Harvey uses blogs to reach students, increase class participation

February 17, 2011
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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional features provided by the UCCS Teaching and Learning Center to encourage faculty to share ideas about teaching strategies that engage students and enhance learning. Faculty members are encouraged to share their ideas by contacting the TLC at 255-4872 or tlc@uccs.edu. Free coffee vouchers are available to get the discussion started.

Q – What is your name and department and how many years have you taught at UCCS?

A – Paul Harvey, Department of History, at UCCS for 15 years and counting.

Q – What is your teaching philosophy?

A – Based on teaching in such different environments, I have increasingly thought of teaching in terms of my first musical love: jazz.

Improvisation on a theme seems to me the most important ability to cultivate as a teacher of history, where interpretation rather than factual black/white answers is the rule. My teaching philosophy borrows from, even mimics, the solo-and-group dynamic that characterizes the jazz ensemble. Obviously, this method involves risks. It places a considerable burden – or, as I prefer to look at it, opportunity – on the students to carry their weight. It also compels me to remain attuned to the moment, and militates against going into teaching “default mode” or relying on a standard set of notes that can be repeated back endlessly to one class after another.

Thus, my classroom is neither “teacher-centered,” nor is it “student-centered.” I find both models lacking – the first for its antiquated “sage on the stage” motif, the second because it gives students authority over matters where they should not have authority.

Instead, I focus on a theme-and-improvisation model, that allows for the discipline and intellectual rigor of a theme while also encouraging soloing and improvisation. I find this model best fits the notion of learning as an active and dynamic process, that occurs for different students on varying levels. I have also found it works to make students feel they have a voice and that their participation is valued and drawn upon in course preparation, even while assuring them that discipline and intellectual rigor have not been sacrificed.

Q – What gave you the idea to integrate blogs into your course?

A – I’m always looking to experiment with new techniques and tools, and blogs were just that about five years ago.

Q – What is a blog?

A – A blog — originally called web logs — are an easy means to post thoughts, ideas, pictures, and essays in an easily accessible public format.

Q – How did you integrate blogging into a history course?

A – I created a simple blog for the course and posted ideas and questions there. I then asked students to respond to the questions with short essays, or even just one paragraph, and then posted those responses as an ongoing record of the dialogue in the course.

The journals/blogs were meant to be informal, designed to elicit thoughts and comments for class discussion. Each student was asked to make one journal or blog entry a week, kept electronically. Students turned in their journals or blogs about once every three weeks. The journal or blog entries consisted of questions, comments, plaudits of or grievances towards the author, arguments for or against the points made in the reading, and/or suggestions for further reading and thinking.

Q – How did the students respond?

A – Very enthusiastically. I was fortunate to have a few students already proficient in blogging, and once they took the lead, students followed,

Q – How did you evaluate student participation and performance?

A – Very much as I do in other courses with normal reader response exercises. Students who took the exercises seriously and wrote substantive journals and blog entries received the highest marks; those who didn’t perform the assignments, or who wrote perfunctory responses, were given lower marks.

Q – Would you use blogging in courses again?

A – Yes, very much depending on the course. The exercise worked in part because it was perfectly suited to the particular course I was teaching, and to the level of students in that course. I think for a freshman survey type course, it would not work so well.

Q – Would you recommend the use of blogs as a teaching tool to your colleagues? How?

A – Yes. But like any teaching exercise, it takes a lot of time and patience, and getting students to buy into the exercise takes much effort and coaxing on your part.

Harvey also runs a blog specifically devoted to American religious history. It can be viewed at http://usreligion.blogspot.com/

One Response to Harvey uses blogs to reach students, increase class participation

  1. Sherry Morreale
    February 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    This approach to sharing teaching ideas is great; and the first offering by Paul Harvey is particularly appealing.
    Thanks to all!

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