Using the Web to help Students Develop Paper Topics

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

I have said here before that I think most of what professors want to accomplish online for their classes is easily done by a blog. That’s it no WebCT or Blackboard needed. A blog can handle making a syllabus accessible, updating assignments, providing links to outside information, and with a little creative effort, a good place to have students write. (More on that in a minute.) I was having a conversation with another grad. student/instructor, who is not particularly familiar with technology. She wanted to be able to do several things for her class online, had used WebCT a bit, didn’t like, and asked what I thought. “Use a blog I responded, easy.” Her reaction was surprise, aren’t blogs just online journals, informal writing, a passing fancy. Maybe in some respects I explained, but for teachers they are a simple, low entry level technology for using the internet.

I am not going to get into all of that here, although I do think that I will do a much longer how-to, meta-explanation variety later. But for now I am going to point out one great use for a blog, and show how it is done.

Using a Blog to Get Student to Generate Paper Topics

One of the things I try to get students to do in their writing over the course of a semester is learn to develop their own writing topics. I find most of them have had a high school experience where they have been told exactly what to write, five paragraph format, plug and play. Few students seem able to develop a good paper topic. What I do in my classes (especially lower level undergrad) is start with very specific topics that model for them what a narrow topic should be, and then proceed to have them develop their own. Necessarily though the developing of ones own topic is a discursive process, with a great deal of back and forth and refinement. Here is where a blog can prove to be really useful. (Note: this can be done with discussion boards, or Blackboard tools, but why bother this one is easier and looks better.)

The Assignment

The idea here is to get students to post their topics online and have other students comment on them. The reason this works is that students then get to see all of the other suggestions, in fact can use them to spur their own ideas. I found that what this can actually do is create both diversity and clusters of papers. Students will often start to see how what they are saying connects to what others are developing, while also not getting 25 students to write the exact same topic. The other trick is to get each student to comment thoughtfully on the others post, so they not only have to think about their topic, but think about what makes others a good topic, or a topic that need focusing or revision. Plus then each has their own thoughts as well as the suggestions of at least two others.

Look at the students post below, where the cursor is pointed is the initial post, and the subsequent one is the students comment.


Notice how the respondent picks up on how the initial topic needs to be narrowed and also possible implications. Now certainly this is not an ideal topic yet, but it is improving, the initial responder and respondent have expanded their thinking, this sans teacher comment. If it were me I might go thru and add to comments, or more likely email them directly so as not to dominate the discursive space. It strikes me that this works for so many reasons.

  • Student are more and more used to expressing themselves in this type of Web discursive space, this feels more comfortable then saying them aloud in class and subjecting them to face to face scrutiny.
  • Sharing their ideas publicly, I think, gets them to polish them a little more than if they were just handing them in to you as the instructor. They want to measure up in the eyes of the other students.
  • This requires a back and forth dialogue, talk-respond, rather than the everyone waiting for their turn to say their topic. Contrary to the classroom space the web actually allows you to slow down the time of discourse, which is a bit counter-intuitive given that one of the features of the web is speed, but . . .

The Technical Stuff

This is actually really easy to do, only need two steps

First, you need to install threaded comments to your blog. This is the “key” technical adaptation as it allows students to comment to others comments. You could let everyone have a separate post with comments, but I think it works better to have all the topics in one place so that students seem them as connected part of a discourse. Second, you want students to be able to comment to a comment. Look at the picture above again. The initial post was written, and then the respondent added their comment four days later, but directly below. Usually comments get added in order which they are posted, but “threaded comments” allows you to comment to a comment, not just comment to a post, effectively adding your comment directly to the place it is relevant. So in this example the students posted their papers on “2-24″ (there are 25 other papers also posted), and then over the next four days others log in and decide who they want to comment to.

To install threaded comments for WordPress go here and downlaod the plugin. Open the file it has instructions on how to install, but basically you need to copy the two files into your WordPress account. If you are hosting your own, you can do this. If however you are using or edublogs, you are not allowed to install your own plugins. But, if you email edublogs I am sure they can install it for you, as this seems like an very useful plugin for academics. Login into wordpress and activate the plugin.

Second, set up your topic and post it. Here is the language from the above mentioned post, use as a guideline if you so desire.

To post your paper topic, click on “Comments” below. Then paste or write your paper topic proposal into the form at the bottom of the page. You’ll have to enter your name and an email address to do so. Use your real name so that I can keep track of the assignment, please!
To comment on another student’s proposal (due Wednesday 2/28 before class), click “Comments” below. Then choose the proposal about which you have the most interesting and productive things to say (questions, suggestions, counter-theses are all welcome) and click “Reply to this comment.” Enter your comment. You may enter more than one comment, but please be sure that you respond to an uncommented proposal before responding to a commented one, so that everyone receives feedback.An example containing both parts of the assignment has been provided. Hard copies of revised paper topic proposals are due in class on Friday, 3/2.

Questions? Leave in the comment section, and I’ll try to help out.