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Honors 185: Why is biology complex?

Probing the Use of Blogs to Promote Student Ownership

Kendra Oliver, Pharmacology, working with
John Wikswo, Professor of Physics


Blended or hybrid learning is a teaching approach where some course elements—e.g., content delivery or discussions—occur online and complement face-to-face classroom interactions. Blogs are an online tool that have the potential to increase contemplation, community, and collaboration with a class thrschooliesough an intimate online framework. We hypothesized that blogs also have the potential to promote students’ ownership of course content. Here we piloted an approach to probe the use of blogs to promote student ownership. We tested this approach in two classes: one in which a student blog was used to guide class discussion and one in which two interventions known to increase student engagement with blogs were added: instructor monitoring of blog posts and incorporating blog participation into students’ final grades.

We found that after the intervention, the average amount of student responses per blog assignment over the course of the semester was higher. We then gave a project ownership survey to the 2015 group, and found that the students self-reported relatively high emotional connection to the course. From this perspective, we then assessed the amount of emotionally charged language within 2013 and 2015 blog posts and final project writing samples using the LIWC 2015 dictionary. We found a significant increase in affect and both positive and negative emotional language in the 2015 blog. Additionally we found that the final reports for 2015 showed overall increased in negative emotionally categorized words.

We further analyzed the individual words (categorized as both positive and negative) that were used and found that in the final reports, the individual words “benefit*, interest*, low*, problem*, and strain*” were used more frequently in 2015 as compared to 2013. Exploring examples of word use suggests that “strain*” may be a subject-specific word choice, but that the remaining words denote the student connection and internalization of course material. Thus our preliminary results support the hypothesis that blogs increase the emotional connection of the student to the subject matter, and therefore promote an aspect of student ownership. This workflow design could be used to assess more fully student ownership to optimize classroom blog utility.


Student ownership is the level of investment a learner has in learning, teaching and leadership throughout the education system. Building student ownership significantly factors into education and a successful educational experience. Ownership specifically refers to the amount of investment learners make in topics they are learning and the methods by which they acquire the knowledge. Here we tested a workflow for the assessment of student ownership following the use of a blog. We ask the question whether the use of a blog within an honors levels science course can promote student ownership.

Specifically, a blog was used to enhance a course (HONORS 185: Why is biology complex?) during two different years (2013 and 2015). In 2013, the course was used to guide in class discussion but in 2015 two additional motivators were added: 1) a small (5%) the students final grade was based on blog participation and 2) a TA monitored the blog during the semester.

chart1The Project Ownership Survey (POS) measures differences in scientific inquiry experiences:

  • Ownership in education has been related to student’s choices, engagement, emotional involvement, and personal connectivity. Ownership as a concept integrates personal responsibility with commitment to and identification with the work conducted in the educational setting. As such, measuring project ownership offers the potential to capture a particular orientation towards work conducted within the sciences.
  • Hanauer and colleagues (2012) specifically defined the constructs of project ownership and their relationship to educational experiences and developed of the POS.


Blog. For this particular class we used Blogger, a free, easy-to-use blog development program that allowed students to access and contribute to the blog. The TA or the instructor posted blog prompts prior to the start of class and students were asked to write a post using the format of a one-minute paper. This consisted of students discussing their previous knowledge, what they learned from the reading, what additional questions they had, and other interesting discussion points. Students were encouraged to respond to each other’s questions and try to come up with the answers as a group.

Student ownership survey design. The student ownership survey was designed based on the work of Dolan et al., and was used to determine student project ownership at the end of a research experience. We adapted the Dolan et al., survey to gauge student ownership at the end of the 2015 course.

Computational content analysis. Computational analysis was performed using the Linguistic Inquiry and Work Count software (LIWC) 2015 dictionary. Key term categories that denote emotional connection are shown. Data are shown as a percentage of total words.



