; i was always surprised they reached.” Other than that its great! (Student 2)

Yeahi think you’re both right, it’s better without the ‘that’! thank you x  (Student 3)

I love it! The language you use works really well with the image i think your trying to protray. fabulous! X (Student 4)

(All quotes are directly from the blog and include spelling and grammatical mistakes.)

blogs_feedback_2

blogs_feedback_3

The above interaction seems to indicate that the students modified and developed their writing in light of the feedback they received, leading to stronger pieces of work. The quality and timeliness of the feedback (Ertmer, Richardson, Belland, B. et al. 2007) has been an important aspect to the students’ response to it. Detailed feedback with positive suggestions led to writers rewriting or modifying their work. Blog entries also highlighted the fact that the students were engaging with the content critically (McConnell 2006).

Language use in the blog entries shows that students have embraced the environment and started to ‘own’ it (Deitering and Huston 2004). The feedback style and language is not ‘academic’ but ‘netspeak’ (Crystal 2001): abbreviations and dropped apostrophes show that the students saw the environment as their ‘own’ space and were comfortable enough to use it to exchange and discuss ideas.

Because the students knew each other and were forming peer groups outside and inside the classroom, there was still a tendency to say ‘I liked it’ rather than giving meaningful constructive advice. Comments did, however, vary from just being supportive and ‘nice’ to being genuinely helpful suggestions for moving the work forward. The process also gave me, the tutor, an opportunity to give more in-depth feedback than I was able to in the classroom where it was possible only to allocate approximately ten minutes to each piece of work. This helped the students to feel more valued and also meant that I developed a deeper understanding of their writing. This in turn helped me to make suggestions that the students were able to use in order to produce work of an increasingly better standard.  Superficially, it seemed that the blog had made a positive and significant impact on both the group process and the students’ writing.

Conclusion

Blogs seem to provide a positive space for students engaged in creative writing to develop their work and engage in peer feedback. Initial results show that, as has not been the case in some other studies (Dron 2003) the technology seems to have been quite easy to use and that students have adopted it with no problems as a means of giving and receiving peer feedback. There is scope for future research investigating the potential and limitations of blogging–both for the process of feedback more generally and for creative writing in particular.

This preliminary study was carried out to evaluate the students’ response to the use of the blog on their writing and feedback skills.  Until now, the students have only been able to opt for the creative writing module once during their three year degree programme and so it has been impossible to monitor their progression and development as writers over a longer period of time.  In 2007/2008 however they will be able to elect to take the course again. The blogs will be researched further, using focus group interviews to produce more detailed responses and more in-depth student reflection.

Students’ positive response to this exploratory study suggests that in future, this model could be rolled out to other creative writing courses and other disciplines, encouraging an online collaborative learning process supplemented by seminars and workshops.

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