Blog posts as writing assignments

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Last fall, I taught an introductory biology course that was also part of the college’s freshman writing seminar series. One assignment I developed was a surprising success. I say surprising because I figured the students had done such things in the past, even in high school. I mean, hey, these students are much more tech/internet savvy than me, right?

It turned out that NONE of my freshmen had ever read a blog post. Most didn’t even know what a blog was. This was surprise number one. Many also hadn’t done much internet investigating other than Google and Wikipedia, except for social networking and communicating. They were not skilled in using the internet for doing serious research.

The Blog assignment I developed introduced them to ways to use the internet to learn more about a biological concept. You can develop a similar assignment about any topic and help them learn how to utilize the internet as a research (rather than a social) tool. My students loved this assignment and really enjoyed the creative side of making a blog post, as well. The assignment was designed to help students write about a scientific concept for a non-science audience. Students posted their blog entries to a mini-blog on my course Moodle site (so, it wasn’t open to the full public, just to the class). In a subsequent class period, students evaluated three blog posts. Then, at the end of the semester, I announced the “winner” of our class blog post competition. Here it is….you can modify it for your own purposes.

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Writing Blog Posts

More than 77% of internet users read blogs[1]. In fact, almost 7 million people visit blogs, comment to blogs, get information and advice from blogs. Nowadays businesses, educational institutions, authors, entrepreneurs and many others feel that maintaining a blogosphere presence is essential for good business. This is a form of writing that is particularly important for spreading the word about science.

For this next assignment, you will craft a blog post about an organism or biological concept you are interested in learning more about. (Read On!)

Who is the audience?

Other college students, people with a specific question, even idle web-surfers, will often “google” a key word or phrase and will then click on the blog that pops up with the search. Blog posts need to be designed with short attention spans in mind.

The title has to grab your attention.

Most google searches will yield hundreds of hits. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time searching these lists. As soon as something catches our eye, we click to find out more. Consider this title, “A description of the enzymatic steps involved in the hydrolysis of glucose to pyruvate in the cytoplasm of many eukaryotic cells.” Would you (honestly) want to click on that? What about, “Controlled Burn of Sugar in Every Cell.” Maybe a little better? Some folks estimate that 90 seconds is about all most people will devote to scrolling through a hit list. If you are clever with your title, chances are your post will get clicked.

What is your goal with this blog post?

For this assignment, you want to write a short factual piece about an organism or biological concept that you want to learn more about. You will need to consider your subject from more than one level of biological organization. You will want to begin your exploration with our online textbook (there are many fine chapters we will not have time to explore) and then branch out from there. While you do not have to focus your post around a particular scientific paper, you do need to ground your post in accurate and legitimate scientific information (be cautious if you are out in the wilds of the internet- avoid Wikipedia, please!). You want to find an attention-grabbing image or picture (that you properly cite) and you want to provide at least one relevant internet link to an additional source of information.

Blog posts have to have an enticing first sentence.

This sentence often forms the shortened lead-in that appears in a search results page. You want to give a hint what your post is about, a teaser, without giving away the punch line.

The content in a blog post needs to be organized to be easy to navigate.

Statements or facts can be set off with bullets, or numbered in lists. Skipping lines (so, having more white space) helps a reader quickly scan the information. Long wordy paragraphs will quickly cause those itchy fingers to click away from your post. Think about the placement of your image- perhaps the image will recharge your reader to keep reading to the end of your post.

Length of your post.

Most folks seem to spend no more than about a minute and a half, sometimes two minutes, reading a blog post before the urge to click away somewhere else gets too hard to resist. This means that you have to say what you want to in about 250-400 words. Posts longer than about 500 words are rarely read all the way through (unless the reader is intensely interested). As you probably found out in writing your science news article, it is really hard to cram in some actual scientific content in so few words. Think about creative ways to add content without using many words. Or by adding a link to a web page that enhances or augments your content. Your posts should be no longer than 500 words.

Be sure to provide links or at the very least a bibliography of ALL the sources that you consult. One of the great things about blogs is the ability to click somewhere else to find out more.

Here are a few good science blog posts to help you:

Notice how the authors use phrases and keywords as links to the original scientific article or to sites with more information. Notice also that the writing style is less formal, more personal (particularly at the opening) and almost story-like. The elements of storytelling greatly increase the likelihood that the reader will read the whole article.


ASSIGNMENT: Today (9/26), during our workshop, you will talk with a partner about possible blog post ideas. Visit the blog posts below and explore other science blogs to get an idea of style, length, types of links. Take some notes. This is a brainstorming session. An essential first step in writing.

For Next Friday, Oct. 3, you will have written a FINAL DRAFT of your blog post (on paper). Include a list of the sources you consulted, including an appropriate image or picture (and that source as well). We will exchange these writings for peer-review and editing.

The final posting, via our course Moodle, is DUE FRIDAY OCTOBER 10th by class-time. Then in class, you will read one of the blog posts and will post a comment.

Grading Criteria and Expectations

Grade Expectations
A-Range • Blog post is organized, focused on a relevant topic• Post contains at least one link to a cited article• Post engages attention with title and opening- directed at a general college audience• Post uses appropriate scientific language without overuse of jargon, explains new terms or concepts clearly. It is clear that the author understands the underlying biology.•Post is stylish, neat and easy to read
B-Range • Blog post is focused on a relevant topic and is somewhat organized• Post contains a link to at least one cited article• Post engages attention with title, but opening is either not tied to the audience or is less engaging• Post uses appropriate language for the most part, but not at an excellent level
C-Range • Post not organized enough to follow the main focus, or perhaps too many foci or no clear focus• Post lacks relevant links• Post not clearly written or language use not appropriate for the intended audience
Below C • Post lacks elements in C-range