Making connections via mental puttering: Lessons from teaching with blogs

WAC@Illinois is pleased to publish this guest post by Lanny Arvan, a former Associate Dean for eLearning in the College of Business and an Associate Professor of Economics.  Lanny is now retired, though he continues to teach and write. He blogs at Lanny on Learning Technology.

Dr. Lanny Arvan

Dr. Lanny Arvan

by Lanny Arvan

When I teach now I have students craft weekly blog posts.  I have done so since I first tried it in fall 2009.  This is writing done in the spirit of slow blogging, informal reflections delivered online and aimed to help the students make personal connections to whatever the topic of study happens to be.  The subject of my post is the making of those connections.  I will discuss the issues in the context of the Economics of Organizations, an upper-level undergraduate course I’ve taught three times, most recently this past fall.

The students make posts according to a prompt I provide, or write on a topic of their own choosing as long as that topic relates to what the class is studying.  While some of the students have prior experience blogging, next to none have such experience in a course setting.  At first they are uncomfortable with blogging for my course, and some students are mildly resistant to it.  It takes three or four posts for most students to find their rhythm.

The economics in my course has aspects students find novel.  Most other economic courses study markets, where goods and services are allocated according to prices.  Students are quite familiar with that approach to analysis from their prior study of economics.  But within an organization, many goods and services are allocated by other means; prices are often absent.  Using the university as an example, the course registration process is a non-price allocation mechanism by which students get assigned to courses.  Students have relevant prior experience in considering such mechanisms.  For example, last fall many students reported there were waiting lists in high-enrollment offerings on campus, as well as in upper-level courses taken for some minors.   To the extent that this was essentially the same situation in prior semesters as well, the natural economic issue is to explain what seems like persistent excess demand, where in a market setting excess demand is at most a transient phenomenon.  More generally, the blog writing is a way to bring that relevant student experience out into the open and have the students better understand whatever the theoretical economic issues are by making those seem real and less abstract.

After the first several weeks, students become comfortable identifying experiences they’ve had that fit the prompt, which has elements of the theoretical issue at hand.  Let me call this matching of personal experience to theory the making of a direct connection, to foreshadow the idea of making possible indirect connections, which I will discuss below.  Students become reasonably proficient at making direct connections, but the vast majority doesn’t even attempt to make indirect connections.  I am trying to decipher why.

Students get two types of feedback on their posts. One type is comments from me and from their classmates.  I have learned over time to react to what the students say rather than to try to steer them toward some pre-specified conclusion I have in mind as dictated by the subject matter.  My goal with the comments is to encourage more depth or breadth in thinking by suggesting possible indirect connections that might follow from what students have already said.  Many students indicated appreciation for these comments, as it helped them to see implications of their own thinking that they hadn’t already considered.

It is also true that I would sometimes not understand what students were driving at in their posts.  Then I would indicate my confusion in my comments.  Most of my students implicitly assume that because something makes sense to them it will automatically make sense to me as a reader, although I am ignorant of the circumstances they describe.  So by reading the comments and responding to them, the student might very well learn the need to provide sufficient context in making an argument, an important byproduct from this approach with blogging.

The other sort of feedback comes from our ensemble class sessions, where discussion of the subject matter follows the blog posts and comments, and where I make a point of bringing specific ideas brought up by students in their posts into the class discussion, having their specifics match the more general points to be made.  In this way the students can see how their contributions matter to the class as a whole and how their views become a piece of the larger picture.

If we conceive of this as a looping process, where the blog posts, comments, and class discussion from last week feed into this week’s topic and set of activities, then in a virtuous cycle students would show evidence of growth in their blogging over time.  Their posts would become more complex, with a greater number of connections to relevant ideas, some of those indirect connections.  In other words, in addition to tying the theory to their experience, students would also connect to earlier topics via their own prior posts or the prior posts of their classmates, to readings or experiences from outside the class setting but that are nonetheless relevant, or they would push in greater depth on the topic at hand.

Whereas the making of direct connections may be more or less immediate, the making of indirect connections takes time, particularly in a subject area where the writer is more novice than expert.  Elsewhere I’ve called this process mental puttering.

I find I do this a lot while writing my own blog posts.  There is some spark of intuition for how to proceed at first.  That works for a while.  Then, if luck is on my side, something else is discovered that was not evident at first and that changes the direction to follow.  However, if I’m unlucky, I might get stuck before reaching a good conclusion and then have to devote substantial effort to find a way to get unstuck.  This process iterates until a full-enough picture emerges where I feel comfortable in writing my post.  I don’t want to give the impression that the mental puttering happens only in the pre-writing.  It occurs while composing and editing, too.

I have the habit for mental puttering and enjoy it–well, not the getting stuck part. I am bothered by being stuck. Whatever bothers me then becomes my entire focus. But most students don’t have the habit.  Many only start to compose their posts near the deadline.  This precludes the possibility of mental puttering.  Yet even students who get their posts done in a timely manner don’t seem to embrace mental puttering as we get further into the semester.

Here are a couple of guesses as to why.  The first is a chicken and egg problem.  Having little to no prior experience that mental puttering can be productive, there is scant reason to engage in it.  The second results via conditioning from other coursework about doing assignments well.  The prompt is taken as a complete tasking rather than merely as the launch point for a fuller investigation.

It seems to me that getting students to engage in mental puttering should be what we’re about.  How do we get that done?