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Medical Science students use UCL Reflect to create scientific blogs for assessment

Dr Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez explains the potential of UCL’s new blogging platform for novel assessments.

13 May 2019

Students in the Faculty of Medical Science were among the first to use UCL Reflect, the university’s new blogging platform, creating scientific blogs as a coursework assignment.

Dr Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez introduced this new form of summative assessment for his Year 1 undergraduate module, Cardiovascular and Respiratory Function in Health and Disease (MEDC002).

Why did you start using blogging for assessment?

The entire year 1 of all Faculty of Medical Sciences undergraduate programmes (including Applied Medical Sciences, Cancer Biomedicine and Nutrition) was undergoing significant changes, including the replacement of traditional assessment methods with coursework activities designed to engage students in the research carried out in the Division of Medicine.

I had already seen the potential of ‘showcase portfolios’ when I was a Connected Curriculum Fellow in the Arena Centre, and took the opportunity to introduce this novel method of assessment on my module. 

How did you do it?

I designed the assignment to give Year 1 students the opportunity to create an outwardly-facing output to engage with the public by showcasing the research done at UCL.

Essential to the project was access to a digital platform. UCL Reflect went live in September 2018, in perfect timing with the new academic year. 

How did you deal with the technical aspects?

Marking the blogs in UCL Reflect required several steps:

  1. Students worked in small groups to research diverse aspects of the cardio-respiratory adaptations to exercise and produced a blog draft that received formative and peer feedback.
  2. The revised group blog text was submitted via Turnitin for summative assessment. This structure greatly increased the amount and quality of formative feedback that students received on their coursework and made the marking process more engaging and in some ways simplified, since blog texts were assessed as a group, rather than individually.
  3. In the final step, students worked individually to customize their own blogs in UCL Reflect, providing hyperlinks to research conducted in the UCL Division of Medicine, interviews with UCL researchers and various multimedia. 

Setting up the individual blogs for all my students took only a couple of days and they were able to upload their text  straight away.

UCL Reflect is very simple to use and I got expert technical and operational support from Karen Shackleford-Cesare, George Lekeas and Steve Rowett from UCL Digital Education

What difference has this made to staff or students?

Students found this activity more engaging that last year’s traditional single answer question (SAQ) exam and this was reflected in a significant increase in marks for their blogs across the board (71.4  +/- 6.1 blogs vs 56.1 +/-15 SAQ). 

The general feedback from the students was very positive. Students enjoyed having the opportunity of writing again - as they perceive that most people lose the skill during A-level years - and they were able to appreciate the importance of public engagement in their learning process.

One student said: “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it”.

Another student said: “Educational blogs allow students to have a broader understanding of the topic they are presenting, by performing in-depth research and finding different approaches in presenting information. My blog gave me the ability to express my own opinions and perspectives. Being given the freedom to choose my topic of interest, motivated me to explore the topic in detail.  Writing blogs encourages creativity, allowing formal use of social media and the opportunity to unravel our artistic and writing abilities.” 

Dr Mina Sotiriou (UCL Arena Centre) and Sebastian Gorgon (undergraduate student at the Faculty of Chemistry) ran a student focus group to assess the educational value of the blogging experience. 

Dr Sotiriou said: "Research shows that blogs allow students to connect, communicate and build networks with other people, giving them a voice which can be heard outside of the classroom. Blogging is a tool which facilitates understanding, promotes exposure and critical thinking and showcases personalities and identities."

A student participating in the focus group said: " .....I think they’d [the public] find they like science a lot more than they think… I have a sister who would leave the room if I mentioned a poster presentation, but I’ve sent her some of the drafts for the blog and she said that they’re a lot more interesting than she expected. To me that was whoa [surprising], because she really doesn’t like science – but maybe it’s really to do with how science is presented that makes the difference there."

Feedback from the focus group revealed that communicating scientific concepts in lay terms was particularly challenging for all students. To address this, I plan to adjust the target audience of the blogs according to the level of expertise of the students.

Thus, transition students will be given the opportunity to improve their scientific writing skills by creating blogs directed to other undergraduate medical students, whilst more mature students will be assigned to write blogs directed to the lay audience.

What are your plans for the future?

We are currently implementing a new type of holistic assessment in which students will eventually be able to curate a collection of coursework to tell the story of their efforts, progress and achievement throughout their degree – this is known as a ‘showcase portfolio’. We will be using UCL Reflect as a platform to host our students’ portfolios.

My top 5 tips for someone wanting to use blogging for assessment

  1. Make sure the purpose of the assessment, the target audience of the blog and the marking criteria are very clear
  2. Training is essential. We provided the students with dedicated sessions with an expert blogger, Dr Jenny Rohn, on how to write scientific blogs. We provided a practical training session for UCL Reflect delivered by the Digital Education team. We also organized a special session with the UCL copyright officer to make sure the students complied with copyright regulations with their blogs. 
  3. Writing blogs is difficult, especially if students have little experience in writing scientific coursework. For less experienced students, the target audience for their blogs should be other science professionals - that will help them convey their message without unnecessary complications. More experienced students should find it easier to target their blogs to wider audiences and to the lay person. 
  4. Give the students several examples from renowned organizations and professional bloggers to give students an idea of what is expected from them and to help them become familiar with the genre. If possible, you should provide them with representative blog examples from previous students in your class.
  5. Students should submit their blog drafts via Turnitin first so you can provide formative assessment and check for plagiarism. The final version of the blog text should then be imported into UCL Reflect and encourage students to provide multimedia, images, interviews with UCL researchers and up to 10 hyperlinks, if possible showcasing research done in UCL. You can see an example in this blog post: Cardiovascular effects of exercise training.

Video interview with Dr Marina-Gonzalez

Watch the above interview with Dr Nephtali Marina-Gonzalez in a video case study for UCL Reflect (6 minutes).

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/PHtTNMcwPQo