Learning by blogging – Thoughts from my Teaching Practice

While I normally write about space and buildings and how they are used, I want to blog about blogging today. More specifically on getting students to blog. There is a lot of interest in academic blogging, so it’s time we think about starting the next generation of academics – our students – early and get them to write blogs, right?

I have already reported from one experiment I run with my students every year, where I ask them to guess the use type of a building (hospital, school, office, museum, etc) – which lends itself to interesting reflections on buildings and typologies. But today I want to report on how I get my students to write their own blogs as part of their learning experience. I’ve been doing this for a numbers of years now, but there is a growing interest from colleagues and others to learn more about how this works, so I thought it’s time to share my experiences. I’ve also just won the UCL Provost Teaching Award 2015 “in recognition of an outstanding contribution to teaching and learning at UCL” (which I’m very proud of), so that’s one more reason to share this more widely.

Let me introduce some background first: for those who don’t know, I am Lecturer in Complex Buildings at the Space Syntax Laboratory, Bartlett School of Architecture and I lead the module ‘Buildings Organisations Networks’ (BON) in the MSc Spatial Design: Architecture and Cities (SDAC). The SDAC attracts postgraduate students from a variety of countries, backgrounds and disciplines each year, most of which have a first degree in architecture or planning and have worked in practice for a few years. The majority of the class comes from abroad with a high percentage of overseas students. The module BON focuses on the relationship between architectural morphology, organisations and social networks in complex buildings such as hospitals, schools, offices and laboratories. An important component of the module is a programme of London-based site visits which provide students with a range of examples to encourage them to reflect on the theoretical arguments and themes presented in the 10 week lecture series and apply them to real-world examples. Students of the SDAC can expect to develop an in-depth theoretical and practical knowledge of the built environment and its functions and acquire a high level of skill in research and analysis. For most students this presents a considerable challenge of being re-socialised into a new way of thinking and identifying with a new role as researchers. Many of our students will not have read intensively in their previous studies and writing is not one of the main skill sets for architects either, yet both are required for a successful completion of our course. Critical thinking and being able to express this in written form is indeed a crucial skill for all students in evaluating ideas, applying concepts to real-life situations and solving problems. However, as a so called deep approach to learning it is inherently difficult to teach.

In order to address this learning challenge and assist the students in developing their critical expression, I have devised an innovative assignment system for my module BON using short weekly writing exercises in a blog format that helps them to test their writing in a trial and error mode, allowing them to learn and progress week by week.

In detail, the module works as follows:

  • Firstly, in a series of weekly lectures I introduce the students to theories, literature and empirical studies based on my own research.
  • Secondly, we visit a selected building in London each week with the aim to observe space usage and discuss spatial configuration and behaviours of people in the buildings.
  • Thirdly, the students are asked to setup a blog and write an entry (up to 500 words) each week reflecting on the site visit.
  • After writing their own blog, the students read each other’s contributions and vote for their favourite blog post anonymously online
  • In the following lecture, I praise the best three blogs and ask students what they liked best, so that everyone can understand what a successful contribution looks like. As the course progresses, I gently highlight ways for improving
  • Midway through the term I offer a quick 15 minute 1-1 tutorial to each student, where we discuss their own writing and address any challenges and possible ways forward.
  • For the final assessment, the students are asked to choose their three best contributions for inclusion in a 2,000 word ‘Reflective Report’ and identify ideas for improvement. I then give comprehensive formative feedback in written form. The final report is marked against the criteria in the assignment and students receive summative feedback.

Visiting a building every week is a clear highlight for the students. Using London as our laboratory, we visit inspiring buildings, among them the British Library, the British Museum, the Royal Courts of Justice, but also more contemporary buildings such as the UCL Cancer Institute (by Nicolas Grimshaw), Kings Place (by Dixon and Jones) or the offices of renowned architects Foster and Partners, Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners, or Zaha Hadid Architects.

The student experience is thus characterised by the excitement of being able to see behind the scenes of buildings they might normally not have access to. Seeing buildings in use gives students an original insight and sets the scene for them to become explorers and researchers, enquiring into real-world phenomena themselves and first hand.

While on site, I work with a ‘Thinking Aloud’ technique, so I ask easy questions such as ‘What do you see?’ to initiate an open discussion and encourage students to offer their views and think aloud. When the discussion ebbs, I comment myself and also make links to the theories covered in the lectures to create a shared context for understanding. We also use systematic observation techniques to guide their enquiry, for instance we choose a particularly busy corridor in Westfield Shopping Mall and I ask them to count the numbers of visitors passing by within two minutes and to note how many of them carry shopping bags (answer: not many!). This then allows me to refer back to the construction of shopping malls as a social space in addition to its function as an economic space. The students thus experience the first steps of engaging in research, i.e. making sense of a building in use and formulating research hypotheses.

Westfield Shopping Mall as a social space - picture taken by Tania Oramas Dorta during a course site visit

Westfield Shopping Mall as a social space – picture taken by Tania Oramas Dorta during a course site visit

How the blogging output looks like can be seen in this very nice example of a student blog. Another example is the blog Understanding Space, which started as course work, but has been developed and updated ever since.

In the same way that blogging is recommended for academics to share ideas more widely, reach a new readership and create an outlet to develop their thinking, this can work in a teaching environment too, where students develop their thinking and find their voice. It’s the old ‘learning by doing’, or in this case you could say ‘learning by blogging’. And in the words of the students:

“The weekly blogging exercise forces you to quickly assimilate the knowledge and apply it”

“The site visits were great and especially listening to what the other students thought of the sites, and how they could connect it both to past practice as architects or planners, but also their way of seeing the connection between theory and the site we visited.”

 

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More information on the approach can be found in my presentation for a UCL Arena seminar, which is now on slideshare. And of course you can always leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter or email if you’re curious to know more.

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