Using student created blogs as a progressive formative assessment in an online STEM course

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The utility of writing assignments to enhance learning biology is well documented (e.g. Mynlieff et al., 2014; Couch et al., 2015). Such assignments can provide the basis for assessing higher-order and critical-thinking skills (Kelly et al, n.d.). Furthermore, when students are able to react to instructors’ feedback by re-drafting or adjusting their written work, exam performance and writing skills are enhanced (Freestone, 2009) Web logs (blogs) can provide a useful format for students to submit a series of responses in an assignment that is tracked and commented upon over time (Sandefur, 2014).

Professor Kris Kimball and Professor Donnasue Graessser developed a “Design Your Animal” (DYA) blog assignment as a progressive formative assessment in an online animal Physiology course at the University of Connecticut. In the DYA blog activity, students are given a scenario in which they are a scientific explorer who has discovered a unique animal that has never been described before. The advantage of blogging is that students are able to progressively integrate newly learned information in constructing an overall physiological model with reference to previous posts. In their first blog post, students choose characteristics for their fictitious animal and its environment including taxonomic class, size, habitat, and climate. Throughout the semester, students apply the information they learn about each physiologic system to the animal they created, using specific guiding questions aligned with the learning objectives for that unit. All blog posts must build on previous posts, not conflict with previous information, and utilize physiological feasible concepts. For example, after the students describe the circulatory and respiratory adaptations of their animal, the animal must retain those specific adaptations when describing acid-base balance or thermoregulation. Students integrate new concepts learned in each unit to their existing physiologic framework for their animal.

Our course is organized into learning units for each organ system (e.g., digestive, cardiovascular, etc.), following an introductory unit that covers the organizing principles of physiology (homeostasis, control systems, etc.) Students post to the blog several times during the semester, addressing the specific questions asked for each learning unit. The blogging strategy serves as a progressive, formative assessment throughout the semester, with consistent, meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners to help them to improve their scientific writing and skills, and develop an integrative approach to animal physiology. Use of the blog format meets the usefulness of progressive formative assessment, in that it is not a set of singular events, but as a process that is organized and integrative over time (Konopasek, Norcini, & Krupat, 2016). Instructors provide timely feedback on each blog post also so that any misconceptions can be corrected as the students continue to design their animal.

The blogging activity is based on the principals of Scientific Teaching (Couch et al., 2015) and the supported by the report on Vision and Change for Undergraduate Biology Education by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, 2011). This report advocates for an approach in which we teach students to think like scientists, rather than to simply “learn biology.” There is evidence that improving metacognition is linked with improved overall academic performance (Kuhn and Pearsall, 1998). Through writing the blogs, as well as consistent, timely, meaningful feedback, students develop metacognitive strategies: awareness and development of their learning and thinking processes. Because of the progressive nature of the blogs, the opportunity for metacognition is not isolated to a single assignment, but develops throughout the entirety of the course. The sequential nature of the blog posts allows for ongoing reflection and improvement.

Dr. Graesser is expanding the “Design Your Animal” blog to a “Describe your Microbe” in a Microbiology and Pathology course offered to nursing students. In this iteration of the blog strategy, students will experimentally determine and describe the basic physical, biochemical, and antimicrobial susceptibility of an unknown microbe, and relate these traits to microbial physiology and pathogenicity, as well as treatment of infection by this microbe. Emphasis will be placed on applying these traits to functionality of the microbe in both a clinical and environmental setting. The goal of this blogging activity in both courses is to develop a clear understanding of an organism as a whole, rather than isolated systems (in the physiology course) or isolated characteristics of the microbe (in the microbiology course).

Link to example artifact(s)

We utilize the blog function in BlackBoardTM to track a semester-long assignment, worth 10% of the final grade, in our online Animal Physiology course that runs during summer session at the University of Connecticut. General directions for the blog assignment as they appear in the course syllabus follow:

Design Your Animal” Blog (100 points)

Each student will design a type of animal and choose an environment/climate in which that animal lives. Four times during the semester, you will post to your DYA blog on HuskyCT (UCONN’s BlackBoard LMS.) Your post will describe general physiology and adaptations that your animal might make based on the information you learned in the preceding units. Your blog posts will be guided by questions asked during each unit.

We are including:

  1. An expanded description of the PNB 2250 Blog Assignment, which includes the specific instructions for three of the ten Blog assignments: File:PNB 2250 Blog Assignment.pdf
  2. Screenshots showing the organization of the Blog page: File:BlogPage.pdf
  3. An example of one student’s submissions to the three highlighted questions File:Example IP student responses and misconception.pdf

Link to scholarly reference(s)

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2013). Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.

Couch, B.A., Brown, T.L., Schelpat, T.J., Graham, M.J. & Knight, J.K. (2015). Scientific Teaching: Defining a Taxonomy of Observable Practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education 14: 1-12.

Freestone, N. (2009). Drafting and acting on feedback supports student learning when writing essay assignments. Advances in Physiology Education 33(2): 98-102.

Kelly, R. et al (n.d.) Assessing Online Learning: Strategies, Challenges and Opportunities. Faculty Focus Special Report. Magna Publications, Inc. Retrieved from

Konopasek, L., Norcini, J., & Krupat, E. (2016) Focusing on the Formative: Building an Assessment System Aimed at Student Growth and Development. Acad Med (in press).

Kuhn, D. & Pearsall, S. (1998). Relations between metastrategic knowledge and strategic performance. Cogn Dev. 13: 227-247.

Mynlieff, M., Manogaran, A.L., St. Maurice, M., & Eddinger, T.J. (2014). Writing Assignments with a Metacognitive Component Enhance Learning in a Large Introductory Biology Course. CBE – Life Sciences Education 13: 311 – 321.

Sandefur, C. (2014, Oct. 22). Young Investigator Perspectives. Blogging for electronic record keeping and collaborative research. Am. J. Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 307: G1145-1146.

Tanner, K. (2012). Promoting Student Metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education 11: 113-120.


Kristen H. Kimball and Donnasue Graesser (2016). Using student created blogs as a progressive formative assessment in an online stem course. In Chen, B., deNoyelles, A., & Thompson, K. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved September 25, 2017 from

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