Demographics of students in the course from the 2013 and 2015 course semesters. In both years there were students in a wide variety of  majors taking the course. Additionally, the distribution between undergraduate levels was relatively similar between the 2013 and 2015 year. However, there was a significant change in the distribution between men and women in 2013 as compared to 2015 (p < 0.05, Fisher’s exact test).chart3


On average student blog posts increased from 2013 to 2015. Shown is a graph of the average number of student responses per blog assignment over the course of a semester. In 2013, there were a total of 13 blog posts and students posted, on average, 0.78 times/assignment over the course of a semester. In 2015, students posted more frequently (p < 0.05, Mann-Whitney test, SEM). There was a total of 15 blog assignment and students posted on average 1.14 times/assignment. This finding may suggest that an intervention consisting of incorporating blog participation in the final grade (5% of total grade) and student knowledge that the TA was monitoring the blog could be mediating the increased blog participation. chart2

Project Ownership Survey of 2015 students suggests considerable emotional connection to course content. In order to determine if students’ self-reported elements of ownership tracks blog usage, we administered a survey to the students taking the 2015 course. These students self-reported moderate project ownership (scores are shown opposite question number) and a moderate-to-strong emotional connection to course content. Self-reported emotional connection was not correlated with the degree of blog use (Pearson r correlation test P=0.5922).chart5chart4









Correlation between increased use of affective language with increased blog usage. There was a significant increase in the amount of affective, positive emotional, and negative emotional language in blog posts from 2015 compared to 2013 (Mann-Whitney, P values shown). We also examined final reports to test if this increase persisted in the final writing samples. We found that there was an increase in negative emotional language in the final reports (Mann-Whitney, P values shown).



Keys words that are used more frequently with increased blog use. In order to understand the type of emotionally categorized words that were correlated with increased blog use, we counted the number of times that words categorized as either positive or negative words were used within the students’ final reports. Within the positive emotional word category, the words “benefit” (*including other verb forms) and “interest” were used more in 2015 as compared to 2013 (Two-way ANOVA, non-repeated measures, Sidak’s multiple comparisons test- multiplicity adjust P values shown). Within the negative emotional word category, the words “low,” “problem,” and “strain” were used for frequently (Two-way ANOVA, non-repeated measures, Sidak’s multiple comparisons test- multiplicity adjusted P values shown). Examples of the ways in which these words are used are shown below.


Content analysis examples

“Although extremely interesting, because of the wide breadth of information indicated at here, the focus on how the gut affects the brain will be on the administration of probiotics to patients with low levels of serotonin.”

“Thus, perhaps, researchers posit, the administration of probiotics to a patient with low levels of serotonin may be able to boost serotonin levels and alleviate depression.”

“The financial benefits for the agricultural industry are inadvertently leading to antimicrobial resistance in humans.”

“Although this is not a specific example of antibiotic use, it is nonetheless exciting because it demonstrates that non-antibiotic manipulation of the microbiome is possible and beneficial.”

“In May of 2010, Dr. Wakefield and some of his associates were banned from practicing medicine in England due to ethical problems with their research (Burns).”

“Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is such a problem that the WHO believes that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine…”

“Although resistance to colistin has emerged before, the transfer rate of this particular strain of colistin is much higher and, therefore, much more concerning.”

Preliminary analysis of emotional content bias based on gender and undergraduate level. To test alternative hypotheses for the increased emotional language in the blog, we also separated samples based on either gender or year in undergraduate education. We analyzed all samples, regardless of blog group, based on gender for the amount of affect, positive emotion and negative emotion in final reports using the LIWC computational linguistic software. When analyzing use of affect and negative language there was no difference based on gender. However, there was a significant increase in the positive emotional language used by males (Mann-Whitney, P values shown). There was no observed difference in affective, positive, or negative emotional language based on separation of year in undergraduate education (Kruskal-Wallis).



We have designed an approach for the assessment of blogs to promote student ownership. Specifically, we propose that computational content analysis of student work can be used to test emotional connection to course content. This approach can be used in future studies to assess how specific interventions alter student ownership. Our preliminary findings indicate that discussing blogs in class, incorporation in to final grade, and TA monitoring within a course context may promote student’s ownership, particularly emotional connection. Future studies are needed to explore the sex-based effects of blog-use on student ownership and emotional language use.


Kendra H Oliver, Danielle Picard, John Wikswo, Cynthia Brame. (April 2016). “Probing the use of web-logs (Blogs) to promote student ownership”. Poster session presented at Experimental Biology, ASPET, Pharmacology Education, San Diego, CA.


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